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City pledged to clear Labor Day weekends for Grand Prix races

In 2012 agreement, city said it would “reserve” holiday weekends for race to avoid any conflicts with other downtown events.

Above: Mayor Rawlings-Blake with Grand Prix organizer J.P. Grant.

The Rawlings-Blake administration has publicly blamed scheduling problems over Labor Day weekend for its decision to discontinue the Grand Prix, but documents reviewed by The Brew show that the city promised to hold the weekend open and make sure no other events caused a conflict.

In a 2012 agreement signed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Race On LLC organizers J.P. Grant and Gregory O’Neill, the city pledged to “actively support and promote the reservation of the Labor Day period for each race” through 2016.

Specifically, the city said it would help the organizers clear Labor Day weekends of home games by the Orioles and the Ravens as well as “other special events” that could hinder the race.

Last Friday, the mayor and other officials cited the inability to find dates for the races as the reason for the Prix’s suspension. According to the city and Race On, an Ohio State-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium would conflict with the race in 2014 and an American Legion convention would interfere in 2015.

“The calendar conspired against us,” Grant told reporters.

Both events, however, have long been known to the city officials. M&T Stadium, in fact, announced in February 2010 it would host the Ohio State-Navy game – four months before Mayor Rawlings-Blake said the city would sponsor an 180-mile-per-hour race on downtown streets.

A Material Financial Factor

The May 10, 2012 “Motorsports Development Agreement” with Grant and O’Neill – approved by the Board of Estimates and signed by the mayor –  goes to great length to ensure that the organizers had priority over other Labor Day events in the Inner Harbor and South Baltimore, with one exception.

That exception was the American Legion convention planned at the Baltimore Convention Center in 2015. If this event proved to be incompatible with the Grand Prix, the city agreed to help Race On arrange a “different mutually agreeable three-day period” for the race that year.

Otherwise, the city vowed to reserve the weekend exclusively for the Grand Prix. Article 6 of the five-year agreement asserts what was at stake: it stipulated that “the availability of the Labor Day Period is a material financial factor in the anticipated success of the Race.”

The agreement goes on to say that the city “will actively support and promote the reservation of the Labor Day Period for each Race . . . and will not support or encourage any events which may cause the Labor Day Period to be unavailable for each Race (other than 2015).”

The site of the Ohio State-Navy game, M&T Stadium, is two blocks from the southern end of the Grand Prix’s temporary racetrack through Camden Yards. Between the racetrack and the stadium lies Martin Luther King Blvd. and Hamburg Street.

The college game would take place on Saturday during the 2014 Labor Day weekend, while the premier IndyCar Grand Prix race is held on a Sunday. The Motorsport Agreement does not cite the Ohio State-Navy game as a problem for the 2014 race.

The agreement and related documents were prepared by the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), Law Department and Mark Pollak, an attorney hired by the city.

Planned through 2021

Until last Friday’s announcement, the mayor said she wanted the Grand Prix to be a permanent fixture during the Labor Day weekend. The city’s contract with Race On ended in 2016, but contains a five-year renewal, which would take the race through 2021.

Last week, however, Grant told reporters that Race On “will not be able to participate in hosting the race going forward” because of scheduling conflicts that included not finding future race dates satisfactory to both IndyCar and American LeMans.

Both organizations are under financial pressure to reduce their race schedules as the popularity of open-wheel street racing has diminished throughout the country.

Grant to the Rescue

The promoters of the inaugural Grand Prix went bankrupt and left millions of dollars of unpaid bills to local vendors and the city. A second firm picked by the mayor failed to meet the city’s benchmarks for organizing the event.

In a pinch, Grant, a Columbia (Md.) financier and top Rawlings-Blake campaign contributor, agreed to take over the race in May 2012.

Grant has since acknowledged that he has lost money on the event. Without an official sponsor, the financial underpinnings of the event have appeared wobbly – as we reported back in July.

Declaring Victory

While announcing the Grand Prix suspended for the next two years and, most likely, beyond – Rawlings-Blake declared victory, saying the event had accomplished her goal.

“My goal in supporting the Grand Prix was twofold: improve Baltimore’s tourism over a traditionally slow Labor Day weekend and present Baltimore to a worldwide audience,” she said in a prepared statement last Friday. “By all accounts the Grand Prix of Baltimore accomplishes these goals.”

Meanwhile, Grant, Michael Andretti (whose marketing company promoted the Grand Prix) and IndyCar officials expressed disappointment that dates for future races could not be agreed upon. Echoing the mayor, they then thanked everyone for making the event a huge success.

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