Thousands of motorsports fans descended on the Inner Harbor for the second day of the Grand Prix of Baltimore – much to the relief of event organizers, city officials, vendors and all the others with a dog in this race.
By 7 a.m., crowds were already substantially larger than on Friday, quickly surpassing the peak attendance numbers of the first day. But ticket sales were by no means a total success, and organizers know it.
“It was a solid day and we are pleased,” said Andretti Sports Marketing President John Lopes. “Remember, thousands of people walked in for free last year, while today’s crowd was all paying customers. …We are optimistic that we will grow the crowd long-term.”
Thousands of people were pressed against the wire fences throughout the day, and the Baltimore Convention Center was always a hub of activity, crowded with attendees needing a reprieve from the brutal humidity.
Towson resident Ken Coburn, who was lounging on a median strip on Charles Street with his 6-year-old son, Gavin, said they bought general admission for the day because it seemed like a fun activity in the city. He wasn’t thrilled with the ticket prices, he said, especially for Gavin.
“It was $35 for him, which I think is too much,” Coburn said. “But it was pretty cool last year, so I decided to come back.”
The grandstands weren’t nearly full, however. Sections near the start/finish line were packed, but in less desirable spots, rows upon rows were vacant. Inside the convention center, The Andretti Club, an exclusive hospitality area, did not appear to be at capacity.
Tim Adkins, an employee of Andretti Sports Marketing who is in charge of the club, said attendance was about typical, but declined to share any concrete numbers.
Still, the atmosphere was an entirely different animal compared to Friday, when the grandstands and general admission areas were sparsely populated – mostly with curious residents just passing through.
Vendors selling food and merchandise within the confines of the race area, however, are more concerned with the daytime crowds, which did not disappoint. Many said they’re already pleased with their sales, and that the day made up for the mediocre business Friday.
Mike Dixon, who manned one of two GoMelvo Snowball stands, said he was busy all day serving frozen relief to hot, tired fans. That was a big change from Friday, when he wasn’t nearly as certain that setting up shop would be worth it.
The owner’s expenses totaled about $2,500 for both trucks – they don’t take up much space, and all he needs is syrup and ice — and although Dixon said he hasn’t earned it back yet, he’s confident he will.
But big crowds don’t automatically translate to big profits for vendors, said Brad Taylor, who owns London Court Beverage Co. He and his wife, Dottie, have sold fruity, icy concoctions at large events in Baltimore for 20 years, they said.
Fewer people are spending money on non-essential refreshments, such as his drinks, he said, and chalked it up to the recession. Taylor guessed that many attendees probably splurged on tickets, but are trying to save money once inside.
“People still want to come out and take a break, have a little fun,” he said. “But they’ve got less discretionary income. Everyone’s got a budget.”
But once Taylor lowered his prices a bit, he said people starting lining up like crazy.
Many vendors said they wondered whether Sunday’s turnout would be similar, given the forecast for rain throughout the day. Dottie Taylor said the weather is always a major player in the concessions game, but added that she saw a lot of people from out of town who will hopefully show up rain or shine.
For Dixon, out-of-towners aren’t an advantage. Maryland residents love a good snowball, he said, and he mostly sells to locals. Saturday’s turnout included a good local showing, in addition to visiting tourists, he said.
Unlike Friday, the weekend crowd included true fans — people who have long been planning to make Baltimore their Labor Day holiday destination. These are the people who will determine whether business owners across the city deem the race a success.
Not that restaurateurs and hoteliers don’t value their local customer base – several said their biggest concern is getting their regulars through their doors this weekend – but the question on everyone’s mind is whether Baltimore’s business community will actually benefit from the influx of tourists.
For restaurants across the city, the big test comes Saturday night.