Baltimore Circuit Features Bumps and Landmarks

| , RacinToday.com Saturday, September 3 2011

Graham Rahal pits during practice at the street circuit in Baltimore on Saturday. He qualified second fastest. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Venkat G. Gopalakrishnan
Special to RacinToday.com

When you think of Baltimore, you think of crab cakes, Inner Harbor, the aquarium, the Orioles, the Ravens…and IndyCars? This Labor Day weekend the IZOD IndyCar Series is making its debut on the Streets of Baltimore for the Baltimore Grand Prix.

The 2.04-mile temporary street circuit winds through downtown, passing such legendary landmarks as Camden Yards (home of the Orioles), and the Inner Harbor. In fact, the pit area is just a home run away from Camden Yards with the legendary B & O Warehouse forming the backdrop. The IndyCar fan area is nestled in between the warehouse and the concourse of the ballpark.

The straightaway between Turns 2 and 3 runs parallel to the Inner Harbor while a part of the track intersects with the B & O rail track. That section had to be repaved to insure a less bumpy ride, given the low ground clearance of the IndyCars.

The 12-turn course should provide lots of action with plenty of passing opportunities, especially at Turn 1, a tight right-hander. Turn 1 also has the potential to create accidents, which could lead to plenty of caution laps and could open up interesting pit strategies.

Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay summed up the potential for accidents at Turn 1.

“Getting 28 cars into that corner is tough,” Hunter-Reay said. “No matter how well-behaved we go into

A group of cars heads up track in Baltimore.

it, you still have to get in there with all the bumps. With these cars, the brakes lock, it’s going to be tough. But we’re enjoying this track a lot.”

Qualifying produced its share of thrills Saturday afternoon. IndyCar championship point leader Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, spun during the first round of qualifying. However, the spin didn’t hurt the Scot as he made the top six to move into the final round of time trials. Franchitti, who has a 26-point lead over Will Power of Team Penske, ended up fourth on the grid.

More importantly, Franchitti will be starting behind Power _ who took pole position from Graham Rahal on his last run with no time left in the session. It was the seventh pole for the Australian. Rahal will start beside Power, while Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe will start from the third spot.

The track’s bumpy nature wasn’t lost on Rahal, son of the 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.

“Certainly, (it) feels like this is just a great circuit. It’s tough, and demanding,” Rahal said. “The concrete parts of it, it’s bumpy as can be. But it’s a great place. Certainly, I love driving here. It is easy to make mistakes here, but qualifying kind of worked out for us.”

Rahal echoed Hunter-Reay’s concerns about the first turn and underscored the importance of qualifying well.

“There is a huge premium to start on the front row,” Rahal said. “You cannot fit two cars at a time at Turn 1 and it should provide for some exciting racing.”

Asked to compare the track with the other street circuits in the series like Long Beach and Toronto, Rahal said, “The bumps feel similar to Sao Paolo (Brazil). The section from Turn 4 on is great. And the pavement they put down on Thursday, I don’t think any of us thought would hold. So far it has.

“The bumps on Pratt are really bad. Everywhere else, it’s a great facility. It’s a great track and asks everything and more from you for every lap.”

After years of planning and months of preparation, the city’s first grand prix came to life Friday when the teams began to practice. However, last weekend’s Hurricane Irene uprooted the catch fence in a few areas and the ensuing repair work delayed the start of Friday’s practice by four hours. While Thursday and Friday saw teething traffic troubles, police and the organizers seemed to have taken control of it Saturday as traffic went around the track without much trouble.

Despite the minor snags, fan support for the race has been high judging by the crowd for qualifying. Saturday’s session saw almost completely full grandstands as fans were curious and enthusiastic about the race. Even though most fans were more knowledgeable about NASCAR, they seemed to enjoy the sights and sounds of IndyCars and the American Le Mans Series sports cars.

Scott Habicht, from Elkridge, Md., was typical of the fans on-site. Habicht, who sported a 2001 Indy 500 t-shirt, is a NASCAR fan but has been clamoring to see any form of racing on the streets of Baltimore.

“Having a motorsports event in Baltimore is very interesting,” Habicht said. “Even though I am a NASCAR fan, I love auto racing and wanted to see any form racing on the streets here.” Habicht said he wanted to see how the drivers navigate this tough and bumpy course.

For out-of-town visitors, the neighborhood features plenty of options for restaurants and bars with the Little Italy section of Baltimore just a few blocks away. And with the track’s proximity to the Orioles’ and Ravens’ stadiums, Pickles Restaurant was emerging as a popular watering hole.

| , RacinToday.com Saturday, September 3 2011
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