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Friday, August 30, 2013
Baltimore storylines abound

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- The early years often determine the long-term viability of downtown street races, so Year No. 3 is critical for the Baltimore Grand Prix.

The action-packed doubleheader weekend featuring the American Le Mans Series and the IZOD IndyCar Series had a strong debut in 2011 with big, enthusiastic crowds, but left a trail of unpaid creditors that left the fate of the event very much in question. Michael Andretti's Andretti Sports Marketing firm stepped up just 100 days before the 2012 date to save the event, but local organizer Race On LLC still faces serious challenges if the Grand Prix is to continue beyond this year.

Helio Castroneves
IndyCar Series points leader Helio Castroneves is taking things in stride heading into Baltimore.

The 2012 event brought in fewer spectators and didn't make a profit, but ASM and Race On were able to stabilize the event and were confident enough to continue for another year. But dollars and cents aren't the only hurdles confronting the BGP.

INDYCAR hopes to end its 2014 season around Labor Day weekend -- the traditional date for the Baltimore race -- and BGP organizers are struggling to find an August slot that fits the schedules of the local professional sports teams and the city's convention center.

"It's been very, very challenging," Baltimore Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos told the Baltimore Sun. "We have to take into consideration the Orioles' schedule, the Ravens and what works for IndyCar, which leaves very few dates, if any."

The addition of a college football game between Ohio State and Navy at M&T Bank Stadium complicates issues even further. And even if the promoters can find a date to suit the IndyCar Series and the local powers that be, the participation of the unified United Sports Car Racing championship is very much in doubt. The USCR hasn't finalized its 2014 schedule, and with France family tracks such as Kansas Speedway heavily favored to host sports car events, Baltimore is very much on the bubble.

Teaming Indy cars with sports cars has worked well for many venues for the past few years, so it would be a shame to see the doubleheader element disappear, especially with American sports car racing expected to generate a considerable amount of additional interest in 2014 and beyond.

In the meantime, drivers Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr and Pickett Racing look to continue their domination of the ALMS P1 category when they race on Saturday afternoon (live coverage streamed on ESPN3 at 3:30 p.m. ET; highlights broadcast 12 p.m. Sunday on ABC). The P2 and GT categories are much more up for grabs, with the production-car themed GT class likely to produce the best race of the weekend.

Here are the IndyCar storylines to follow this weekend:

•  IndyCar Series officials are hoping for a less contentious result than the one they helped create last weekend at Sonoma Raceway. People are still talking about Scott Dixon's ill-fated final pit stop and the subsequent penalty that dropped him from leading the race to a 15th-place finish that may have done serious damage to his championship hopes.

The fact that the IndyCar community is still buzzing suggests that despite their denials, the Penske and Ganassi Indy car teams really do have a deep-seated, bitter rivalry. That, or Indy car racing fans just have a need to complain about anything …

Had Dixon won at Sonoma, he would have closed the gap on championship leader Helio Castroneves to within 10 points. Instead, after hitting one of eventual Sonoma race winner Will Power's Penske crew members to incur the controversial penalty, Dixon arrives in Baltimore 39 points in arrears.

Scott Dixon
Scott Dixon has major ground to make up in the title battle after last week's setback.

"It's still achievable," Dixon said in the aftermath of Sonoma. "It's 39 points; Sonoma could have been a big chunk of that, but it is what it is and you can't change it now. We'll just have to race hard and try to beat them fair and square."

Castroneves has never been especially competitive on the tight Baltimore street course; he finished 10th and 17th the past two years, compared to top-5 results both years for Dixon.

"Baltimore has been very tough, but I like it when it's tough because you change your luck around," Castroneves said. "It's true we haven't had great results last season or the year before in Baltimore but I certainly think we can turn it around and have a good finish on Sunday."

With only four races remaining, time is running out for Ryan Hunter-Reay to defend his IndyCar Series championship. A tactical victory at Baltimore was the psychological turning point in Hunter-Reay's eventual triumph in the title sweepstakes over Power.

Hunter-Reay is 62 points behind Castroneves. Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti is the only other driver within 70 points of the championship leader.

"This weekend last year is where, I think, I won the championship, and it's another pivotal weekend for our championship race for 2013," Hunter-Reay said. "We've got a points gap to close, and this is a huge opportunity for us prior to heading to a double race weekend at Houston."

•  Tony Kanaan on Sunday will set a modern-era record by starting his 212th consecutive Indy car race. Kanaan has started every IRL or IndyCar sanctioned race since he joined that series in 2003.

Making the "Iron Man" storyline more interesting, the man Kanaan will pass on the consecutive start streak is none other than his team owner, Jimmy Vasser.

"Hopefully Jimmy won't take me out of the car before I get a chance to break the record," Kanaan joked.

Actually, Kanaan had what was potentially a very serious accident in practice for the 2011 race. His car's brakes failed at the end of a long straight and he launched his car off of Castroneves' car to reduce the severity of the impact.

Kanaan bounced back to finish third in the race, later the same day.

"He's the right guy to do it," Vasser said. "He's been driving through injuries, not only this year, but many times through the course of this streak. It's kind of ironic that he's in the team and driving for us and I think it's a pretty cool thing. And we're doing it in Baltimore, where the real Iron Man, Cal Ripken, really built the house.

"It just means primarily you're able to keep a job for that many years, which is hard to do," he added. "That's a tough feat in itself."

•  Oriol Servia returns to Panther Racing's No. 4 entry to finish out the final four races of the season. Servia and Ryan Briscoe have shared the seat since the team fired JR Hildebrand after the Indianapolis 500.

One newcomer joins the field this weekend: Indy Lights graduate Stefan Wilson will join his older brother Justin in the Dale Coyne Racing lineup.

Although he is stepping into a race-winning car (Mike Conway took victory in a DCR entry at Detroit earlier this year), it promises to be a tough baptism for the younger Wilson, who got about 30 laps of testing in a Dallara DW12 at Barber Motorsports Park in March.

The Unser brothers (Bobby and Al) were Indy car racing mainstays throughout the 1960s and '70s and rank fourth (Al with 39 wins) and fifth (Bobby with 35) on the all-time race victory list.

It is believed this is the first time two brothers will compete in the same Indy car race since Michael and Jeff Andretti ran in the CART series in the early 1990s, most recently at Phoenix International Raceway in 1994.