With St. Pete IRL-bound and Miami
now gone, Champ Car’s ticket to stick its nose deep into NASCAR
country may lie with another familiar venue: Savannah Harbor.
turn Savannah road course An aerial view
of the track on Hutchinson Island
View from the island back at downtown Savannah
Start of 1997 CART Indy Lights race
Mauricio Gugelmin drives his Hollywood Champ Car down pit lane
in 1997 Turn 1 is a cross between an oval and a road course
Considering NASCAR’s confirmed venture into Mexico City
in the form of a Busch race in 2005, and their rumored interest in
eventually adding Canadian events in the near future, it seems only
fit for Champ Car to, in the finest David against Goliath way,
strengthen its presence inside the France family’s Holy Land: the
As proved by the bureaucratic epopee that Miami’s Grand Prix
Americas turned out to be, this sort of classy provocation is far from
an easy task. But in case it truly wants to reach the Southern fans,
Champ Car may have a relatively easy alternative to battling lawsuits
several inches thick.
From 1908 to 1910, the city of Savannah, Georgia, held some of the
first road racing ever in the United States, in what was deemed back
then the “Grand Prize of America”. In 1911, the Georgian town’s
streets hosted the most prestigious race in American motorsports: the
Vanderbilt Cup, which is what the winner of the Champ Car World Series
title gets each year.
Then, for almost nine decades, this piece of motorsports history
seemed bound to fade into oblivion.
Fast forward to 1997. After almost four years of careful planning, a
group of local promoters puts together a partnership with CART. The
three-year contract will see the Indy Lights series race into the
Savannah Harbor temporary street course through the ’99 season.
Through painstaking preparations, Savannah’s promoters manage to have
the facilities, located on Hutchinson Island across the river from the city’s
historic downtown, ready just before the scheduled date of May 18th,
1997. Before of a race day crowd of over 30,000 - rather impressive
for a feeder series event - Helio Castroneves won the inaugural Dixie
Crystal Grand Prix.
The city’s officials and the community deemed the race a success. But
as we have seen happen too often in racing, a dissatisfied supplier
didn’t want to give Savannah’s promoters, joined in a company called
Colonial Motorsports, a reasonable time frame to make the event
profitable. The resulting lawsuit threw Colonial into Chapter 11, and
all its contracts - including the one with CART - were dissolved.
As of now, Savannah is at risk of living through perhaps another 90
years of racing absence, a possibility that disheartens Southern
open-wheel enthusiasts, living in starvation inside such a NASCARized
environment. Dissatisfaction, we have also often witnessed, is usually
a catalyst of change.
One of Savannah’s staunchest supporters is Champ Car’s own Dr. Rick
Timms, the Safety Team’s General Surgeon. A local resident, Dr. Timms
was involved in the promotion of the Indy Lights GP. He believes the
1.965-mile temporary street course across the Savannah River deserves
a closer look by the country’s major road racing series: “It’s a crime
to see such a great, well-located facility not being considered
anymore,” he thinks.
Savannah’s appeal as a racing venue is not limited to its Southern
location. Besides being a market of over 250,000 people itself, the
city is headquarters to Gulfstream, an active Champ Car sponsor, and
sugar company Dixie Crystal, backer of the original Lights race. A map
of Savannah’s surroundings reads like a section of the Nextel Cup
schedule: Daytona, Atlanta and Darlington all fall within a 4-hour
During the G8 Summit at Sea Island last June, Hutchinson Island’s
Trade Center served as headquarters for the world media. As a popular
festival destination - Dr. Timms estimates St. Patrick Day’s crowds of
hundreds of thousands - the hotels and infrastructure of the city are
used to dealing with large events.
But so much for the rationales. On-track action is what counts for the
fans, and the Harbor’s circuit lends itself for some exciting racing.
The 10-turn layout is wide and has at least two clear passing points -
it was praised by Mark Blundell and Big Mo Gugelmin during a private
PacWest test back in ’97.
Putting on a great show in the heart of Dixie would certainly consist
of a significant display of strength by Champ Car. Given its strategic
geo-economic position, urban environment and rich heritage, the
Savannah Harbor circuit might make too much sense as a future Champ
Car World Series
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