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The Baltimore Grand Prix promises civic riches

. . . but who are these guys, anyway?

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The Baltimore Grand Prix has been billed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other civic leaders as a tremendous win for the city and its residents, with a potential $100 million economic impact on the local economy and a $6 million boost to the city’s general fund via increased parking, amusement, and hotel-tax revenue. But more: The prestige and excitement of staging an honest-to-Andretti 180 mph, open-wheel street race downtown will vault Baltimore into the big leagues of cities around the world, alongside Monaco and, well, Long Beach, Calif.

With this in mind, City Paper sought out the original dreamers of this grand plan, and tried to get a look inside Baltimore Racing Development, the corporate machine staging the ambitious “festival of speed” on Sept. 2-4. We wanted to go over the economic projections, learn something about the personalities of the founding fathers, and watch up close as earth and concrete were moved to transform Baltimore’s busiest boulevards into a world-class racecourse.

To get into the spirit of it, we even brought along a debatably interesting car and an array of video cameras, view the playlist below.

For the most part, we failed.

Here, then, is the outside scoop on the Grand Prix—everything we could learn traveling the surface of the proposed track and the periphery of its corporate and political heart.

 

Team Coverage Playlist

 

Surrounded by apartment building managers in the Tremont Grand Hotel’s capacious ballroom on North Charles Street on July 15, Lonnie Fisher calmly tells each one precisely how tenants will be able to enter and leave their parking garages during next month’s traffic-disrupting, road-closing Grand Prix races. He tells them from memory—he appears to know every garage door in the 50-block area. His interrogators nod, but they don’t smile.

Fisher is here representing Baltimore Racing Development. He was hired as BRD’s corporate outreach person because “I have a 20-year background in throwing outdoor festivals,” he says, most notable among them the annual Starscape event. “I have a lot of familiarity with permitting.”

There are 100 or more people milling about the ballroom, looking at big maps the city’s Department of Transportation has set on easels. They’ve come with questions about detours and noise, resigned to the fact that downtown will be effectively closed Labor Day weekend so that the city can make some money. This is, anyway, the theory from which the entire event has sprung.

Fisher has one bit of important info: Even on race days, Charles Street will be open to car traffic after the race cars are off the track—circa 7:30 p.m.

For his part, Fisher is a paid-up believer. “I’m all-in, I’m an all-in type of guy,” he says. “That’s why they hired me.”

But who are “they”? Who is the Grand Prix’s founding partner? “That was before my time,” says Fisher, who was hired in October of 2010 and, anyway, “the story probably isn’t that interesting.”

 

City Councilmember William Cole (D-11th District) sits in the passenger seat of a doubtful-looking replica of a 1950s MG, gamely recounting—for a second time, owing to the reporter’s technical incompetence with a video recording—how the Grand Prix idea first came to him.

“In February of 2008, a guy came to me,” Cole says. “He told me he wanted to bring race cars to downtown Baltimore, and I did what any sane person would do—I told him I thought it was crazy.”

It is a practiced story. Cole started out suitably skeptical, but was made a believer when officials with the Indy Racing League—the race’s sanctioning body—arrived to tell him they had already scouted a potential track: “They came back and said, ‘We think this could be a grand slam for Baltimore,’” Cole says.

All that was needed then—in 2009—was some municipal permits, about $7 million worth of roadwork, and enough cash—$15 million, Cole guesses; BRD declines to share such information—to pay for the setup and all attendant crises.

But again, these guys? Where to find them? How did it actually start?

“This guy came up with the idea and he started going around and trying to get people interested,” Cole elaborates, “and he found people.”

Asked what happened before that, Cole says, “[Former 11th District City Councilmember] Keiffer Mitchell called me and said , ‘Hey would you mind meeting with this guy? He went to Boys Latin.’”

For the past six years, Mitchell has squeezed oranges on Sunday mornings at the downtown farmers market at a stand he calls Nutin but the Juice. Mitchell, who gave up his council seat in an unsuccessful bid to unseat then Mayor Sheila Dixon in 2007, says the Grand Prix is going to be great for Baltimore, bringing “economic development” and “international tourism,” among other benefits.

Of the founders? “A group of guys who had an idea,” Mitchell, now a state delegate representing the 44th District, recounts, “about doing a Grand Prix race here in the city of Baltimore.”

