IndyCar announced Sunday night that it will return to Baltimore for a third year.
While the city made a five-year commitment to host an IndyCar race, the 2013 race wasn't assured until Tuesday.
That's when J.P. Grant, the financier who formed Race On LLC and took over operations of the second Grand Prix of Baltimore about 100 days before the event, reached an agreement on a sanctioning fee with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard to again hold the race the Sunday before Labor Day. IndyCar's schedule includes 19 races over 16 weekends; three road courses, not including Baltimore, are each hosting two full-length IndyCar races in one weekend.
Baltimore's public struggles to pay bills and find steady leadership following the race's first year threatened the relationship with IndyCar.
Bernard monitored Race On closely, even after it hired Indy car legend Michael Andretti's company to promote and run the event. He knew the racing circuit could not afford a repeat of the financial fiasco that engulfed the aftermath of the inaugural race, when millions of dollars of bills went unpaid by Baltimore Racing Development.
Even as this year's race weekend unfolded, with a smaller crowd but no major problems, Bernard would not commit to returning until he knew the race was financially sound.
Though it lost money — a significant amount, Grant said, without elaborating — Race On has paid its bills.
Whether the Baltimore race becomes a fixture like the road race in Long Beach, Calif., will depend on how well Race On can cut costs and market the event in a still-skeptical downtown.
"We've got to get it trending the right way," Grant said. "If we don't lose less next year — and I don't know what that number would be — with having a full year, then we'd have to seriously re-think this."
Grant took time after this year's event to consider whether he would stay involved.
"They took a little bit of a hit on the chin, so they have to decide if they want to roll the dice and hope it can be better next year," Andretti said recently.
But Grant decided he still believes the race can become a signature event that draws large crowds to Baltimore and burnishes the city's reputation. That was how Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pitched the race, which has cost the city millions in road work and services. Some of that money is recouped through taxes each year.
"The city is pleased to be part of IndyCar's 2013 schedule," city spokesman Ian Brennan said. "Event organizers did a remarkable job building a successful event in an incredibly short time frame, and we look forward to another great race next year."
Grant traveled to Indianapolis to meet with Bernard in September, saying the two talked informally about the future of the race and the sport. Bernard has been under pressure to increase the number of races on IndyCar's schedule — there were 16 this year after an August race in China fell through — and to collect higher sanctioning fees from individual race groups.
As part of this year's deal, Race On will advertise during IndyCar broadcasts throughout the season. Grant said his group planned to expand its marketing efforts, anyway. For Bernard, creating more buzz on television is important; car owners have been highly critical of NBC and ABC, which both show races, for not doing a better job of promoting the sport.
Grant also said he has "90 percent" of an agreement done with the American Le Mans Series, which has anchored Saturday's race schedule the past two years.
Now, he hopes to broker another deal with Andretti Motorsports. He'll meet with company representatives this week to assess the recent race and negotiate a new agreement.
Tim Mayer, who was hired by Andretti Motorsports as general manager of the race, said he believes Race On and Andretti will work together again.
"From everything I've gathered, the plan is to continue working down the path we've been on," he said.
Mayer has been collecting feedback from the event this year and is formulating ideas for partnerships with downtown businesses. Some local restaurant owners complained that fences erected around the track disrupted business for a month; Mayer said Race On is searching for ways to mitigate that problem.
IndyCar's schedule also includes an event on the triangle track at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, which has not hosted America's highest level of open-wheel racing since 1989. Situated about 90 miles from New York and Philadelphia, that race could draw fans away from Baltimore.
"Pocono is a super speedway, and frankly a super speedway in the middle of nowhere," Mayer said. "The urban, road-course experience we offer is much different, and we don't think our audience will be diminished."
Mayer said organizers will continue to cultivate a "festival atmosphere" for the event to draw more nonrace fans. He envisions the event as a bookend to Baltimore's summer season, launched annually on the third Saturday in May with the running of the Preakness.
IndyCar's television audience shrank considerably in 2012, according to Sports Business Daily. Races shown on the NBC Sports Network — including Baltimore's — averaged 292,000 viewers, down 27 percent and the fewest since the channel, once called Versus, started showing IndyCar in 2009. Races on ABC averaged 17 percent fewer viewers than a year ago.
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