Baltimore year three was wild, wacky, and yet again memorable

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In only three years, the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT has established itself on the best place on the IndyCar calendar to enjoy a healthy helping of contact, controversy, and crab cakes.

Its place is not yet secured for 2014 despite all indications from the series and race promoters Andretti Sports Marketing, that they’re working to find a suitable date (early to mid-August seems the likely landing point).

Baltimore feels a bit like the red-headed step child among IndyCar street circuits. It doesn’t have Long Beach’s legacy, St. Petersburg’s opening-event buzz, Detroit’s Roger Penske backing, or Toronto’s Canadian selling point.

What it does have, in spurts, is talking and selling points. From the infamous Pratt Street chicane, to the train tracks, to a gorgeous backdrop at Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, and the nature of the track itself, the passing – and crashing – opportunities are endless. It’s also in a good market for sponsors, as there aren’t a ton of races on the East Coast.

Contrast Sunday’s race with the one at Mid-Ohio about a month ago. The 90 laps on the permanent road course there went caution-free and featured relatively minimal passing, and came down largely to pit strategies and ultimately a late move by Charlie Kimball over Simon Pagenaud.

Sunday at Baltimore was a wrecking free-for-all that ignited tempers, stirred rivalries and created controversies. And has got people talking.

Mid-Ohio was a purer race, while Baltimore was certainly entertaining when it was green. And to be fair to Baltimore, it wasn’t the race with the most cautions this year (7 occurred at Brazil and Sonoma) and was also down from 9 last year to 6 this Sunday, even if it at times it seemed like the cautions wouldn’t stop. The one thing that goes against it was the stretch from Laps 40 to 65, the near constant string of cautions that dropped the average speed below 68 mph.

Which race will you remember more? For me, I’d amend the line from “Wedding Crashers” to “Crab cakes and contact – that’s what Maryland does!”

Baltimore almost seems IndyCar’s street circuit version of a cage match. You have enough evidence now to know that this race is going to be a crash-fest. You know you’ll get some good views of the city and skyline. You know you’ll get a surprise podium – Sam Schmidt’s, Sarah Fisher’s and Jay Penske’s teams finished in the top three spots on Sunday – and that variety is invariably more interesting than yet another Penske-Ganassi podium sweep.

But it’s not like the Penske-Ganassi subplot wasn’t evident either. It was big. It was controversial. It was the rivalry back on the front burner with the latest Scott Dixon-Will Power dust-up. It was probably the biggest talking point coming out of the weekend.

It’s for all those reasons I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Grand Prix of Baltimore. The hate is only for all the contact – if the race could have been just a little cleaner, not had that second Turn 1 pileup and a third one in Turn 3, for instance – I think it would have been an even better race.

But man there’s a lot to love, if you actually make the effort to go. You can tell the effort the ASM team puts into the event. Last year they needed to resuscitate the race from a shoddy first-year promoter, but this year they made some improvements. On the corporate side, adding the “Chicane Suites” at the track’s most notorious corner was a great way to show the partners of the event the most discussed part of the track.

As for the paddock layout, it was much improved this year with a Family Fun Zone – a la its sister event in Milwaukee – put in immediately east of the IndyCar paddock and in the air-conditioned Baltimore Convention Center, was a great thing to attract the next generation of IndyCar fans. Speaking as the youngest full-time member of the IndyCar media corps, I can’t express how pivotal it is to get the younger crowd, especially those who live outside of Indianapolis, interested in IndyCar racing.

A race like Baltimore may not have the cache, the cleanliness or the glory of some of the other events on the calendar. But damn if this isn’t IndyCar’s version of the crazy uncle you can’t wait to see every year just to see what unexpected thing will happen next.

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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.