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Grand Prix organizers promise quicker, smoother construction

They’ve waved the green flag.

Indy cars roar down Pratt Street during the 2012 Grand Prix of Baltimore. This year, race organizers are trying to minimize disruptions downtown while the course is prepared for the Labor Day weekend event.

Track construction for the Grand Prix of Baltimore has officially begun, and organizers are promising a quicker, less disruptive process this time around.

The auto race hits downtown streets over Labor Day weekend for the third time in as many years. Crews began preparations Monday night on Conway Street, laying the groundwork for a 2-mile, 12-turn course that will take 21 days to construct.

That’s a tighter schedule than in the past — work took 31 days last year and 45 days the inaugural year — and most of it will be done at night. Plans also include installing gates at major street intersections that will be opened during the day, enabling drivers to pass through.

“We’re going to be laying out about 22 million pounds of concrete around the racetrack … with 2,200 steel fence panels on top,” race general manager Tim Mayer said at a news conference Tuesday. “We have 37,000 feet of spectator fence. We’ve got 18 miles of cabling, and all of that, along with our grandstands and all of the spectator facilities, will get done in the next 21 days.”

Project manager Brian Hughes, of NZR Consulting, manned a forklift to ceremonially lay the first piece of track wall — an 8,400-pound chunk of reinforced concrete (known as a Jersey barrier) topped with a tall wire fence.

Hughes lifted the block and set it back down on the area beneath an overhang of the Baltimore Convention Center on Pratt Street. It won’t stay there, of course — the block and hundreds of others will eventually outline the course around the Inner Harbor.

Hughes said it was NZR Consulting that suggested quicker construction.

“We feel we can build this track in 21 days; that’s the goal,” he said. “And based on our start date, we have to, because obviously we can’t add days to the calendar.”

His crews will work nearly every night — with a few exceptions to accommodate Ravens preseason home games and other events taking place in the city — from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to reduce disruptions to daily traffic.

As the Aug. 30 kickoff date approaches, the appearance of concrete barricades and wire fences will likely ignite the same divisiveness between race friends and foes as in the past. Hampered by myriad issues from Year 1 (when a different group was in charge), the Grand Prix has had a lot to prove to city residents and business owners, especially regarding traffic snarls, accessibility issues and unsightly messes due to construction.

That’s why this year, organizers are taking the job of cutting down on those disruptions very seriously.

“We have made an absolute commitment to Baltimore that we are going to minimize the impacts to the city and maximize the benefit,” Mayer said during the news conference. “… For us, to be able to display Baltimore at its best is really a great pleasure. But we also know that it does have an impact on people.”

Race On LLC took ownership of the 2012 race just a few months before the green flag waved, replacing a company that had to back out. Managing partner J.P. Grant said he’s looking forward to showing Baltimoreans what his team can do with more time to prepare.

But for some, memories from the past two years haven’t faded as quickly as the exhaust fumes, and they aren’t quite ready to welcome the roaring cars back onto their turf.

Tony Assadi, owner of the Pratt Street restaurant Luna del Sea, said he hasn’t forgotten how construction last August blocked his front entryway for the better part of a month, forcing him to escort patrons around back to enter by the dumpsters.

He hasn’t forgotten the perceived indifference of some employees of Andretti Sports Marketing (the company that handled promotions last year and to a lesser degree this year), and said he has a hard time believing relations will improve — especially given his history of outspoken complaints.

He’s also less than thrilled construction will start during his dinner hour, when some customers will be sitting outside a few feet away from the work. As for the promises of minimally invasive construction, Assadi said he’ll believe it when he sees it.

For now, he said, there isn’t much he can do but play along.

That’s exactly what Kona Grill, on the other side of Pratt, is doing. The restaurant reached a deal with race organizers to offer special ticket packages to the “Kona Grill Turn One Club,” so called because of Kona’s location along the course.

The package gives patrons three-day reserved seating in the grandstands, paddock passes, meal service and (for adults) two alcoholic drinks on both Saturday and Sunday. It costs $275 for adults and $225 for children 12 or younger.

Kona Grill general manager Tommy Przybylski said the race helped generate record sales over Labor Day weekend last year, but the added profit was offset by slower business during construction.

This year, he said he hopes coming conventions and games will flood the region with tourists and boost business.

The anime convention Otakon is expected to draw 40,000 people to the city this weekend, and the Summer Antiques Show is scheduled for Aug. 22 to 25. Those events didn’t occur in August last year, so the negative effects of construction were unmitigated, Przybylski said.

Additionally, the Orioles have nine more home games before race weekend.

“So while we may feel some impact, it’ll be interesting to see because there’s a lot of other things at play this year versus last year,” Przybylski said. “At the end of the day, regardless of whether or not we like the construction, it’s going to happen. So you just make the best of it and adjust accordingly.”