Power leads into renewed Baltimore

"There are going to be more challenges ahead, but try to keep an open mind as the weekend unfolds and the Grand Prix of Baltimore tries to take advantage of something very rare -- a second chance to make a good first impression."
-- Baltimore Sun, Aug. 30, 2012

BALTIMORE -- Appearances were deceiving at the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix.

On the surface, the event staged on Labor Day weekend 2011 was a success. The streets of the Inner Harbor district winding around Oriole Park at Camden Yards were lined with fans who enjoyed an entertaining race won by Team Penske's Will Power.

But as is often the case in first-year street racing events introduced with great fanfare, the dollars and sense came up short after the engines fell silent.

Tax bills went unpaid and vendors and local businesses claimed the windfall wasn't all that they were promised. The Baltimore Grand Prix turned into a political hot potato, a situation that intensified when the original promoters bowed out and the replacement group failed to keep what remained of the positive momentum from the inaugural event.

INDYCAR couldn't afford to have another race on its 16-race schedule in jeopardy, so it turned to its go-to guy: Michael Andretti, whose Andretti Sports Management firm already stepped in this year to help the Izod IndyCar Series save face by reviving and promoting a race at the Milwaukee Mile.

Baltimore, as an event with no built-in infrastructure and the additional hassles that come with using public roads as part of the race track, was a much bigger challenge for Andretti and his group.

But as at Milwaukee, he's going in with realistic expectations and hopes to stabilize the event to prepare it for future growth.

"It's been a headache for us to do it, but it's worth the headache because it means a lot to the series," Andretti said. "Last year, Baltimore amazed everybody and I got involved because it would not have been good for the series if we lost it.

"It's not one of those deals we're getting rich on," he added. "But we love doing it and I'm doing whatever I can to help the series."

As the Baltimore Grand Prix is getting a second chance, defending race winner Power has his third chance in as many years to win the overall IndyCar Series championship.

Power lost out in heartbreaking fashion to Dario Franchitti the past two years, but this year his closest competition comes from Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay (36 points back), Penske Racing teammate Helio Castroneves (41 back) and Target Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon (54 back).

If Power dominates from the pole at Baltimore like he did last year, Hunter-Reay will need to finish third or better to take the title fight into the final race at Auto Club Speedway.

Power hasn't won a race over the past four months, but he hasn't gotten discouraged when things haven't gone his way.

"I feel like I'm a lot more relaxed about things this year and I'm taking it one race at a time," he said. "I've learned not to worry about the things that are out of our control and just focus on the things that we can have an influence on."

Hunter-Reay inadvertently found himself at the center of attention last Sunday at Sonoma after getting punted out of third place in the closing laps by Alex Tagliani.

It was the second poor finish in a row for Hunter-Reay, who held the championship lead just two races ago. He admitted that he still harbors a grudge at Tagliani despite the Canadian's barrage of apologies.

"It's frustrating to have had two races without the finish the DHL/Sun Drop team deserves, but we're going all-out to win the last two races," Hunter-Reay said. "In my mind, the championship is wide open, and we're focused on one thing: winning. I'm going to push hard and treat every lap like a qualifying lap."

The Baltimore weekend quite literally got off to a bumpy start when the hour-long first IndyCar Series practice session was brought to an end 21 minutes early.

Seemingly minor changes made to the track quickly proved to be a problem as several cars were launched into the air on an especially bumpy section of the back straight where the track crosses a light rail line.

A chicane used to slow the cars in that portion of the circuit was removed from this year's track layout, but just a handful of practice laps were enough to convince INDYCAR race director Beaux Barfield that it needed to be rebuilt overnight. A temporary solution will be used for the Friday afternoon practice session.

"Based on the drivers' feedback, I think it's appropriate to take these drastic measures," Barfield said.

Barfield noted that in 2011, several IndyCar drivers tried experimental full-speed runs on the straight without going through the chicane and encouraged its removal for this year. Grinding and/or repaving the area around the tracks could solve the problem, but the return of the chicane was considered the best option.

IndyCar Series drivers were supportive of the series and its attempt to create a safe and raceable circuit.

"The track is doing its best to create passing opportunities and we're just working around it," Hunter-Reay said. "But we're going to have to add something or do something."

Several teams suffered chassis damage after running five laps or fewer, and Charlie Kimball's Novo Nordisk Ganassi Racing crew reported a cracked Honda engine block.

"It's drivable, but it's not ideal for sure," said Sonoma winner Ryan Briscoe. "It wasn't too much of a problem for me, but it sounds like some cars were jumping more than others. A lot of them have torn up the bottoms of their cars. Oriol Servia said it was undrivable and he's got a headache."