Ten years ago, while working a stint for the Mayor’s Office in Baltimore, the thought occurred to me as I was driving home through the streets, “it sure would be cool to see a sports car race through here some day.” Of course, I’ve probably said that about ¾ of the cities I’ve driven through over the years – and who would ever think of doing a race on the streets of Baltimore, anyway? In those days, the city was known nationally as little more than the backdrop for HBO’s The Wire, a show sometimes criticized for being too true to life. Too gritty. Too brutal. Too real. If Los Angeles has a polar opposite, it’s covered in Old Bay seasoning, hon. Baltimore is a picture of working class hard times, and not unlike Detroit has suffered economically for decades. The city’s got scars, ugly ones, and they’re front-and-center.
Of course, there was no way a major race could ever happen. Baltimore, for all its picturesque aerial shots of the Inner Harbor, has way too many counts against it. It’s one thing to whip-up a concrete canyon in a city where snow is something you only see on TV (that’s you, Long Beach & St. Pete), but here? With streets in such characteristically mid-Atlantic shape, they’ll turn a new car’s suspension into crab cake mush in a few months. It’ll never work.
Except that, for the last couple of years, it mostly did.
In the face of local media trashing the race weekend at every turn, and mixed support from the surrounding community (some businesses won, others lost), the first two years of the Grand Prix of Baltimore at the very least showed some promise. That is, literally the promise that much of the hazardously bumpy street surface at the rail tracks would be remedied. Hastily-poured chicanes on the Pratt St. front stretch were problematic in 2011 and 2012, but assurances had been made from all sides that “next year” the chassis-crunching curbs and rail gulleys would be tamed and the track would be so much better.
This year, all hell broke loose. Every series that showed-up – Indy Lights, ALMS, and IZOD Indycar – saw critical damage to numerous cars in every class, the chicanes and tire-barriers turning the circuit into a stunt course more worthy of “Ironman” Ivan Stewart’s off-roader than Patrick Dempsey's Porsche. Starting with a massive crash at the beginning of Saturday’s ALMS race before the field could even take the green flag (resulting in an hour-long delay that shortened the race duration from 2 hours to 1 hour 15 min), and Race Control for each series that seemed to be watching a NASCAR race somewhere, nearly everything that could go wrong, did. For every driver on every team, the ALMS race was hardcore penance for all sins real or imagined that have ever been committed in the name of competition.
As long as we’re complaining, even the humidity was awful. Again.
Sunday’s Indycar race may not have seen half the field turned into a carbon fiber modern art sculpture before it could even get started, but was yet another carnage-laced crash fest. With virtually no suspension travel, the Indy cars simply launched off the chicane curbs – and sometimes plowed into the tire barriers, keeping pit crews at the ready with new nose-pieces. On the dramatic side, the ongoing soap opera between Scott Dixon and Will Power added another chapter, courtesy of Power’s brain-fart which crashed-out Dixon’s car. It wasn’t good racing, but it was still a better story than Twilight.
Indycar may be comparable to vampires vs. werewolves, but for 2014 USCR is taking the shape of a hastily-cobbled together Frankenseries. As yet, teams and suppliers are still awaiting crucial specifications, schedules, pretty much the whole framework they should expect to be working with… and it’s not there yet. Memo to the offices in Daytona Beach: You’re late, and it looks bad.
Back to Baltimore: For all its faults, the city known for gritty TV shows, Super Bowl champs, and white marble steps, still has something to work with. Other circuits have gone through growing pains, and the harsh reality is that more of them are consigned to the scrapheap of history than on an active schedule.
We’ll know, soon.
That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.