So many circuits have cropped up in the last decade or two, that books focusing specifically on them are quickly obsolete.
And when one looks at the North and South American motorsport landscape – particularly the now-defunct CART and ChampCar Series’ – there were a host of fantastic venues visited around the world by these championship series over the last two decades.
With the IZOD IndyCar Series now being the sole top-flight open-wheel championship in the United States, our IndyCar correspondent Matt Lennon writes his ‘Top 10’ feature, profiling some of the best circuits that are now tragically missing from the championship calendar…
10: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Located on the site of the former Jacarepagua circuit – which played host to ten Formula 1 Grands Prix – was a 1.86-mile trapezoid-shaped super-speedway that hosted the CART World Series between 1996 and 2000.
Named the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway, its namesake participated in the inaugural event, finishing eleventh, while former F1 driver Mark Blundell emerged from an horrific crash early in the race.
With a history dating back to 1978, either the speedway or the road course are unlikely to ever see serious racing action again, as it has been earmarked for demolition to make way for an Olympic facility for use in the lead-up to and duration of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Lap Record: 0:38:565, Christian Fittipaldi (Newman Haas) – 1999 CART Series
9: The Raceway at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan
Again, what started as Formula 1 between 1982 and 1988 continued as CART and IndyCar from 1989 until 1992. The event then made its previously planned move to a temporary street circuit utilising the public roads of Belle Isle, the largest island park in the United States and remained an annual occurrence until 2001.
Few wouldn’t dispute that the 1997 race would not be the most exciting event held at this circuit, as Greg Moore started the final lap in third place, sensationally winning the race when both rivals in front of him – no less than former F1 drivers Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell – ran out of fuel on the final lap (below)!
Set among leafy streets with a variety of fast and slow corners. The race was eventually dropped as the series essentially outgrew the space available and the event proved problematic for fans, teams and drivers, with a lack of paved areas for fan-interaction activities.
Revived once again in 2007, the series returned twice more before the impact of the global financial crisis and the associated impact on Detroit’s motor manufacturing industry showed its ugly hand, forcing the cancellation of the event from 2009 onwards. Despite this, Roger Penske has not ruled out a return in the future.
Lap Record: 1:12:286, Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) – 2008 IndyCar Series
8: Nazareth Speedway, Pennsylvania
Speaking of Scott Dixon, the location for his maiden CART victory was at the Nazareth Speedway in 1999 – Scott’s 2nd career start.
Famous also for local products Mario, Michael and Marco Andretti, the speedway carves its roots from dirt track racing, which began as far back as 1910. Purchased by Roger Penske, a new paved speedway was built just to the south of the original dirt track, which now sits underneath a supermarket. Opening in 1987, the circuit was the first to feature a continuous dedicated lane for pit-lane entry and exit, with access to and from the main circuit taking place on the back stretch.
Purchased by ISC, the new owner decided to close the facility late in 2004. Currently, the circuit is barely visible, with all signage and grandstands having been dismantled and the circuit fenced off.
Although a new buyer may be able to resurrect professional motorsports here, the prospect seems unlikely and there is talk the site will soon become home to a multi-purpose indoor arena or a housing complex. What a shame.
Lap Record: 0:18:419, Patrick Carpentier (Forsythe Racing) – 1998 CART Series
7: Pacific Place, Vancouver, Canada
Always a hotbed of controversy and conjecture among residents and environmentalists, the Molson Indy began its life in Vancouver in the worst possible way, with track marshal Jean Patrick Hein tragically killed after inadvertently getting caught in the path of Willy T Ribbs while pushing another car out of harm’s way.
The first eight events were held on a very makeshift street circuit consisting of long straights with some fast corners, but most remembered for a very slow 180-degree right hander usually the scene of so many late dives up the inside by over-ambitious drivers frequently looking – but rarely succeeding – to gain track position.
A new street circuit, featuring more run off, better fan accessibility and a cleverly designed slow corner complex utilising a roundabout began service in 1998. The final race took place in 2004, and one wonders whether many residents miss it.
Lap Record: 1:01.755, Paul Tracy (Forsythe Racing) – 2004 CART Series
6: Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia
As an Australian, this event is near and dear to me, as I was privileged to have attended the first sixteen editions of this event. Internationally acclaimed as the benchmark for street circuit design, the task of transforming a busy residential and tourist destination into a precinct capable of servicing hundreds of thousands of people begins two months before the actual race weekend.
The list of winners over eighteen consecutive events reads like a who’s who of the elite of motorsport. Names such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi, Nigel Mansell and Sebastian Bourdais are among those who have experienced the view from the top step of the podium, with Bourdais being the only multiple-winner here.
