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Andretti OK with starting second

On the track, it’s about being first. Off the track, sometimes second is better.

Michael Andretti, whose company is running this year’s Grand Prix of Baltimore, is interviewed in front of a photo of him and his father, Mario.

That’s why Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Michael Andretti says he’s glad his company didn’t run the inaugural Grand Prix of Baltimore.

“A lot of times, you want to be actually the second one in. The first one, there’s so many things that can go wrong, and they normally do, so when you come in, the second one in, you have the advantage of seeing mistakes that were made and so you try to correct them,” said Andretti, CEO of Andretti Sports Marketing.

A former racer, Andretti also owns the Andretti Autosports IndyCar team and will have nine drivers — including his son Marco — racing in Baltimore’s Labor Day weekend event.

The investment in IndyCar and his experience last year in Baltimore is what ultimately led him to take over the embattled event.

“It was the highlight of last year for our series. It was just a fantastic event,” Andretti said. “The support that was shown here was amazing, and so to the series this race is very important. I think it would have been a real black eye for the series for this race not to be on the schedule this year.”

Doubts about the future of Baltimore’s grand prix loomed after the race’s first organizer, Baltimore Racing Development LLC, left the city with about $1.5 million in unpaid bills and accrued a total of about $12 million in debts, including to vendors that were never paid. The city terminated its five-year contract with BRD at the end of 2011.

Downforce Racing LLC, led by two Baltimore financiers and an Indianapolis-based contractor, took over the race in February, but lost its five-year contract after failing to meet deadlines.

Just shy of four months before the event, in May, Race On LLC took over. Led by J.P. Grant of Columbia-based Grant Capital Management and Greg O’Neill of Baltimore-based BMW Construction Specialists Inc., the duo hired Andretti Sports Marketing to run operations and promote the race weekend.

“I own a racing team that is part of the series and this is my whole life and I just felt like it could really hurt my core business if this doesn’t go off,” said Andretti, whose father is racing legend Mario Andretti.

When Grant called him to get on board, Andretti said, “Absolutely.”

Baltimore is one of two races Andretti Sports Marketing operates. The other, the Milwaukee IndyFest, has a similar, but longer history: The future of the race was jeopardized after several event organizers accrued debt and ill feelings in the community.

The Andretti team organized the event for the first time this year.

“It was to the point where a lot of sponsors in Milwaukee said: ‘We’re going to see how you do this year, and if you pull it off, we’ll be in next year,’” Andretti said. “And that’s what happened. They picked up the phone the next day and they’re, ‘Oh, my gosh, you guys really did it, and we’re in next year.’”

But Baltimore is an easier battle, Andretti said, because, at the very least, the fans had fun.

The same can’t be said for vendors and area businesses that were burned by last year’s event and by city residents whose daily commutes took a hit from track construction and road closures.

“I have personally done probably over 100 meetings with community groups, businesses, everybody in the area, talking to them individually about how we are handling the construction … and also what we are doing with the traffic,” said Timothy A. Mayer, general manager of the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

Mayer, who has 20 years of experience in the racing industry and has served in positions such as chief operating officer of the American Le Mans Series and senior vice president for racing operations for Championship Auto Racing Teams, said this year’s event will be more accommodating to area residents and local businesses.

The construction schedule is shorter and in tune with the needs of the community, he said. For example, one of the grandstands that was erected first last year will be close to last this year because its Harborplace location is in a heavy foot traffic area.

Andretti Sports Marketing will also be mailing fliers to Baltimore residents informing them of changes to traffic patterns, which Mayer said will be much more streamlined than last year.

“In this office right now we probably have 1,000 years of experience of running races of this sort,” Mayer said. “It’s really about attention to detail. The hard part is there really isn’t any one, magic wand, ah-ha thing that I can tell people, ‘This is what we’re doing, and it’s going to change everything.’”

The team is looking to engage 800 community volunteers to help run the event and is hoping to address the concerns of local businesses by closing down all track entertainment by 7 each night.

“Really, that’s our commitment to the city. We’re going to slow things down, stop them before 7 o’clock so that people start filtering into the neighborhoods,” he said.

Businesses in nearby communities such as Little Italy and Federal Hill saw drops in business last year when event-related concerns such as traffic kept people away during what is normally a high-volume holiday weekend.

But Mayer said there’s no reason for that to happen again.

“Downtown Baltimore is open for business, and the Inner Harbor is a great attraction and we’re really committed to making Labor Day a big attraction for the whole of downtown Baltimore,” he said.

The company is keeping mum about ticket sales. To disclose them would be “a fool’s errand” and isn’t something experienced promoters do, Mayer said.

The goal is to bring in as much revenue as last year’s event, which attracted more than 160,000 fans to downtown over three days last September, with more than 110,000 tickets sold.

“If we can meet the revenue aspect of what this race did last year, the race will be an overwhelming success, because we’ve been able to control the expenses way more,” Andretti said.

Though the race lacks a title sponsor, that’s not a concern to Andretti, who said the event is on target for sponsorship revenue and ahead of schedule for suite sales.

Andretti Sports Marketing this month announced multiyear national sponsorships with Sunoco, Giant Food and Dr Pepper Ten. A sponsorship agreement with CBS Radio had been announced in May.

“I see this race as being one of the biggest street races in the world,” Andretti said. “It’s a huge market. Last year showed it. Look at all the people that came, and it’s a big market for sponsors.”