Circuit type: Temporary airfield course
In the early 1950s, sports car sales boomed in post-war America like never before and - inevitably - with a proliferation of speedy lightweight cars being snapped up by the public, the desire to test them in speed competition grew. The difficulty was where to race them, with relatively few permanent road racing facilities availability. The answer came either in the form of street races or with courses laid out on the runways of the many now-surplus army air bases.
With the likes of Sebring establishing the pattern early on, other venues soon grew into a bustling calendar of events and wasn't too long before an entrepreneurial American saw the opportunity to create an end-of-season extravaganza. Sherman F. Crise - known to all as 'Red' - was the driving force behind what was to become one of the biggest events of its kind.
Crise was an interesting figure. He cut his teeth as a page at the New York Stock Exchange while studying for an aeronautical engineering degree. After graduating, he invested his NYSE earnings in a chain of three garages in New York, where he soon also gained the racing bug. Surviving the Wall Street Crash of 1929 relatively unscathed, he went touring across Europe with an American racing team in 1930 and returned to the USA the following year to set up a seaplane base, which soon became very successful.
The racing bug was still there and Crise soon tapped into the burgeoning interest in midget racing by establishing a chain of dirt tracks, which prospered from 1938 to 1942, when the USA entered World War Two. Crise - already a pilot - was swift to sign up and was assigned to the First Photographic Squadron, flying unarmed fighter planes on photographic missions, before transferring to Air Transport Command as a Captain. Towards the end of the war he was forced to bale out over China and suffered a broken neck, eventually being repatriated to Miami to recuperate.
From his hospital bed he then dreamed up his next venture - the Miami Beach Marine Basin - which lasted a year until being destroyed by fire. During this period, Crise and his wife would often take yacht trips out to the Bahamas and it was during one of these visits to New Providence Island, home to the capital Nassau, that Red first spotted the open expanses of asphalt that made up the abandoned Windsor Airport. An idea soon formed in his head...
In 1953, Crise approached the the Nassau Development Board with his idea of promoting motor racing in the Bahamas. A late November sportscar race would have a number of benefits, he said: firstly it would extend the tourist season but also take advantage of the availability of cars and stars from both the USA and Europe, for whom the regular racing season had concluded. Who wouldn't want an invite to an end-of-season party in the Caribbean?
Development Board members Sir Sydney Oakes and Robert Hallam Symonette were receptive to Crise's idea and together they set about forming the Bahamas Automobile Club, with Crise as its Chairman. The Club sought and gained approval from the RAC in London and the AAA in America to organise races, as well as permission from the Bahamas Government to utilise Windsor Field airport. This was a former RAF airfield which had been used to train pilots for delivery flights of new bombers during World War II but had lain unused since the end of hostilities. It was named after the Duke of Windsor, who had taken up regular residency on the island after abdicating as the King of the United Kingdom.
Invitations were sent out to the competitors of the SCCA at the end of the 1954 season, anticipating the first Speed Week from 6-12 December. When confirmed entries were slow in coming through, Red Crise put out feelers with the local car dealers and soon there were almost 100 unofficial enquiries for starting positions. The addition of a bike race also helped to ensure the event would have a decent chance of success and, bit by bit, a good entry was finally obtained.
With a field now assembled ready for the event, attention was turned to making the airfield ready for racing. The course would be created on the wide former runways and taxi lanes which hadn't, in all truth, received a great deal of love and attention since the last planes had flown out. In fact, the tropical growth on either side of the roadways grew up to 12 feet tall in some places.
Weeds and overgrowth had to be cleared, under the supervision of Minister of Works Peter Bethell, while several hundred oil barrels were strung together to mark the course, while a 1,000 seat grandstand was also erected. One of the central runways was also set aside for speed trials, while an area alongside the main straight was set aside as a rudimentary pit area, there being no covered facilities available.
As December arrived, the majority of the field was shipped across to New Providence from Miami on the Eastern Shipping Company's SS Queen of Nassau, with the remainder of the non-local entries arriving on the SS Lapland from New York. The boat trip would become a feature of the Speed Weeks and added much to the party atmosphere that would be its hallmark.
