Debate time: The many pros and cons of Baltimore Grand Prix for our city

August 31, 2012 | Nestor Aparicio

had it failed miserably. And, really, that would’ve been something as simple as Hurricane Irene coming seven days later. But, in retrospect, this IRL Grand Prix was a big success for her and her campaign — make no mistake about it.

For the local IRL people – who pissed off so many local people in so many senseless ways that the topic of Jay Davidson, Pete Collier and their wrecking crew and lawsuit is best left for another day – it sure appeared to be a major win simply because people showed up. All of the IRL racers and their teams universally praised Baltimore (they’re obviously coached to do this) and the crowd while declaring the track itself to be something more akin to what the Orioles put their rookie ball players through in Sarasota until this year – bush league, but that can be improved in the future.

I’m not sure what the expectations of the organizers were in regard to selling merchandise and keeping local merchants happy, but it would’ve been hard to deliver more people downtown for an inaugural event than what my eyes saw for three days. It was impressive, even if the group were obviously giving away gobs of tickets in almost every conceivable way to try to get people to the harbor to “taste the product” of IRL racing.

Social media was abuzz with both criticism and praise – but there were many happy pictures and people enjoying the speed and action of the cars and the buzz and rumble of them rolling down Pratt Street at 180 mph.

Will these nouveau racing fans come back next year? Who knows but that leads to headline No. 2:

This event will only grow!!!

Perhaps…

I remember a time when we never thought we’d see 5,000 people at an Orioles game in Baltimore but we now see it almost every night. I remember a Euro soccer game that drew 70,000 downtown two years ago and the following year struggled to get half that many.

Again, I can only write what I know and how I feel and I’m just not a “vroom, vroom” guy. I’ve never been motivated or “turned on” by cars that go fast or the chicks who loved them in movies like “American Graffiti.” I always liked sports and music, but never cars. But plenty of my Dundalk friends loved cars. And I KNOW there are tons of people who love muscle cars, speeds, the obnoxious sound of roaring engines and “Greased Lightning,” etc. The American public has loved cars for nearly a century.

But let’s make this clear, it’s kinda about cars but it’s really about a big urban picnic and booze fest and a place to take your kids on a weekend. No one can even see the race because it takes up 20 city blocks in a circle. If you want to “see” the race, you’re far better off watching it on TV.

This IRL Baltimore Grand Prix event really has little to do with cars or who wins the race. Only a handful in this community could even name three drivers in the race before last Friday and I don’t see that changing. Oh, and Danica Patrick isn’t even coming back next year to perve.

Most of the technical aspects and misfires of last weekend’s race event – the many inconveniences of the “we’ve never done this before” excuses — are fine. They were 5 ½ hours late getting the initial course ready on Friday. They had snafus with seating and VIPs and sponsors. That was almost to be expected given the grandiose layout of the track and the borders that needed to be erected to keep the sanctity for those who had tickets.

That said, I found at least three spots that were completely free to the public where you could watch the race and imbibe your own beverages from a cooler from outside crowded fences. And many did…

Plenty of free tickets were distributed. I don’t want to accuse them of wallpapering the place but to my 43 years of training in looking at Baltimore sports fans, this look like a planted crowd to me. Plus, almost every hotel in the city had plenty of rooms available at reasonable prices on Friday afternoon, which shoots any reasonable notion that this was a major economic win for Baltimore.

All that I learned this weekend is that many people will come for free and many more are indeed willing to pay for tickets to sit in hideous and uncomfortable bleachers for hours on end.

But what is the future of an event that all but destroys the city for six weeks leading up to a race that lasts two hours? And it’ll be interesting to see if/when the city returns to its normal, beautiful self this fall because the mess downtown could take a month to clean up.

And, really, what are the future goals of this race and the upside considering the immense headaches, expense and manpower allotment the city has now invested?

You’ll be hearing Stephanie Rawlings-Blake crowing about economic development and a “victory” all week and leading up the election. But, really, that “victory” depends on who you ask and what their stake in the race is in the future. There are several local business owners and politically inclined folks who own a piece of the action of the Baltimore Grand Prix and need it to be accepted, embraced and part of the political furniture of the city.

All of them are connected to Rawlings-Blake. This was a major political leap for her administration and I’m hardly here to declare it a dud. Just the opposite – this IRL thing might be a winner.

