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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It is/ Making an impact where it counts with the right product

by Gordon Kirby
I've written at length in this space about the need for motor racing in America to adopt some forward-looking 'green' rules. In the new economic world in which we now live and with all the car companies touting their latest 'green' products, a move to some novel engine or otherwise 'green' formula looks not only wise but inevitable. The first sanctioning body to get this move right surely will be the most successful racing organization of the twenty-first century and those who can't make the change will fade slowly, decade by decade, into obscurity.

But there's another thing that the really sharp sanctioning body of the twenty-first century should put on its plate of goals to achieve. And that is making a major international race take place somewhere in the northeastern USA where the aforementioned 'green' formula would be on display and properly promoted and marketed, too.

As I've written in this space, I believe that for motor racing to succeed in the future it must recreate an image of 'improving the breed'. The sport must be on the cutting edge of technology, not merely a show or piece of entertainment. To excite or interest a wide-ranging group of people--an entirely different segment of the public than the NASCAR market--who have been largely forgotten and ignored by Indy and road racing's bosses, the sport surely must go in this direction and it needs to promote and market itself by establishing a big event somewhere in the northeast as close to New York City as possible.

Many people have tried to create a New York Grand Prix. In the eighties and nineties Philip Morris spent millions of dollars in a frustrating attempt to manufacture a Manhattan street race for F1 or Indy cars. More recently, NASCAR and ISC spent a pile of money with equal lack of success trying to build a speedway on Staten Island. As we all know cars and racing are very tough sells in New York both culturally and politically.

Over the years there have also been attempts to create street races in other northeastern cities, most notably Boston and Philadelphia. A few years ago the ALMS series raced fleetingly at a stadium-cum-street race in Washington, DC, no less, and of course between 1984-'91, CART tried to transform the Meadowlands' grey parking lots into a pair of equally dreadful racetracks. The most successful attempts to bring racing close to New York City were the Vanderbilt Cup revival races run at Roosevelt Raceway in Long Island back in 1936 and '37, and Bridgehampton's brief reign through the sixties as an international road racing circuit.

It's fair to say that in today's economic and political climate the chances of making a street race happen in any major northeastern city, let alone New York, is zero. So too is the possibility of building a superspeedway or first-class professional road racing course anywhere in the region. New Hampshire Motor Speedway, now owned by Bruton Smith, was built twenty years ago by Bob Bahre and his late brother Dick and is likely to be the last modern racetrack constructed north and east of New York City.

Yet it cannot be underestimated how big the pool is of F1, sports car and road racing fans across the northeast. They include a huge number of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi, Ferrari and Maserati drivers. For many years quite a few of these folks flew or drove up to Montreal for the Canadian GP but they now have no major race to appeal to them.

Formula 1 raced somewhere in the northeastern quadrant of the continent for 48 years but has now left the region, if not the USA and Canada, for good. Just to review: Watkins Glen hosted the United States GP for twenty years from 1961 through '80 before the race carpetbagged its way through Long Beach, Las Vegas, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix and finally Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Mosport, near Toronto, ran the Canadian GP from 1967-'77 alternating with St Jovite in Quebec in 1968 and '70 before Montreal enjoyed its own twenty year run hosting the Canadian GP at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve from 1978-2008.

All these races were in the northeastern corner of the continent so there was a rich tradition of big-time road racing across the region. The Glen also ran the Can-Am/F5000/Six Hours weekend through the sixties and seventies adding to the great variety of major road races throughout the northeast. But today, all these events have vanished and The Glen has become a NASCAR stronghold with lesser races for IRL and Grand-Am cars. But the fine old road course has lost its connection to international road racing and the urban centers of the northeast.

Road racing survives in the northeast at Lime Rock in rural Connecticut. It's a beautiful little track and Skip Barber has done a great job of developing Lime Rock and keeping the place in business. These days the track's big weekends are the ALMS in July, NASCAR Northeast in August and historic racing on Labor Day weekend. But Lime Rock is not the place to put on an absolutely top-class motor race like I'm suggesting.

Over the years CART, or Champ Car, tried and abandoned the northeast from Pocono, Watkins Glen and New Hampshire to Sanair, Montreal and St. Jovite in Quebec. And let's not forget the massive enthusiasm for road racing--formula cars in particular--in Quebec at St. Jovite and Montreal and including Three Rivers and other here-and-gone street races like Quebec City and St. Felicien.

Street races have been tried and failed at many venues across the United States, including Cleveland, Denver, San Jose, Houston in two forms, ditto Las Vegas and Miami, plus the aforementioned Meadowlands, San Antonio, New Orleans, Columbus, Del Mar, West Palm Beach and Tampa! The list of street racing survivors is much shorter, including only Long Beach, Toronto, Three Rivers and St. Petersburg.

The message is it's very difficult to create a quality street race and develop it into a classic. Despite many pretenders, Monaco remains the worldwide class of the street racing field, followed by Melbourne and Surfers Paradise in Australia and Long Beach, which has been around for three and half decades, and Toronto, which has twenty years of history and hopefully will be revived in good form this year.

All this demonstrates that it would take an audaciously confident and powerfully competent leader to create a classic northeastern street race as well as the right formula to build the event into a roaring success. But sadly, American motor sport outside NASCAR or the NHRA has always been devoid of such talent.

So the question is does anyone have the intellect and cajones to launch an intriguing new 'green' formula and find a way to schedule one of its races at either Watkins Glen or Montreal which appear to be the only facilities anywhere in the northeast capable of staging such an event.

Forgive me for ruminating about what is probably an entirely fanciful idea, but it's sad to be forced to admit that our sport lacks both the creative spark and audacious spirit that drove it for so many years. I wish some bright spark would appear on the scene and prove me wrong.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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