Lap Record: 1:31:093, Graham Rahal (Newman/Haas/Lanigan) – 2007 Champ Cars
5: Burke Lakefront Airport, Cleveland, Ohio
In 1982, the first running of this event was the first ever to take place utilising runways of an operating airport, shut down only for the week of the race. In the days of FedEx series title sponsorship, a FedEx jet was often parked just off the race circuit for decorative purposes.
Extremely popular with fans for the wide spaces available for excellent viewing and frequent overtaking opportunities, the Cleveland circuit was less popular with drivers for the extremely bumpy ride afforded by the airport runways. These required painstaking maintenance to maintain a high standard of safety for high-speed racing and provided numerous headaches for engineers trying to find a suitable car balance.
Although a controversy erupted in 1999 with talk of converting the airport into an oval circuit for use by the Indy Racing League, an idea not well received by fans or government officials, such a development never went ahead. However, the race fell victim to the remerged Indycar series in 2008 and plans to revive it are ongoing but so far unsuccessful.
Lap Record: 0:58:473, Paul Tracy (Team KOOL Green) – 2002 CART FedEx World Series
4: Portland International Raceway, Portland, Oregon
The 1997 season was certainly the year for close finishes. Following Greg Moore’s last lap win in Detroit (see Detroit, above), the very next race in Portland saw Mark Blundell pipping Gil De Ferran and Raul Boesel to the win by 0.027 – 27 one thousandths of a second, the closest finish in the history of CART Racing to that point, and still the closest green-flag finish on a road course.
With a slow opening right-left chicane known as the Festival Curves, the remainder of the lap is taken at mid to high speed, gradually building to a fast, winding right-hand curve that makes up the back “straight”. With grass bordering the circuit for all but the start/finish straight, any cars running off-line almost always found themselves transformed into high-speed lawnmowers. Al Unser Jnr holds the record here for the longest time between victories, at ten years between his first and second win.
Lap Record: 0:57:597, Justin Wilson (RuSPORT) – 2005 Champ Car Series
3: Walt Disney World Speedway
Nicknamed “The Mickyard”, due to its location on the site of Walt Disney World in Florida, the speedway hosted the inaugural race of the Indy Racing League in 1996, won by Buzz Calkins. With its proximity to the expansive tourist-friendly facilities of the Disney complex, high-hopes were held for a long and fruitful association with American open-wheel racing.
However, three separate serious accidents in three years resulting in serious driver injuries, two of which occurred two weeks apart, along with complaints about parking for non-race attending theme park patrons forced a review of speedway practices.
After a few years solely as a testing facility, IRL officials were unable to reach an agreement with WDW speedway management for a 2001 race date. Negotiations quietly dissolved, and the speedway has not hosted a professional race since. Today, “The Mickyard”, is used as the site for the Richard Petty Driving Experience, an organisation allowing the general public to drive authentic NASCAR machines, or ride with a professional driver.
Lap Record: 0:19:847, Buddy Lazier (Hemelgarn Racing) – 1996 IRL Series
2: Laguna Seca, Monterrey, California
Nestled in the dusty hills of Monterrey, north of Los Angeles, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was once considered as a potential home for Formula 1 upon its exit from Detroit (the race eventually went to Phoenix for a short-lived stint).
Most famous for the “corkscrew” corner – a left-right chicane with a blind crest and apex due to its uphill approach, along with a steep drop in elevation – makes for one of the world’s foremost challenges for racing drivers.
It was at this corner that Alex Zanardi made his memorable pass on Bryan Herta on the last lap of the 1996 CART event to take the victory (above). But it was also here that promising Uruguayan driver Gonzalo Rodriguez lost his life when his car was launched over the safety fencing at the top of the Corkscrew after the run-off failed to slow his car.
The circuit is known for many more good moments than bad, and if rumours are to be believed, talks are underway for a possible return to Laguna Seca in the not too distant future.
Lap Record: 1:05:880, Sebastian Bourdais (Newman/Haas/Lanigan) – 2007 Champ Car Series
1: Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Undoubtedly one of the world’s most pristine and picturesque locations for motorsport is located in eastern Wisconsin, in the town of Elkhart Lake. With its long straights, fast corners and plentiful overtaking opportunities, Road America never fails to impress all who grace its grounds, especially when screaming engines are roaring past.
One of the longer circuits on the American landscape, at over four miles in length, and one of the few to have retained its original layout, the circuit currently hosts the American Le Mans Series as well as NASCAR, but in this writer’s personal opinion, it is the IndyCars which provide the greatest spectacle.
Among the many great corners on the circuit is “the kink”, a very fast right-hander in the second half of the lap. It was here when Katherine Legge had a colossal accident in 2006, slamming into the outer safety barrier, however thankfully walking away with nothing more than damaged pride.
Why the IndyCar series is not currently racing here is among the greatest tragedies to have befallen the sport. One hopes this situation is rectified and a return is soon made.
Lap Record: 1:39:866, Dario Franchitti (Team KOOL Green) – 2000 CART World Series