Racing rookies flock to Baltimore's inaugural grand prix

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Turn 1, a sharp right from Pratt Street onto Light Street, was the scene of numerous wipe-outs during practice runs, and as the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix got started yesterday it was a scene that Chris Clifford captured with his cellphone, which he held aloft to relay the thundering noise to a friend who had the misfortune of being elsewhere.

"Hear anything?" Clifford shouted over the roars and squeals of the racecars a few feet away.

Then Clifford, from Salisbury, summed up the crowd's collective enthusiasm this way: "To have a grand prix so close to us is terrific," he said.

Baltimore's inaugural Festival of Speed was like the first day of school for a city that seemed willing to embrace a new sport — if the nearly sell-out crowd at Sunday's main event is any indication. It featured drivers whose names many in the city were just learning. Dario Franchitti. Will Power, Scott Dixon and Mike Conway.

Tens of thousands of spectators attended, drawn by fast cars, a party atmosphere and the idea of supporting their hometown. All you had to do was follow what sounded like a swarm of angry bees who know how to down shift and there you were, at the third day of IndyCar racing on downtown streets around the sparkling Inner Harbor.

"The dream of this city is a reality," said a television announcer as the cars crossed the starting line for the Izod IndyCar race that got top billing Sunday afternoon.

"A first-time event is always like a long throw into the end zone," said Roger Penske, owner of Team Penske. "I know what Baltimore went through. And for a first-time event, this is really impressive."

"For a brand-new street course, they did an incredible job," said John Erickson, team manager for Penske, who was overseeing repairs to driver Helio Castroneves' car after a practice run fly-by by a brakeless Tony Kanaan sheared the right side of his car.

The Baltimore Grand Prix was Lou Herron's first live race. The racing rookie volunteered to help event organizers just for a chance to be near the action and ended up closer than most.

His job: escorting the winning drivers from the stage to the press room.

"As soon as they announced it, I got online and volunteered," he said. "This is a rush, I mean it. I am closer to the drivers than anyone else."

Ronny Bass of Randallstown has long had a "love of fast cars" and currently drives a 2003 Corvette, but he had never been to an auto race until this weekend.

"I thought coming down to see it for the first time would be an amazing experience, up close in our town," Bass said as he watched some of the IndySeries cars being brought to the paddock.

Hearing the roars of the engines from a distance, "I knew they were going really fast," Bass said. "With downtown traffic, you're not going to get anywhere near that speed."

Richard Katz of Lutherville had no interest in auto racing but decided months ago to buy tickets for himself, his wife Martha, and their 20-year old daughter Meredith for Sunday's races. The Katzes were successful among a horde of fans trying to secure the autograph of driver Danica Patrick, one of a handful of female drivers on the circuit.

Richard Katz said that he hoped the event would change perceptions about Baltimore "from homicide to Grand Prix."

The event was a huge logistical undertaking. Just ask Kelly Rather, who directed traffic in the food tent operated by Mother's of Federal Hill, one of the sponsors of the event. Not only was her staff — and it included every relative she has — catering VIP parties with 50 to 150 guests, they were feeding long lines of regular fans.

"Nobody is getting any sleep," she said Sunday afternoon.

"It is a learning curve, like anything," said Rather.

Mother's Chef Davon Ainge said he cooked up more than 2,500 chicken cheese steaks and "5,000 hamburgers, easy," during the weekend. And Rather estimated that a fleet of more than 200 golf carts ferried supplies across the race course during breaks in the action.

As a photographer for the Associated Press, Pat Semansky of Baltimore found himself close to the action, too. Closer than he wanted to be for his first ever auto race. He emerged from a photographers meeting chastened.

"They said, 'New guys. If a car crashes into a wall, run.'"

"I just got back from Ocean City where I shot Irene," Semansky added. "I have to say, I'd rather be in a hurricane."

Stephanie Richardson's company, Baltimore Protection Services, provided security for the race. She has attended some drag races at Capitol Raceway, but nothing like this. Now she can tick off her favorite drivers: Franchitti, Patrick, and Marco Andretti.

"I love it," she said, from an area at Eutaw Street officials called "no man's land."

"'Cause no man is supposed to be here when they are racing," Richardson said, firmly. She was alone and inches from the cement barriers, watching the cars speed by at more than 100 miles per hour.

For young Joe Jandoli, the race wasn't about drivers. It was about colors.

"Green," said the 5-year-old from New Jersey. He was watching the races — and picking his favorite cars — from a luxury box with his family. The tented seating, with plenty of petit fours and white wine, overlooked pit road. His father, Douglas, an executive with a sponsoring company, had just ridden the pace car around the track at better than 100 miles an hour.

Joe and his sister, 21/2 -year-old Lucy, were wearing headsets that did more than protect tender ears from the noise of the racing cars. They could dial in and listen to the cockpit conversations of their favorite drivers.

Lucy, attending her first professional sporting event of any kind, rooted for "yellow. Anybody yellow."

Many first-timers at Baltimore's Grand Prix hoped the event would come back year after year. Racing organizers have tentatively agreed to at least four more years in the city.

At the tent where the staff from Mother's struggled to feed the fans, Kelly Rather was occasionally able to grab a look at the giant digital screen on the side of the Convention Center that displayed bird's-eye views of the city.

"I have never seen Baltimore look so good," she said. "I hope it isn't the last time."

Lou Herron, the volunteer, also wants more. "I hope it lasts for all five years because I will be here for all five years," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Hermann and Don Markus contributed to this story.

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