MCS In The News:
Baltimore Fixes its Streets for 175 M.P.H Speed Limit

New York Times
Published: August 21, 2011

LONG before a snarling pack of Indy cars makes mad dashes up to 175 miles an hour down Pratt Street, a thoroughfare soon to become a straightaway, Martyn Thake will have sweated a lot of details. Consider the lowly manhole cover.

Mr. Thake, the director of operations for the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix on Labor Day weekend, says the racecars have such potent ground effects – the aerodynamics that make them adhere to the track at high speeds – that they could pull off unattached manhole covers as the cars whiz past.

“They’d become 200-pound Frisbees,” Mr. Thake said of the covers during a recent interview in his fourth-floor office at the B & O Warehouse, near what is to become the pit lane.

So, before racing begins, Mr. Thake and a large support crew will make sure that about 200 manhole covers are welded or bolted down along the two-mile temporary racetrack, comprising a network of city streets built to transport much slower cars and trucks.

Five races are to be held Sept. 2-4 in Baltimore, including a sports-car race for the American Le Mans Series and the feature event, the Baltimore Grand Prix for Indy cars, the low-slung, open-wheel rockets driven by stars like Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves.

The Baltimore Grand Prix is one of five races on the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series schedule that are to be held on temporary street courses, compared with ovals like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or road courses like the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

“We have had such a good track record with street courses,” said Brian Barnhart, the president for competition and racing operations of the series.

“You take the good that you have learned from places like Long Beach and Toronto, and apply it to a setting like the Inner Harbor, and it has tremendous potential to become a successful event on the schedule.”

The 12-turn track in Baltimore, designed by Mr. Thake to pass such picturesque attractions as the Harborplace retail complex and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, is unique. It is the only street course in the series to be run in the heart of a nearly 300-year-old Northeast city. (The Toronto race is at Exhibition Place, outside the central city.)

The Indy-car race in Baltimore on Sept. 4 will last about two hours, but the project has been three years in the making; in 2008, city officials contacted Mr. Thake to design a course and see it through. He lived in a hotel for two weeks a month before moving to Baltimore, from Colorado, last October. Challenges abounded.

“Basically, we’re building a city within a city,” said Mr. Thake, a gregarious Briton who is the principal of Motorsports Consulting Services, a company that designs and builds racetracks.

About 90 percent of the Baltimore course, about half concrete and half asphalt, has been repaved, said Khalil Zaied, director of the city’s department of transportation. The asphalt required for a race is denser, he said, and the concrete was replaced slab by slab.

“People miss the point sometimes that these are streets we had scheduled for work, anyway,” Mr. Zaied said.

Composing a challenging and safe (not to mention telegenic) racetrack from existing streets was only the first part of the process, said Mr. Thake, who has designed courses for 30 years. He had recent technology at his fingertips.

“I utilized Google Earth, which is the greatest thing ever invented,” he said.

A seven-block stretch of Pratt Street forms the main straightaway, at the end of which the cars will achieve their top speeds before making a hard right at Harborplace and the U.S.S. Constellation, racing south to a hairpin turn, then turning left onto West Conway Street.

“The streets are nice and wide here, which is good,” Mr. Thake said.

Still, Pratt Street, which has a slight decline, underwent grinding, he said, to lower the street’s crown so there would be less chance the low-riding cars would bottom out – scraping their bellies on the pavement. Intersections were slightly graded, to conform better with pavement on either side.

Sets of light-rail tracks that cross West Conway – usually bringing fans to Orioles games – will be temporarily paved over with five inches of asphalt days before the races to provide an entrance to the pit lane and the part of the track that wraps around the ballpark.

Until about a year ago, the pit lane was planned for the west side of the ballpark, and the track was to be a half-mile longer. But there was no commercial or competitive advantage to a track 2.5 miles long, so Mr. Thake got out his eraser. “It’s very important people don’t get bored,” he said.

Of lesser concern were the cars themselves. Indy cars are built to break apart on contact with walls or each other, diffusing energy, but they have been developed to take a pounding on street courses, said Mr. Barnhart, the IndyCar series executive. Race teams began getting their setups for the race prepared as long as a year ago.

“The engineers started working on it as soon as the course was announced,” James Hinchcliffe, a rookie driver in the IndyCar Series, said in an interview.

The 45-day transformation of a congested urban area into a facility with 12 grandstands, along with hospitality suites for 35,000 reserved-ticket holders, was trickier. The IndyCar Series needed 600,000 square feet for a garage for haulers and other vehicles.

Mr. Thake found space inside the Baltimore Convention Center. The hitch: to satisfy fire codes, the vehicles could have no more than a quarter-tank of fuel while parked there, he said.

The races were originally scheduled for this month, but were moved to Labor Day weekend, in part, Mr. Thake said, because it was an especially light weekend for tourism. Blame Derek Jeter for that.

The Yankees are to play five games in four days at Camden Yards the weekend before the Grand Prix. The Baltimore Ravens football team is playing a preseason game at the adjacent M & T Bank Stadium on Aug. 25.

Construction will be well under way. To create slightly wider lanes and better sight lines for the drivers, many of the 2,300 Jersey barriers, each weighing 9,000 pounds, will be placed atop curbs instead of inside them.

By the time Baltimoreans return to work the Tuesday after the race, the dismantling will have already begun. Mr. Thake said that job was supposed to take 30 days. But the bustling old neighborhood will be better off, he said.

“You’re going to end up with the smoothest streets in Baltimore,” he said, smiling.