The drivers were not immediately pleased with the course when they first set eyes on it. Although wide and featuring long straights and sweeping turns, many complained that the positioning of the oil barrels and the lack of escape road at the ends of the straights was dangerous. They were also unhappy with plans to run the Bahamas Cup Race in a clockwise direction, complete with tight chicanes marked out with the unyielding oil drums, with only a short duration to the remaining races which were to be run anti-clockwise without the chicanes. The drivers argued there was simply insufficient time to make the required changes to gearing between the two races.
Red Crise and his officials were quick to respond: the chicanes were quickly ditched and an announcement was made that all racing was to be held anti-clockwise. The oil drums which had formed the chicanes were redistributed in front of the grandstand as added protection, while two-feet high sand banks were added in front of the barrels at each corner to cushion the impact for errant cars. It proved a reasonable compromise and placated all but the most ardent critics, though it did also create a hazard of its own; the wind soon blew a fine layer of sand across the whole course, creating the unique problem of a lack of grip despite a highly-abrasive track surface!
An outbreak of overenthusiasm saw the bike racers begin to sample the finalised course for unofficial trials at speed even before official practice had begun, almost ending in disaster for local bike importer David Ashbury crashing and sliding across the track surface at high speed. He was lucky to escape with only minor injuries.
The event proper started with the motorcycle races - the only year they were held as part of the Speed Weeks. David Albury had recovered from his earlier crash to win three of the heat races and the 10 lap main race on a 500cc BSA Gold Star. He took home the Triumph Challenge Shield for his troubles.
Next up was the Bahamas Resident's Race, an event solely for islanders and the first of the car races. Juan Fernandez won in an Austin-Healey 100. Lady Greta Oakes, wife of Sir Sydney, was a creditable fourth in the race that was the first of its kind in the Bahamas. Speed trials rounded out the first day's activities, with a 1.5-mile length of runway to the centre of the racing course used for timed runs of a quarter-mile (cars had half a mile to build up speed). Timing equipment more usually seen at the Utah Salt Flats was borrowed for the occasion.
The Bahamas Automobile Cup was won by Alfonso de Portago in a Ferrari and the Nassau Trophy race on December 12 won by Masten Gregory, also driving a Ferrari, rounding out what had been deemed by almost all as a successful event.
The next two years were ones of growth in entrants and the number of races held, albeit no longer featuring motorcycling. Crise said that the two-wheelers were dropped due to concerns over the wisdom of racing on such a highly-abrasive surface (the asphalt containing ground sea-shells as a component part) should any riders crash; a lack of anyone willing to ensure the race and finally the fact that the event now came under the auspices of the FIA, which did not sanction bike racing.
The event grew from strength to strength, with increasing numbers of international racers agreeing to take part and the burgeoning social scene becoming as much a part of the attraction as the racing itself. Parties and high-jinks became legendary and the Speed Weeks were firmly established as an end-of-year favourite.
The Windsor Field course was perhaps the least-appealing part of the equation (despite the 'world-leading' claims of the organisers). It proved to be something of a Ferrari benefit in its remaining years of racing - indeed it took until the final race of 1956 before any other marque won one of the major races. Stirling Moss won the Nassau Trophy race driving a Maserati 300S borrowed from Bill Lloyd.
It would prove to be a final hurrah as for 1957 the races were forced to move elsewhere on the island. The Civil Aviation Authority was looking for a replacement for its Oakes Field civil airport, close to downtown Nassau, and the Windsor Field site was ideal. It was quickly converted for civilian use and remains the main international airport on the island to this date.
With the airfield no longer available for racing, a replacement was needed. The obvious solution was to simply swop locations and Oakes Field duly would become the home of the Speed Weeks from 1957 onwards.
Today nothing remains of the original course at Windsor Field. The airport has been extensively renovated and expanded over the years and since 2006 has been known as Lynden Pindling International Airport, named in honour of the country's first Prime Minister.