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Tens of thousands party at Baltimore Grand Prix

The first running of the Baltimore Grand Prix drew tens of thousands of people — die-hard racing fans and neophytes alike — to a festival that took over the city’s downtown Sunday.

The three-day event was expected to draw more than 100,000 people, but exact ticket sales numbers weren’t available Sunday evening, said Baltimore Grand Prix and Baltimore Racing Development President Jay Davidson.

Will Power, bottom left, of Australia, and Graham Rahal, bottom right, lead the first lap of the IndyCar Baltimore Grand Prix auto race on Sunday in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“There were definitely more people than we anticipated,” Davidson said. “You can see on TV, it’s just packed. Obviously that’s a nice problem to have. The drivers and teams really thrive on that kind of environment and it makes for a good show.”

The 2-mile, 13-turn course on city streets ran past the Inner Harbor and around Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The IndyCar and the American Le Mans series headlined the event that also featured races from three other leagues.

Despite the crowds, the event is not expected to be profitable in its first year, Davidson said.

“But we have created tremendous event equity which will ultimately make this a profitable event,” he said.

The event exceeded expectations, according to Indy Racing League Commercial Division President Terry Angstadt, who compared the event to the Long Beach, Calif., street race, a cornerstone of IndyCar’s schedule after 38 years.

“I think this absolutely rivals it in its first year,” he said. “We had a similar number of people if not more. It’s been that impressive.”

The Baltimore Grand Prix is the Indianapolis-based league’s only event in the mid-Atlantic region. It drew racing fans from throughout the region and exposed a lot of people who have never seen IndyCar racing before, Angstadt said.

“It’s a great opportunity for our business,” he said. “This was a void geographically on our schedule.”

Glitches to be fixed for next year

There were some glitches over the three days: the timing of the installation of some fencing held up practices on Friday, there problems with club seating and sections being oversold and with lines at bottleneck points such as security and pedestrian bridges over the track. But Davidson said organizers will adapt next year.

Mark Broomell, 49, of Perryville and his 29-year-old daughter Christina Broomell of Odenton stopped in the Harborplace mall food court for a drink before braving the long line for one of the pedestrian bridges, but were impressed with the coordination overall.

Christina Broomell got a ticket for her father as a birthday present. He has been watching IndyCar racing on television for years, but had never been to a race. He was excited to get pictures of his favorite drivers and see racing right in his backyard.

“You can’t beat that,” he said. “It’s as close as it will come in my lifetime.”

Christina Broomell was pleased to see Baltimore score the race.

“It shows the city off and it’s only going to build over the years,” she said. She just hopes the average person doesn’t get priced out as the popularity grows.

Nearby, Ben Miller, 26, and Andy Munas, 27, of Trexlertown, Pa., watched part of a race through the windows at Harborplace, where the cars could be seen whizzing past just outside. The pair was in town to visit Munas’ fiancee.

“We just decided to come over and check it out,” Munas said. “It’s really cool.”

Erik Ross, 36, of Pittsburgh, Pa., met up with several friends who all attend the Indianapolis 500 each year. He says he’ll tell friends at home that even if they aren’t race fans, they should come and check out the event.

“The track is amazing, the crowd is amazing,” he said. “There’s a great atmosphere.”

Hotels, restaurants, filled

The only fault Ross found was the lack of merchandizing. He would think that lots of people would love to have t-shirts announcing that they went to the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix.

“We’re going to go online this week and buy some t-shirts,” he said. “At Indy there are 200 t-shirts to pick from, here there are five.”

The event planned for the city’s slowest tourism weekend all year, has been a major boost, filling hotels and restaurants downtown, according to Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism bureau. The event will also help promote the city to an audience around the country and the world.

“We hope that 10 years from now it will be Indy500 for Memorial Day and Baltimore Grand Prix for Labor Day,” he said.

For Noonan, the race weekend was a chance for him to demonstrate to convention clients, such as Otakon, an East Asian pop culture convention that draws about 32,000 people to the city each year, how well the city can handle such large crowds.

“If they continue to grow, now they know they can stay,” he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who served as an honorary starter, said she has heard from organizers of similar events around the world that their reception in Baltimore was excellent.

“I’m grateful that so many people have had a chance to experience my home town and they have such a wonderful impression of our city based on what they’re seeing with the race and how they’ve been greeting by all the volunteers,” she said. “The spectators are out of control. They’re (telling her) ‘We love Baltimore!’ and ‘Thank you for making this happen!'”