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Some of the best seats for the Grand Prix are free

To watch the Grand Prix of Baltimore from the most expensive seats in the house will cost you $895.

The 250 W. Pratt St. offices of Steven H. Levin (left) and Charles N. ‘Chad’ Curlett will provide some of their clients with great views of this weekend’s Grand Prix of Baltimore.

But some of the best seats aren’t in the house, and aren’t available on Ticketmaster. They’re free.

Thousands of people will watch this weekend’s highly anticipated race at no charge to them — if they’re lucky enough to work for, or be a client of, one of the many Baltimore companies with high-rise offices overlooking the racetrack.

“If I’m going to watch the race at all, it’ll be from the comfort and confines of my own office,” said Charles N. “Chad” Curlett Jr., a partner at Levin & Curlett LLC.

The windows in his 250 W. Pratt St. law firm office are tall and wide, and offer panoramic views of the course. Over Labor Day weekend, about a dozen faces will be pressed against them to watch — from more than a dozen stories high — as the drivers whip their cars around tight city turns in IZOD IndyCar and American Le Mans series races.

Other firms are planning more elaborate events, with longer guest lists and higher budgets. The Grand Prix is an opportunity to showcase the city while providing an enjoyable experience for guests, said many people attending or organizing a race-viewing party for their office.

Though the Grand Prix is only entering its second year in Baltimore, office viewing parties have emerged as an early trend, several people said, with potential to expand the race’s audience, generate more spillover business and help the cityscape feel more involved in the race — not invaded by it.

That’s exactly the kind of relationship race organizers say they hope to build with the downtown area. General Manager Tim Mayer said although they aren’t thrilled about losing paying customers to skyscrapers, cracking down on them isn’t their top priority.

“I think in 2012, the most important thing for us is that we establish the good will that was lost last year,” Mayer said. “So if that means that our neighbors on Pratt Street and other places hold viewing parties, it’s not our favorite thing, but OK.”

If these private, free seating options end up discouraging people from buying tickets, possibly stunting sales, that could be cause for concern in the future, Mayer said.

In most cases, though, the opposite seems true.

Many people whose companies are holding events during the race said their personal parties are meant to supplement — not replace — their time at the track. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC, for example, will provide a general admission ticket for each guest.

If the law firm wasn’t hosting a party, Director of Administration Dede Fowler said she didn’t think most guests would attend the race at all. The firm has invited about 90 people for the weekend, she said.

“I think people enjoy it and view it as an interesting thing to do,” she said. “But I couldn’t say that if we didn’t invite them, they’d [attend] anyway. … I would say probably not.”

The office gatherings might also create a trickle-down effect on local businesses beyond what organizers say the race itself will generate. Many firms are hiring local caterers to provide food and drink for their office parties, and some people said they’ll probably still spend money at outdoor vendors or visit a restaurant after the race.

The view from the top may technically be free, but the private soirees won’t be. Many firms are planning their events for networking or business development purposes, so the company will pick up the tab.

Several people organizing their company’s event said they view the expense as an investment, though they declined to share their budgets for the weekend. It’s a token of appreciation to clients for their business and to employees for their hard work, they said.

At the Center Club, a business, dining and networking club, members live by that mindset. The club is located on the top floors of the Transamerica Tower on Light Street, which also overlooks the racetrack, and will extend its hours to accommodate members who want to bring guests inside for a break from the race chaos.

Nancy Sloane, director of membership and marketing, said the club welcomes the opportunity to help Baltimore prosper from the Grand Prix.

“It’s a great thing for the city, and we need to get behind it,” Sloane said. “That’s how things become successful. It’s expensive for us to bring our staff in [Saturday and Sunday], but we thought it was important. If our members were going to be supporting this event, we wanted to make this investment and be available to them. Businesses need to be boosters of the city.”

Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, which shares a floor with Curlett’s firm, invited guests last year, as well, during the inaugural Grand Prix of Baltimore. People enjoyed being able to split their time between the air conditioned conference room and the track, said David Hamilton, a partner with the firm.

The variety made the experience more enjoyable for many, he said, and might entice others to spend their weekend in Baltimore.

“People said, ‘Wow, this is something very interesting,’” Hamilton said. “The folks we invited last year — not only will they come back this year, they’ll bring someone with them.”

Setting up a home base in an office building for the weekend encourages more people to attend the race, agreed Alan Cason, a partner with law firm McGuire Woods LLP. Cason, a self-proclaimed “motor-head,” said he travels around the country to watch street races, and understands the value of bringing friends and family along for the ride in a setting where they feel comfortable.

Last year, McGuire Woods set up a hospitality tent at the home of Jennifer J. Stearman, a partner with the firm who lives along the perimeter of the course. Even though Stearman said the view from her house “couldn’t be more perfect,” the company took a different route this year, opting to rent a suite with a balcony at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel on Pratt Street.

Cason said they also purchased tickets for their guests, including some reserved grandstand seating.

“We’re excited to be able to participate and get some of our clients together and support the race,” he said.

Mayer said he hopes people watching from outside the gates will choose to come inside next year.

“We hope those people [in offices] will have a great experience with the race,” he said. “And next year, we would hope they realize a big part of the experience is to come inside and see the race we’re putting on, and get close to the racecars and experience all of that.”