 

The founder of Baltimore Racing Development, Steven Wehner, has been called a “Baltimore-based entrepreneur” in Sun reports about the race. But he has seldom been seen at public events regarding the race, and reportedly sent a statement to the press conference for the opening of BRD’s downtown office, rather than attending the August 2009 event in person. Two years later his LinkedIn profile shows zero connections.

City Paper called BRD several times in the spring and summer, seeking formal interviews with Chief Operating Officer Jay Davidson; Fisher, the former impresario of nightclub Sonar who has emerged as BRD’s chief fixer; and founding investors. These requests were ignored.

News stories indicate Wehner once owned a car repair business on Martha’s Vineyard, and failed in an attempt, earlier this decade, expand it to include a gas station. He domiciled Baltimore Racing Development in his mother’s modest Towson townhouse. In 2009 the house was briefly slated for foreclosure proceedings. In June of 2010 Davidson filed corporate papers changing BRD’s address to his own Lutherville office. Then, last July, police got a warrant and searched the Towson house, turning up paraphernalia with trace amounts of crack cocaine. Court records indicate that last summer, Wehner was charged with possessing illegal drugs other than marijuana, pleaded not guilty, paid a $250 fine, and received probation before judgment.

In an Aug. 12 phone call responding to questions about Wehner, Davidson says Wehner was bought out by mutual consent around December 2009, and has not been part of the BRD team since. “He wanted to pursue other projects,” Davidson says, adding that the company should have filed its change of address around that time, rather than six months later.

The day after that conversation, the Sun published a long profile of Wehner and BRD’s early days, detailing Wehner’s addiction struggles as well as the touch-and-go nature of his early efforts.

 

 cp_20110817_feature-2.jpg

Tim Sneed, Funny Face the Dog, and “Murphy” of Mobtown Cycles. Photo by Josh Sisk.

 

Artist Tim Sneed works in a big garage full of motorcycles and metal-working machinery in East Baltimore. His shop is called Mobtown Cycle, and he—as the son of Bill “Whitey” Sneed, a Karb Kings car club original member and president (1961-’62), and reviver of the ’50s and ’60s club in the past decade—is a big fan of the Grand Prix.

So big a fan is Sneed, in fact, that he is personally building a customized Harley Davidson Sportster to be auctioned off for charity during the race weekend. “They approached me back in March,” he says, “and wanted to talk to me about building a bike for the race.” He says he told them to figure out their budget and come back, “then I never really saw them again.”

Later, Sneed says, his partner got on him again about doing the charity bike, went through records, found the guy’s contact number and set up the deal. “I don’t really know the cat’s name,” Sneed says. “I’m just building the bike.”

It’s a 1992 XL 1200, which he has made to look very much like a racing bike of the 1970s. 

The charity auction will be but one of myriad events held during the “festival of speed,” as the race has come to be known. Besides the IndyCar race on Sunday, there will be an American LeMans series race pitting heavily modified Porsches, Ferraris, and Corvettes against one another. There are two other somewhat minor-league road races scheduled as well, along with a 5K foot race. Nonstop music concerts are on the bill, and there are three distinct and separate “fun” zones depicted on the maps of the race circuit, with one dedicated to “family friendly food and entertainment”; one to pro beach volleyball, go-karts, and radio-controlled racing; and one labeled, simply, “Party Zone.”

 

“They always had some kind of shtick going on,” says Larry Jendras, who attended NASCAR dirt-oval track races from the age of about 4 in Baltimore during the 1950s.

Jendras, sitting at his Sykesville dining room table, says he’s bought tickets for the whole Grand Prix weekend. He also tried to contact race officials to see about getting some Baltimore race history added to the program, he says, but has not heard back from them.

Jendras’ father owned a flathead-powered 1936 Ford stock car back in the day, which raced in Westport Stadium, former home of Baltimore’s Elite Giants Negro League baseball team. Racing started in 1951, after the Giants moved out, and lasted until 1962. “Declining fan interest” was the Sun’s conclusion at the time.

The fickleness of auto sports was demonstrated even more starkly in 1925, when investors erected an enormous, high-banked oval track in Lanham called the Baltimore-Washington Speedway. It was a spectacle in its day, Jendras says, showing off photos of well-dressed fans packed into grandstands surrounding the 1.25-mile track, which was constructed entirely out of wood. The track may have inspired NASCAR founder Bill France’s Daytona Speedway, Jendras contends. But only two races were ever run on it. In 1926 there was a rule change, and the Baltimore-Washington Speedway was dismantled for scrap.

