In the unified command center of the Grand Prix of Baltimore, Tim Mayer, the race’s general manager, fielded a few phone calls, answering a couple of questions. But that was it.
Preparations for the Grand Prix were running several hours ahead of schedule the day before Friday’s qualifying races. In the cavernous room, police and others studied 15 big-screen televisions showing camera feeds and maps.
“It’s not like it was last year,” he said. “That we did with sheer energy, breakneck until the very end.”
Now in its third year, the three-day racing festival begins at 8 a.m. with practices for the various circuits that will race Saturday and Sunday. Ticket sales remain on pace, Mayer said, without elaborating. Seats are available; Race On, the event organizer, said it expects a large walk-up crowd, especially if there’s no rain in the forecast. Forecasters are calling for a chance of thunderstorms Sunday.
Rain or not, residents and businesses around downtown are coping with the inconvenience of a 2.4-mile, high-speed racetrack occupying critical crossroads around the Inner Harbor.
Traffic was snarled Thursday. Some residents left town and some businesses shut down, but many others embrace the racing festival.
Mayer has led Race On’s efforts to become a better neighbor. He helped devise a way to shorten the time needed to build the track from more than a month to 21 days in a way that limited road closures.
His goal this year is to show that the race can appeal to racing fans as well as families and those who enjoy a festive atmosphere. And he has emphasized adding entertainment and amenities for a more diverse crowd while keeping traffic moving.
But by Thursday morning, the track’s impact was undeniable. Cars coming into the city off Interstate 95 immediately got bogged down in traffic. It took Pavan Bhatia more than an hour to reach the California Tortilla restaurant he owns on Pratt Street from the highway.
Pavan Bhatia, who owns a restaurant downtown, refused to pay the $5,000 that race organizers wanted to give his patrons a clear view of the race.
“It’s just not worth the investment,” he said. “People are coming for the race, not to spend here.”
Bhatia had high hopes for the race the first year, projecting sales of $65,000, which is what he usually does during a large convention. But revenue fell short, and then plummeted more than 50 percent last year.
But the Grand Prix has been a boon to the nearby Pratt Street Ale House, which happily paid for a view of the race, said general manager Jorbie Clark.
“We’re all for it,” Clark said. “To have an event that is watched around the world on what would be a slow weekend, I don’t get all the negativity about it. You’ve got to have things like this if you want your city to be vibrant for the people and businesses.”
Lana Jo Hill, a Baltimore resident, said the race simply causes too much disruption. She said the race is impossible to escape.
“It doesn’t matter where you go in the city,” she said. “Head over to Canton, and it still sounds like there’s a hive of angry bees nearby.”
J.P. Grant, the Columbia financier who shouldered the financial burden of running the race, spent part of Thursday walking the streets and talking with potential customers. Grant has said he expects to lose money on the race again this year, but not as much.
Grant said he’ll watch this year’s event with clear eyes.
For a businessman with no experience in racing — or running a big-time sports event — last year was bewildering. He now feels better able to evaluate whether the Grand Prix is right for Baltimore.
“Hey, you’ve got to try things,” Grant said. “This city has so much to work with. It has so much promise. So let’s try things like this. Let’s see what we can build.”