Inaugural Grand Prix Exceeds Expectations

Posted on September 13, 2011

By Danielle Chazen

The crowds were larger than anticipated and the response was more positive than could ever have been expected during the nascent year of the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Baltimore Racing Development predicted the Labor Day weekend race would inject $70 million into the economy of Baltimore City through visitor spending on hotels, food, entertainment and transportation. With a three-day crowd of about 160,000, that number is likely a realistic one.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the race had been successful in changing the way the world saw Baltimore, in addition to the attendees' contributions to the city's economy.

"We had an opportunity to shine on an international stage," Rawlings-Blake said. "The naysayers certainly had their day and still the race started. The naysayers have been silenced. It was an exciting race. It was a challenging course."

Baltimore Grand Prix president Jay Davidson said he was ecstatic about the weekend in terms of crowd enjoyment, the course, positive responses from the drivers and the weather.

"We could not be more pleased," Davidson said. "For Roger Penske, a hero in the racing world, to call this event one of the greatest street races he's ever seen is just incredible. People were so impressed at the way Baltimore showed up for this big event."

Officials at IndyCar and Le Mans Series, as well as the drivers themselves, were pleasantly overwhelmed by Baltimore's response to the event, Davidson said.

Martyn Thake, director of operations for the Grand Prix, called the race a great success in terms of the size of the crowd and the design of the track. Thake said he and other race officials had received positive feedback from the drivers.

"It was a very competitive race, but I'm amazed with the crowd," third-place finisher Tony Kanaan said. "I've never seen something like that. Apart from Indianapolis, I haven't seen a street course with that many people."

Because of the enormous success of coordinating the event on Labor Day weekend, race officials plan to hold the race during the holiday weekend again next year, if Davidson can coordinate the Orioles' schedule with MLB.

Just days after the conclusion of the race, Davidson and his team are already brainstorming ways to improve the race during coming years.

"Some things obviously need to be tweaked," Davidson said. "We'll need to look hard at ourselves and improve the experience for fans. One thing we need to improve is crowd control. It's a good idea to increase the number of bridges into and out of the venue or create double bridges in and out to help with congestion."

With 591,000 viewers, the national TV audience for the event fell short of the city's expectations of attracting a viewing audience of 3.5 million. The Grand Prix's audience even fell short of the cable channel Versus' record telecast of 642,000 viewers during the IndyCar Series at the Edmonton City Centre Airport in July.  

Second-place finisher Oriol Servia offered up suggestions to improve the race for next year, including creating faster chicanes, S-shaped track configurations, to provide faster entertainment to the fans.  

"If you ask a race car driver, we always want longer tracks and faster corners," Servia said. "That's our nature, and honestly, I think if you look at history of what is a good track and what makes a good event, it's a good, fast race track."

"The fans come to see us do things that normal cars can't do and if you give me a fast corner, we can go through the corner at 170 miles an hour," Servia said. "A normal car can't do that. When a fan can see that this close from the grandstands, that's impressive and it makes them come back."

Servia admitted that difficulties came with creating longer racetracks, including using up more city blocks. But he held firm that fast corners, as long as they were designed in a safe way and allowed drivers to crash in the right angles to prevent injuries, were necessary for the future of this sport.

Yet before officials can lay out concrete plans alterations for the event during future years, they must first continue to remove the concrete barriers and numerous grandstands, the visible reminisces of the Baltimore Grand Prix's inaugural year.

"We're still in debrief mode now," said Thake, who designed the race course, "taking the parts and pieces away and we most likely won't work on making changes, if any are to be made, until after the IndyCar season is over.

"When it is, we'll sit down with the IndyCar folks and work through the city the things we'd tweak a little and change. That's the beauty of a temporary racetrack -- you have the ability to incorporate upgrades and make changes that can't be done with a permanent track."

Issue 165: September 2011

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