But someone needs to ask some very difficult questions because this thing was one helluva mess for the year leading up to the race and again — the citizens of Baltimore lost money on this deal and many are pissed off, asking questions and have a right to the facts.

But there’s no doubt in my mind if they’re trying to get 100,000+ people downtown for events there are a myriad of safer, easier-to-execute ways to accomplish this without ripping the city apart for two months during the busiest tourist season and creating a construction zone that is a nuisance to most people like me who actually pay exorbitant taxes already to live here and shouldn’t be inconvenienced every waking moment for eight weeks.

And I’ll always go back to the more than two million people Peter G. Angelos has personally chased from downtown over the past dozen years. YES, that’s a 2 with six zeroes.

Let’s cut to the chase: even if the IRL did attract upward of 125,000 people downtown (and that number will be greatly disputed over the next 11 months) the Orioles did that routinely every home-stand weekend for a decade until the brand was destroyed by this awful ownership and its greed and disinterest in competing with the Yankees and Red Sox. Instead, the franchise and the downtown marketplace rely on the six homestands a year when the visiting fans pump money into the local economy as vendors openly don visiting team gear with red and pinstripes in a desperate, sad effort to sell MLB merchandise on the streets of Baltimore.

Funny, I don’t hear the Mayor or the politicians or the local businesses say anything about the devastation that the baseball team has created downtown which makes them an obvious bunch of cowards and double-talkers because fixing the baseball team would easily bring 10 times the benefit that this overwrought race and its inherent engineering mess brought here this past weekend. And the benefits of a winning baseball team reach far beyond six blocks of the Inner Harbor.

When will someone with some sense and some balls speak out about this glaring, obvious issue?

And remember this: if the IRL is to continue in Baltimore it means the Orioles perennially won’t have a holiday weekend and the Ravens will struggle with traffic downtown for the dreaded fourth preseason game each year as well, which is traditionally played on the Thursday night before Labor Day. The NFL and MLB won’t be stopping for the IRL in Baltimore.

This story is far from fully written – as a matter of fact, it’s just begun.

The city lost money. The race organizers, who were having all sorts of financial issues prior to the race, also lost money. They screwed with and lied to a lot of local business owners like me. They clearly gave away tickets to fill up downtown and it worked for the most part. There will be merchants who did well and others who didn’t.

But this was a massive, massive undertaking and there’s a reason most American cities don’t want this event and that it’s failed in many places. That should really tell more of a long-term tale of Grand Prix racing through the streets of any city.

Baltimore people are not going to “embrace” IRL racing and we will not be getting daily (or even monthly or “once a year”) phone calls at WNST regarding the points standings. This isn’t horse racing, where you can magically link economic impact back to farms and tradition and suburban interests. And, really, horse racing has the one built-in ingredient that most sports fans identify with – you can bet on it! And you can bet 10 times in an eight-hour window in all sorts of exotic interesting ways, which has made horse racing an institution for over a century.

People in my condo were passing hats and trying to find ways to put a dollar bill up and make the day more interesting by having a car in the race.

I’ve tried to present all three “headlines” to you today in a succinct way. Many, many people have asked me to opine on this race and most know I live a spits distance from the track.

I thought this thing was a grand mess prior to last Friday afternoon when people actually started showing up. I thought this was “Ishtar” waiting to happen and it still might be. But, ultimately, if 150,000 are willing to pay to come downtown for an “urban Preakness” every Labor Day weekend and it helps the city, I’m all for it.

But if it’s a bunch of swindling businessmen on the take and a mayor whose neck was on the line trying to save her campaign by dismantling the city for 10 weeks a year in an effort to draw what the baseball team and Oriole Park at Camden Yards was built at taxpayer expense 25 years ago to accomplish and tenfold, then that should be unearthed as well.

I don’t know what to believe. But I sure do have a lot of questions. And the folks at the Baltimore Grand Prix haven’t been honest with me when I’ve asked questions so I’ll leave this debate to the public and citizens of the community.

Feel free to feedback below – we have 350 days to debate the merits of the Baltimore Grand Prix.

It’s pretty obvious that this race will be coming back next year and while some are already predicting a “sophomore slump” I’m still very much on the fence regarding the race and its merits to our community.

This book is far from written for Baltimore and everyone involved.

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