Why Champ Car needs to look at Savannah

   by Cássio Côrtes
September 3, 2004

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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.

1.965-mile 10 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 Southeast.

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 driving radius.

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 venue.

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