A Promising Start For Baltimore

Last weekend’s IndyCar and ALMS double-header event at the new street circuit in Baltimore was a tremendous success.

Ticket sales had been strong since they were put on general release some months ago, support locally was something we haven’t witnessed outside of each series’ main events (the Indy 500, Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans) for a long, long time. It reminded me of races at Long Beach or Surfers Paradise 10 years ago.

It was pleasing to see the talk of a large attendance wasn’t just pre-race marketing hype, the place really was full!

Officials from the championships racing this weekend said the crowd on Friday was higher than they’ve seen on race days at some venues this year. That’s partly a measure of how popular this event was, and partly how poorly these series draw at some locations.

The region around around Baltimore and Washington DC has been lacking major motorsport for a long time, the only thing I can think of was the ALMS round in Washington in 2002. There’s a significant amount of population in that region and it was time someone hit it. That’s probably why so many turned out this weekend.

Resurgence

I’m glad it was ALMS and IndyCar which took the chance – it paid off for them. Both series are in desperate need of some good news and this was just the tonic, proof that people do want to come out and see their races, and potentially proof that untapped markets are better propositions than flogging dead horses in established locations. Perhaps it will serve as a wake-up call to these series to race where they are welcome and to drop venues which aren’t working any more, no matter how hard that might be.

From the on-the-ground reports I’ve seen in the media, on blogs and on Twitter, it sounds as if the crowd was a mix between the usual smattering of hard-core fans, a good number of existing racing who may not necessarily follow either/both of these series, and a lot of people completely new to racing. From the sounds of the reactions it was a hit with all concerned. I hope they made a lot of new fans!

Difficulties

The weekend wasn’t without its difficulties. Hurricane Irene was luckily downgraded to a tropical storm before it reached Baltimore but the preparations for its arrival and the necessity to wait until it had passed – and repair any damage – caused severe delays to the build schedule. A street race needs a lot of extra work over and above a road course or oval, including laying the concrete barriers and fencing, repaving the streets, building up the grandstands and creating temporary facilities for teams, drivers and media.

Given the delays it wasn’t a surprise to find construction rolling well into Friday. They finished by lunchtime and cars were on track from a little after 1pm. At that point I expected crash after crash as various fault were found with the circuit. Would the chicanes be alright? Would they slow the cars enough for them to cross the light rail tracks safely?

We needn’t have worried. Somehow despite a 5-hour delay they still fit in practice sessions for all series on Friday, no mean feat when you have two top series and 3 junior series all desparate for track time on a brand new track, some of whom needed to qualify as well as practice.

Tony Kanaan’s warm-up crash was horrifyingly scary and he was very lucky. I don’t think there’s anything the track people can do other than smooth out the bumps in case it was those which caused the mechanical failure. If it wasn’t, then it could’ve happened anywhere in the world.

Racing

The racing was very good by street race standards, better than I’ve seen at many other street tracks. The ALMS race was the better one for me and I think that was a function of having multiple classes, faster cars having to make their way past slower ones engaged in their own tight race. For the first time ever there was the question of whether an LMPC car would win overall because the LMP1 cars couldn’t make 2 hours on a single stop as other classes could. That became moot with the safety cars but it was an interesting dimension – I was rooting for the LMP1s to beat the others on speed because that’s what they should do, but I enjoyed the fact they might not and had to race for it!

The real focus was in the GT class which was as fun as always, and the field of Ferraris, Porsches, Corvettes and BMWs looked right at home on the city streets even more so than any of the other classes racing that weekend including the others in the ALMS.

The IndyCar race wasn’t as good, big open wheel cars always struggle on narrow streets like these. It wasn’t a total borefest though. There was concern it could’ve been like many street courses with a single-file parade, the order only changing when someone crashed. That didn’t happen, we actually had a solid race with a bit of drama and controversy, which is all you can ask for from this type of track. I still prefer natural terrain road courses but Baltimore proved to me it has a place in both championships, perhaps even at the expense of an existing street course such as St Pete.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to the event organisers is that the largest problems over the weekend were down to the series themselves and not the track at all. After all, the Friday delays were forgivable given they just had a near-hurricane.