In the 1990s and 2000s open-wheel racing all but dismantled itself as well—though the sport’s injuries were largely self-inflicted.

 

“Tony George ran the Indianapolis Speedway starting in 1990, until just two years ago,” says Gordon Kirby, editor of Motor Sport magazine and author of seven books, over the phone from his New Hampshire home. “And Tony George is the grandson of Tony Hulman [who] bought the Indianapolis Speedway in 1945 after World War II.”

As Kirby (and quite a few other folks) tell it, Hulman took a derelict property and, by applying to it a lot of money and showmanship, slowly built it up into the icon of sport we know it as today—or knew from the ’70s to the early ’90s, anyway.

The U.S. Automobile Club sanctioned the races—both at Indy and on tracks and street courses around the country—through the 1970s.After a dispute with U.S.A.C., in 1979 race team owners led by Dan Gurney established CART, short for Championship Auto Racing Teams, to better promote the races and generate enough money to run the expensive race cars. By the late 1980s CART was beginning to attract top drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi from Formula One (F1), then and now the undisputed world heavyweight champion of motor sports. “It was getting better and better,” Kirby says.

At its peak, the Long Beach Grand Prix—the street race Baltimore race boosters seek to emulate—attracted 250,000 fans.

Then, in 1993, as F1 champion Nigel Mansel switched to CART and took that crown from Fittipaldi, George decided that CART had too much influence and that its rules unfairly benefited the wealthiest teams. He formed the Indy Racing League to stage rival races, effectively splitting open-wheel racing in half. “He believed that he should be—like NASCAR—that he should be the dictator of the sport,” Kirby says, “just as Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. have been the dictators of NASCAR.”

There were not enough fans to support two competing leagues, so neither side could earn enough revenue to maintain the cars or attract the best drivers. Long Beach Grand Prix attendance fell to about 50,000, Kirby says. Advertising revenue dropped by a factor of 20, from $650 million in 1996 to $34 million at the trough, according to Randy Bernard, who took over as IndyCar CEO after George’s mother and sister, who control the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s board of directors, fired him.

Bernard made his name by transforming professional bull riding from a small piece of the rodeo into a stand-alone sport with tons of cable-television coverage and revenue enough that, he says, 68 percent of the business sold for $98 million. He had never even seen an IndyCar race before he took the job.

In his year at the helm, Bernard has already brought General Motors back as an engine manufacturer (Honda was the only remaining engine builder, powering all the cars that also were built on identical chassis, removing another point of interest for fans). Bernard has also sought to expand the series’ reach to places like Baltimore, whose track layout, according to Kirby, bodes well for an exciting race.

“The key element for the success of any street-racing circuit is for the track to actually be wide enough and roomy enough for the cars to actually race,” Kirby says.

Overall, then, it looks like a very good time to be getting into Indy racing.

Then again, the world doesn’t wait. A Wall Street Journal report on Aug. 3 says IRL’s rival, F1, is eyeing a street track just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in Weehawken, N.J. Its principle organizer is Leo Hindery Jr., former CEO of the YES Network, which offers coverage of the major New York- and New Jersey-based sports teams.

 

cp_20110817_feature-3.jpg

One of the trees cut down on Pratt Street for the race. Photo by Josh Sisk

 

Also on Aug. 3, the Sun reported a mini-scandal about the removal of more than 130 trees from downtown—long planned, according to Beth Stromman, director of the Office of Sustainability, to facilitate better views of the race for those who will be sitting in the temporary grandstands. BRD had already agreed to replant a few more trees than they were sawing down, went the story. But parks advocates pointed out that some of the trees cut were 3 feet around at the base, while the replacement trees will be twigs. There was also the matter of the city’s forest conservation code, which requires a public hearing before any trees are cut. Stromman back-pedaled, as depicted by the Sun, saying the deal had been amended to take only 50 trees, now with 185 to be replanted, some in big pots so they can be moved each fall for the race. The park people, led by political techie David Troy, went to Circuit Court to try for an injunction, which was denied.

