Future of Baltimore IndyCar race remains uncertain

The IndyCar drivers like it. The mayor loves it, and so do the fans.

So, why not make the Grand Prix of Baltimore an annual fixture?

Grand Prix of Baltimore

Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, rounds a corner during a qualifying session for the Grand Prix of Baltimore on Saturday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

That’s the plan. Problem is, organizers have not yet solidified a date for next year or 2015. And they’re still looking for a title sponsor to foot some of the hefty bill.

“You’re cautious. Nothing is guaranteed,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. “But when you walk around and get to see all the families enjoying the event, enjoying Baltimore in a different way, we’re hopeful it will continue.”

For three years running, race car drivers have sped past Camden Yards and through the streets of Charm City. Tens of thousands were in attendance Sunday when Simon Pagenaud took the checkered flag on a sun-splashed afternoon.

The crowd witnessed a crash-laden spectacle of a race that delivered daredevil driving and a bit of intrigue.

One week earlier at Sonoma, Scott Dixon made contact with a tire a pit member was carrying for Will Power. The violation dropped Dixon from first place, and Power claimed his first win of the year.

Then, on Sunday, Power inadvertently cut off Dixon and both ended up hitting the wall. Power finished 18th with an apology to Dixon, who came in 19th. Dixon also complained that Graham Rahal made contact with his car and should have been penalized.

All this occurred on national television with Baltimore as the backdrop. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake believes that kind of exposure, along with the tourism the race delivers, outweighs the cost and inconvenience of shutting down dozens of city streets for nearly a week.

“Anytime we get a chance to showcase Baltimore on the world’s stage in such a beautiful way, it’s a great opportunity,” the mayor said. “When you walk around and get to see all the families enjoying the event, enjoying Baltimore in a different way, we’re hopeful it will continue.”

The drivers feel the same way. It isn’t easy negotiating the uneven roads or the sharp turns on this street course, but these guys enjoy the challenge and appreciate the enthusiasm of the big crowds.

Tony Kanaan, who set an IndyCar record Sunday by participating in his 212th consecutive race, said, “It’s always fun to come here. I love that people come and support it. Outside the hotel, it was packed with people waiting for my autograph. This is sort of place we want to come.”

Tempers flared after the race, however, as Dixon called for second-year race director Beaux Barfield “to be fired.”

“He was a complete idiot today,” Dixon told Autoweek.

Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull said, “We had this honeymoon period where we thought (the officiating) was going to be improved, you know? Most of us now are ready for the divorce.”

There is also some question about the future of the fledgling Baltimore Grand Prix. After being held three straight years over Labor Day weekend, the race will have to move in 2014 because Navy will face Ohio State on the Saturday before Labor Day at nearby M&T Bank Stadium.

“The draw of the Ohio State-Navy is going to be great for the city,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I’m not mad about having another big event. I’m just hopeful that this event, which is becoming a tradition for Baltimore during Labor Day, will continue.”

Next year is out, and there is an American Legion event planned for the Convention Center during the Labor Day weekend of 2015. But Tim Mayer, general manager of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, is certain the race will remain a fixture in Baltimore.

“It’s in our contract since the very beginning of the race that this date was not available. That was never a question,” Mayer said. “We’ve always known that in this month we would start working on the date. For me, this is business as usual. I’ve met a dozen times this week on the subject, and everybody is determined to make this go forward.”

It’s been a road as bumpy as Pratt Street, one of the main straightaways in the race.

The promoters of the first race left millions of dollars of unpaid bills to the city and local businessmen, and a second firm failed to come up with enough money to take over the race in 2012. Andretti Sports Marketing finally took charge of the event, and in a short three months did a fine job in pulling it all together.

Mayer got a running start this year. Ticket sales opened in December, he booked nine bands and created a Family Fun Zone for children. As the crowd swelled Sunday before the race, he seemed pleased with the results.

“With the opportunity to plan a year, which was critical, we’ve been able to lay it out a bit more fan friendly,” Mayer said. “For us, the long range plan is to get people to come down because of all the other stuff, and turn them into racing fans. That’s how this event will sustain.”

The hunt for a title sponsor remains active.

“Big picture, this is good for the city,” Mayer said. “Everybody has gotten behind it and is working to help us find that date with IndyCar. That good will is there.”