The IndyCar race start was awful and could’ve resulted in horrible injury, with two safety pickup trucks on track in turns 1 and 2 as the green flag was waved at the start line. Both trucks moved to safety in the nick of time but the second truck was a very, very, very close call. It should not have been there.

The other issue was down to reordering the field on a restart after half the drivers got stuck in a Macau- or Pau-style traffic jam at the hairpin. Eventually I think it turned out that INDYCAR (sanctioning body) had moved the delayed cars ahead of those who continued, except for those which caused the incident or suffered damage. My own opinion is that the delayed cars should’ve been left in the order they resumed which is what happens in every other series in the world. Perhaps the bigger crime was the lack of information, to their credit they played the radio call from Race Control giving the field order, yet everyone at home was kept guessing at the reasons WHY that order was given.

Lessons

The track was too bumpy, everybody knows it and I really hope that is fixed for next year. The drivers generally agreed much of the track was like Long Beach, which is a fairly bumpy street course. The rest of the track was much worse and this area needs to be fixed, it was not safe. There comes a point where a good challenge for a driver tips over into becoming unsafe and I think some areas of this track did that, but as a first attempt this wasn’t a massive complaint and they will learn for next year.

The pitlane was very tight. I don’t think there is anything they can do with the available space where pitlane currently is, I hope they can find an alternative location for it.

The chicane before the rail tracks was too slow and too tight. I’m glad they took the cautious approach in year one, it was the right choice, however next year I’d like to see a chicane which is faster which in turn will make turn 1 more of a passing zone.

Summary

A fantastic debut event which got more right than wrong. Lessons were learned as early as Friday morning and continued to be learned throughout, so that by Saturday evening’s ALMS race it looked like fully sorted, and by Sunday evening’s IndyCar race it looked like it had been running annually for years. I have no doubts whatsoever that things like the bumps will be fixed for 2012.

I got the impression this is a can-do city willing to solve any problems in order to make a race meeting happen. The area of the racetrack seemed perfect with the Inner Harbor as a backdrop. The atmosphere was of curiosity mixed with excitement. I hope both ALMS and IndyCar stick together to make this event a long-lasting success. I want to go to this race meeting.

I keep being told by Americans that their people only like oval racing. Well I’m sorry. On this evidence, I just don’t believe you.

Onboard Lap

To see how bumpy and challenging this course is, take a ride along with Gunnar Jeannette in his LMPC ORECA during ALMS qualifying last Friday:

http://vimeo.com/28684848

2 laps around Baltimore Street Circuit with Gunnar Jeannette, #06 CORE Autosport ORECA FLM09, LMPC class, American Le Mans Series

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2 Comments

Filed under 2011, IndyCar, Sportscars

2 responses to “A Promising Start For Baltimore

  1. Mav

    I like it, a lot prettier than Valencia (trees! the spanish need some trees!) – forget NY, could this be the East US location Bernie E has been looking for?

  2. “I keep being told by Americans that their people only like oval racing.”

    Yeah, I don’t understand that viewpoint, either. There are a lot of young folks over here who think that NASCAR and all-oval racing is pointless and boring (I’m only sort of one of those, in that I’m a little older and I think it’s OK once in a while), but who think that going around corners of all types and having to upshift and downshift all while managing traffic is pretty awesome. There are also a lot of “car guys” out there who just aren’t being all that well served by American racing yet, be it because the series are mainly spec right now (IndyCar) or suffer from presentation packages that don’t allow them easy access to view the races (ALMS, although I must give a plus one to their terrible TV contract this week, because I was able to see the ALMS race at a time and in a place where I couldn’t see the IndyCar race; this is what you get for taking a vacation to a remote area of Missouri, but at least not knowing who won the ALMS race in advance paid off for once). It’s those folks who are the potential future fanbase for IndyCar and ALMS. They could honestly give a crap about oval racing, which isn’t to say that oval racing should be abandoned, just that there is no need to ape whatever NASCAR does simply because it’s the most popular form of racing, just that somebody doing something different (oval AND road racing) could certainly thrive here, if it’s done right.

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