The episode was similar to—if slightly more public than—one staged in the spring by vendors of the downtown farmers market, which had been slated for closure on the race weekend to facilitate parking by race fans. Labor Day weekend happens to be the market’s second biggest, after Thanksgiving. Calls were made, arguments had, and, according to Mitchell—who, remember, has a stand in the market—the city at last decided BRD didn’t need the parking after all.

Others have complained about traffic disruptions as P. Flanigan & Sons, the road contractor, paved and prepared the racecourse using about $6.5 million, about $5 million of which was federal “stimulus” money slated for highway maintenance. Flanigan got the job done on time and, apparently, under budget, but not everyone is satisfied. Why, people have asked, is the city pouring all that cash into a 2-mile section of sound downtown streets when miles of city streets are overdue for resurfacing?

“The money could not be spent on any other thing—I think this is important to note,” Cole says, citing federal strings that earmarked the money for “gateway roads” or others that touched federal highways. “This is not money that could be spent on, for example, a recreation center.”

 

cp_20110817_feature-4.jpg

Hooters offers the best view of the approach to hairpin turn three. Photo by Josh Sisk.

 

Cole says in mid-July that Grand Prix ticket sales have been made in 47 states and several countries. “Our ticket sales have been so robust that we now think that we may be able to sell up to 120,000 tickets,” he says—well above the 100,000 originally projected. So-called “hospitality suites”—the equivalent of the stadium skyboxes where high rollers lounge in catered and air-conditioned splendor—are also selling beyond expectations, Cole says: “The $10,000 to $100,000 suites have sold at a pace that none of us ever imagined.”

Beyond that? “Hooters is going to have probably the best view of the racetrack,” Cole says as we drive past. But, “my understanding is you wouldn’t be able to get in there if you tried.”

Many ordinary citizens are not impressed. The Grand Prix was a running joke at the Aug. 3 mayoral candidates’ forum held at the Empowerment Temple. Otis Rolley, the former city planner and current mayoral candidate, has been disparaging the event since he launched his campaign, saying it’s an example of nonstrategic thinking. “It is yet another failed perspective on economic development from the current mayor,” Rolley says. “We’ve seen this not yield the promised economic impact in so many other cities, and yet we’re bringing it here.”

The economic projections touted by the BRD and repeated in the media are indeed questionable, says Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who read BRD’s Economic Impact Report when it came out in May 2010. The report projected a $6 million annual tax-revenue bump to the city. (When asked on July 15, Fisher puts the city’s projected rake at $7 million to $8 million over five years.)

“I was astonished,” Coates says, speaking of BRD’s report. “My first reaction was, nobody associated with this thing ever had a single economics course.”

For starters, Coates says the authors whiffed the multiplier effect, a basic economic concept that tries to count the number of times a given dollar is re-spent in a given economy over time. They actually applied it to costs. Next, Coates says, they overstated by about 10 percent the total number of hotel rooms downtown—inflating by that much the expected revenue.

But most basic, he continues, is an error he says is made by most partisans of stadiums, convention centers, and big sporting events—whose economic impacts he has carefully studied. “They haven’t considered what would have been going on otherwise,” Coates says. “I mean, people still eat in restaurants. It’s maybe not quite as many but it wouldn’t be zero.”

“Keep in mind Labor Day weekend is one of the slowest weekends of the year for Baltimore,” Cole counters. “They all go downy ocean.”

Coates says he thinks if the city gets $1 million a year it’ll be a success. “I don’t think they’ll get that,” he adds. “The evidence is that these kinds of events don’t generate that much extra tax revenue.”

The 2004 Super Bowl, for example, purportedly generated $5 million in additional tax revenue for its host city in 2004, Coates says, but, after accounting for costs, actually generated about $900,000 for Houston, according to the city’s comptroller.

The Baltimore Grand Prix, Coates suggests, will be nowhere near the size and scope of Superbowl XXXVIII.

BRD stands by its economic impact statement, Davidson says, citing figures published by the Toronto Grand Prix ($50 million) and the $25 million economic impact touted for the Baltimore Marathon.

 

In all, the Baltimore Grand Prix, while potentially grand, remains an unknown quantity.

Cole has worked as hard as any public official to make the race a success for as many people as possible. He acknowledges that BRD is a “young company” trying to find its footing while handling awesome logistics, but says of the big race: “It will certainly be, from my perspective, the best planned event the city has ever hosted.”

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