Old Bay slides off the rim of my perfectly mixed Bloody Mary and onto my right hand as the Technicolor blur of Indy cars makes its first full-speed pass down Pratt Street past the Marriott at Camden Yards.
Maybe it’s the thunderous wail of 650-horsepower Honda V-8s reverberating off the surrounding skyscrapers that dislodges my garnish. Or maybe I’m just startled.
Whatever the case, the Izod INDYCAR Series Grand Prix of Baltimore has caught my attention.
“I think everyone [loves] the weekend simply because [it’s] such a big crowd with a great atmosphere,” says 2011 race champion Will Power, of Team Penske. “There’s plenty for fans to do throughout and, obviously, a very fun track to drive.”
The Grand Prix is like nothing Baltimore had seen before. For the 75,000 in attendance, it’s an ethanol-fueled, tire-burning assault on the senses featuring science, speed, and spectacle. Not since Johnny Unitas helmed the old Baltimore Colts has the city experienced this much horsepower.
The pre-race revving of the engines alone can be heard from miles down I-95.
“It’s really exciting, especially having just moved up here from Blacksburg,” says spectator Jason Dress.
“To have something that [is] inaugural in Baltimore and not normally in this area [is] a thrill. I [can] see on the faces of everyone walking around that they’re excited to have it here.”
During the event, downtown Baltimore is transformed into a racetrack. Starting on Pratt Street, the two-mile circuit cuts straight through the city center. Blasting past Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, the course features 12 turns, including a hairpin obstacle at the corner of Lee and Light streets. Speeds top 175 mph during the 75-lap race.
“It’s actually quite a technical circuit because there’s such a variety of corners,” Power, an Australian, says.
“You have some very high-speed corners that [are] surrounded by walls, which is always kind of daunting because you can’t make a mistake. All in all, I think the track itself [is] good. I think it’s good for the crowd and it’s in the middle of an awesome city.”
An Indy car is powered by a 3.5-liter, 100-percent-ethanol-fueled engine that’s capable of pushing speeds of over 220 mph. The open-wheeled racers are constructed out of carbon fiber and other composites and ride on a Dallara chassis.
Slick Firestone tires and massive wings keep the cars on the road while steel (road course) or carbon fiber (oval) brakes are employed for stopping. Each car weighs about 1,600 pounds, roughly the same as a Smart Car.
Fans flank both sides of the circuit, protected by rock-solid, race-grade barriers and industrial-strength chain-link fences.
(The defensive works are tested on the morning of the race when former series champion Tony Kanaan suffers brake failure and goes airborne, flying over three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Dancing with the Stars champion Hélio Castroneves’ car after striking the back of his fellow Brazilian’s vehicle. Both walk away and compete in the race, with Kanaan finishing third and Castroneves 17th.)
Standing in the Marriott’s courtyard, the tension builds as the rumble of engines draws closer and closer. Each pass is like being on the sidelines while Ray Lewis blows up an opposing ball carrier (preferably a Pittsburgh Steeler) directly in front of you, only with more force.
Power averages 75 mph during the race. He leads for 70 laps, finishing in 2:02:19, a full 10 seconds ahead of Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling and very satisfying,” Power says.
“That was as hard as I [have] worked to win a race all season, so to win it [is] really a great feeling. One of my best wins of the year. That’s the most fun podium I've been a part of, with the massive amounts of people.”
The Grand Prix is the centerpiece of an entire week of festivities, which includes an American Lemans (endurance-car) race, a 5K on the track, and a slew of family-friendly activities. So if you feel the need for speed later this summer, you know where to find it.
The 2012 Grand Prix of Baltimore takes place August 31-September 2 in downtown Charm City. For more information, visit 2012baltimoregrandprix.com.