When you think of Niagara Falls you tend to think of the astonishing waterfall that spans the river between Canada and the USA, a tourist hotspot which is known throughout the world. You certainly don't picture the scene complete with turbocharged four-wheel behemoths from Ingolstadt ripping up the tarmac around the local streets. However, it was the roar of the latter which drowned out the sound from the falls on one epic weekend in 1988, when the SCCA Trans Am Series headed into town for a memorable race, just five miles from the falls themselves.
Sadly, the event proved a one-off affair when poor planning led to a switch of race date and attendant tiny spectator crowds proved the financial downfall of the race altogether.
The reasons why the city fathers decided that a race should take place probably helped to foreshadow its short-lived nature; feasibility studies had taken place in the early 1980s but came to nought until Buffalo-based promoter Brian Czaja rode into town, with a promise to attract 50,000 to 100,000 spectators and generate about $9.6 million in income for area businesses. He expected to return about $1 million directly to the city over a five-year contract.
The downtown area had never quite bloomed since being redeveloped as part of an urban renewal project, so the race could have proved a catalyst for its revival. The area's centrepiece was the imposing arch-shaped Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center, which served as a backdrop to the race circuit and actually formed a canopy across part of the course and provided a covered paddock.
The resulting 1.6-mile circuit was a course of two-halves. The first section wound through side streets and parking lots to form a narrow and twisty opening, before emerging out onto the fast blasts of Niagara Street and the long, sweeping Rainbow Boulevard. Overall it was fast but bumpy, factors which proved the downfall of many competitors throughout the 94 laps of the Grand Prix.
Things got off to a poor start when, because of an apparent error in planning, the race dates had to be postponed for two weeks. Eventually the two-day event took place on June 25-26, 1988, though the delay no doubt contributed to the promoter's subsequent financial troubles.
Nevertheless, the event brought favourable reviews from fans and competitors, despite the tricky conditions. Rising best to the challenge was multiple World Rally Champion Walter Röhrl, who found that his precision skills honed on the rally stages adapted perfectly to a tough street course, which at times resembled a gravel surface as some the newly-laid asphalt surfaces began to break up. In practice he astonished the more seasoned road racers by lapping seconds faster than anyone else, aided by the well-handling Audi with it's phenomenal grip advantage.
Unsurprisingly, he took the pole and led into the first corner, after which he simply eased away to one of the most dominant victories in SCCA Trans Am history. Only Scott Pruett managed to stay on the same lap as the German but still out of sight, 1 minute and 21 seconds behind, despite an extra fuel stop for the Audi. Among those in the field blown away by the rally ace were Hurley Haywood (in the second Audi), Darin Brassfield, Lyn St James, Paul Gentilozzi, Willy T. Ribbs, Scott Sharp and a certain Bruce Jenner.
Also on the bill for the inaugural Niagara Grand Prix was pair of Porsche Turbo Cup races, a Race Truck Challenge Series race which saw a large pile up at the end of the Rainbow Boulevard and a single seater event. There were plenty of spills as well as thrills for the crowds, who had good vantage points including grandstands on the front stretch and at Turn 5, as well as around the course - even from the decks of a multi-storey car park.
Plans were underway to make the Niagara Falls race a regular annual event but it never came to be. Czaja later blamed the two-week postponement for disappointingly low ticket sales, which he said made it impossible for the Niagara Falls Grand Prix Inc. to pay some of its bills. Only 8,000 spectators had turned out and local businesses complained that footfall in the encircled stores had been lower than usual.
Caja argued the only way he could finance them would be through hosting another Grand Prix (presumably with better attendance). The saga drew out over more than a year, with city fathers understandably reluctant to accept this logic and finally took the option to sue. In February 1990, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in the city's favour and ordered Caja to pay up $220,000. By this stage the promoting company had slipped into bankruptcy and all hopes of any further racing were buried forever.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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The Niagara Falls Grand Prix circuit was laid out on streets around the Convention and Civic Center in downtown Niagara Falls, New York, USA. Today there is no real evidence a race ever took place here, although the majority of the surrounding streets remain in the same configuration. However, the Convention and Civic Center has undergone an expansion since becoming a casino in 2002 and enveloped the area which once housed the pits, while a multi-storey car park now covers the Turn 5 area.