Andretti's success gives hope to Grand Prix of Baltimore

Ten months ago, IZOD IndyCar Series owner and promoter Michael Andretti and his chief marketing officer John Lopes stood beside the then-Baltimore Grand Prix course and marveled at the crowd and the energy filling the space around them.

"This would be a great event to be part of one day," Andretti said to Lopes.

Now, Andretti and his sports management company, Andretti Sports Marketing, are less than eight weeks from opening the gates on the new Grand Prix of Baltimore with Race On LLC, headed by partners J.P. Grant and Greg O'Neill.

Lopes, recalling the moment with Andretti this week, pointed to it as a key reason why Andretti has been successful on many different ventures throughout his life.

"He said that [while] having no idea that we would be putting on this event this year," Lopes said. "Michael was able to look at that crowd, see the genuine interest in the event, recognize the great location and see the big picture. He has a great eye for that. It was a snapshot of his vision."

Known for his determination, relentless attention to detail, patience and ability to put the right people in the right places, Andretti has gone from being known as the son of the legendary Mario Andretti to being a winner in his own right.

His 42 career victories make him the third winningest driver in Indy car history.

As a car owner, his teams have won three IndyCar Series championships and, now, in a season in which many teams are struggling with totally new cars and engines, his driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, just won his third consecutive race last weekend to move into the series points lead.

Perhaps that doesn't recommend Andretti as a promoter, but he was also part of Andretti Green Racing, which established successful races in Toronto and St. Petersburg. And last month, his organization revived a storied, 109-year old track, the Milwaukee Mile, which had been mired in financial trouble for several years. The results were strong enough for Andretti to confirm the race will return next year.

Andretti's efforts in Milwaukee were attributed to love. He had a racing history at the track as a driver and was emotionally attached to the place.

Was it love that brought him here, too?

"A different kind of love," Andretti said by phone. "Obviously I don't have the same attachment to Baltimore as I do to the Milwaukee Mile — but it will be my son Marco's home track and I'm sure he'll be hitting me up for lots of free passes for his friends. But I've never driven in Baltimore. It was just such a successful event last year — from the view of fans, IndyCar, sponsors and competitors — and it looked like it might go away. I felt the need to not let that happen – to not let it go away.

"I love my sport and want what's best for it."

And the Grand Prix of Baltimore is already an important event on the IndyCar calendar.

"When J.P. called and asked if we'd look at Baltimore," Andretti said, "I saw it as a great opportunity. But, it is a very risky business. You have to have some gambling blood. I don't like to gamble too much, but I have a strong belief in the people in our organization."

Two of those people are Tim Mayer and Lopes.

Mayer, formerly the chief operating officer of the International Motorsports Association and the American LeMans Series, is the son of the late Ted Mayer, who helped create and then ran the McLaren Formula One team that produced championships with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt in the 1970s.

The younger Mayer was hired in May to be the Grand Prix of Baltimore's general manager. He has decades of experience organizing races around the world, including one — the Rio 400 Champ Car race — in less than three weeks.

Lopes, meanwhile, leads the sales and marketing team for all of Andretti's endeavours. He has been in motor sports for 20 years and was the executive vice president of operations for Champ Car before joining Andretti in 2004.

"I think there are two things that set the Andretti organization apart," Lopes said. "We're event junkies. We love the business. The other is the Andretti brand is established as the strongest in our industry. It's a heavy burden to perform but also a bit of an advantage. It has established credibility."

A year ago, fans had a great time at the Grand Prix, but there were complaints — walkways were too few and too narrow, access to the rest of the Inner Harbor was difficult, suites were under serviced, and, if there was a trouble spot, Grand Prix representatives had difficulty responding. Even the drivers had one issue — they didn't like the chicane on Pratt Street that slowed the cars.

A plan has been submitted to the FIA, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, asking approval to remove the artificial structure that creates turns where there are none. The positioning of the track walls are being tweaked to make the course "a little more difficult" and challenging, and grandstands also are being repositioned to make construction quicker and access easier.

Officials also are working on adding more bridges inside the course so fans will have an easier time moving from place to place. And, they've divided the course into three segments with three managers, so response time to issues will be quicker.

"The biggest issue is making sure we aren't forgetting anything," Mayer said. "Our job is never going to be done, but our goal is to make sure when the fans come in it looks effortless. We're looking at the bridges inside the course, figuring how we move them for better access. There are so many little details — like straightening a fence to make walking along Pratt Street easier. And every time someone turns a corner we want there to be something new and interesting to do. It has to be a family-friendly event."

Part of that, Mayer said, is working with the community to pull businesses from all parts of downtown into the picture.

"There are really smart people in Baltimore who know their city really well," Mayer said. "You only learn what will work by listening. If people are interested in the aquarium or dinner in Little Italy, they should come. There are 250,000 cars that come into Baltimore every day, and while I'd love to think we'll attract those numbers, I know we won't. There are plenty of parking places for everyone."

While his team is on course in Baltimore, Andretti continues to stress his goal.

"My goal is to hopefully get the same turnout as last year and to give people more for their money," Andretti said. "I want them to come away from the experience feeling even better than they did last year. I want everyone coming up after the event like they did in Milwaukee saying, 'It's great!' and 'Can't wait for next year.'"

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Grand Prix of Baltimore

Dates: Aug. 31-Sept. 2

2011 Grand Prix winner: Will Power

Tickets: Online (Ticketmaster.com), by phone (1-800-745-3000) and through Ticketmaster outlets.

Information: RaceOnBaltimore.com

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