Circuit type: Temporary closed road course
Historic Savannah, set in the heart of the Deep South, is probably as unlikely a place as you can think of to have deep associations with speed and, in particular, single seater racing. However, the city is actually the birthplace of Grand Prix racing in America.
Way back in 1908 the unpaved roads of the city were turned over to racing for the 'American Grand Prize', when some of the top racers of the day took part in front of crowds so big that soliders were brought in to serve as human barricades. Three further races were held (in 1910 and twice in 1911; once for the Grand Prix and once for the most prestigious prize in American racing, the Vanderbilt Cup) on a 25 mile course just south of the city itself but as quickly as the event came, it departed equally quickly, the Grand Prix contingent moving on Milwaukee in 1912.
For the next 85 years the city's racing past would tend to be an almost forgotten slice of history. However, in the 1990s, a group of local businessmen formed the Colonial Motorsport company, deciding it was time to bring back the racing action. After four years of careful negotiations, agreement was reached for a stand-alone race of the Indy Lights series in 1997, with follow up events in '98 and '99 offering the possibility of a future CART round.
The opportunity for the race arose out of the redevelopment of Hutchinson Island a landmass in the Savannah River directly opposite the historic downtown area. For years its only use had been industrial, in support of the Port of Savannah, but in the 1990s a public-private partnership began to build a convention centre and hotel. Public money to the tune of $10 million was put in to create a new road network on the island and it was these roads that would house the race. CART officials, including former chief steward and former driver Wally Dallenbach helped design a 1.965-mile county road to serve as a 10-turn circuit – the first time a public road had been pre-designed with the intention of also using it for racing in the USA.
A notable feature of the new course was the Turn 1 and Turn 2 area, which was a fast low-banked sweeping left hander configured in a similar fashion to an oval turn, offering several distinct racing lines and the possibility of side-by-side action. The rest of the course featured wide and smooth roads, with temporary grandstands lining the course.
The track was completed just in time for the May running of the inaugural Indy Lights Dixie Crystals Grand Prix, with support races for Barber Saab and the North American Touring Car Championship. Before of a race day crowd of over 30,000, Helio Castroneves ran out the winner in the feature race.
On paper the event looked a modest success; drivers seemed happy with the course, fans turned out in reasonable numbers and a contract was in place for future years. However, as many a race promoter has found out, it takes time to generate a profit and this was time Colonial Motorsport's creditors were unwilling to give. Several companies involved in the construction filed suit to recoup some $3.3 million in monies owed, sending Colonial into bankruptcy. The track itself came into public ownership as a result but all hopes of continuing to hold a race were gone. The 1997 Indy Lights race would be the only running.
So it was that, after one race, the Savannah course was mothballed. The roads were open to the public (albeit with 35 mph signs all around it) and, in due course, the convention centre, hotel and country club were completed. The track was more likely to reverberate to the sound of gentle chirping of birds than engines, though there were occasional (and illegal) hot laps put in by local youths.
Plans for an ARCA race on the track came to nought, but after several years of trying, the course did in fact get a second lease of life. In 2008 the organisers of the Hilton Head Island Concours d'Elegance in nearby South Carolina elected to move their event to Savannah, holding a speed week which culminated with races for historic sportscars. The event has become a big success and is now an annual fixture at the end of October, with races organised by Historic Sportscar Racing Limited and using a refurbished version of the 1997 Indy Lights course, now known as the Grand Prize of America Circuit.
The Grand Prize of America Circuit is located on Hutchinson Island in Savannah, Georgia, USA. The nearest airport is Savannah/Hilton Head, offering domestic connections. It is around a 25 minute drive from the circuit. For international flights, Charleston International Airport in South Carolina and Jacksonville International Airport are the closest.
The circuit is situated on Hutchinson Island, which sits in the River Savannah across the banks from the historic downtown. By car, the island can be reached on US Highway 17 across the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. The exit ramp leads to Wayne Shackelford Blvd, from where the track, resort hotel and conference centre can all be reached.