Palm Beach International Raceway
For many years Palm Beach International Raceway (formerly Moroso Motorsports Park) was a case of 'what might have been'. Built at great expense in the mid-1960s, it initially made a pitch for one of the world's great endurance races, but ended up spending the majority of its time as a test track, with occasional club racing and the odd Trans Am visit.
In recent years the track has new ownership and has undergone a complete reconfiguration to allow the road course to operate independently of the drag strip.
Sadly, 2022 is set to see the curtain close on the circuit, with its sale to a developer inked to make way for warehouses. A final hurrah event, the Pro Hydro-Clean Last Lap, has been organised for April 23 as a celebration event to send off the circuit, after which it will close to the public.
The circuit, located near to West Palm Beach in Florida, opened in 1964 when local contractors Joe Bucheck Jr. and his brother Edward built the facility opposite the Pratt & Whitney engine factory for a cost of $1.5 million dollars. The largely flat 2.25-mile course also featured an NHRA-specification drag strip which formed the basis of its back straight. It was the drag strip which was christened by competition first, hosting an NHRA event in October 1964, before the first road races were organised in March 1965. Around 10,000 spectators turned out for an SCCA-sanctioned sportscar event.
The Sebring alternative that never was
In 1966, the track appeared to have secured a coup when Sebring 12 Hours organiser Alec Ullman struck a deal with the circuit to switch the endurance classic to the Palm Beach the following year. It followed a disastrous event at that year's Sebring race in which driver Bob McLean was killed early on, followed later by a horrendous accident which claimed the life of four spectators, including a nine-year-old boy. Equally, developments at the airfield and difficulties with the temporary infrastructure meant a switch to a purpose-built venue was attractive to Ullman.
Contingent on the deal happening was an extension of the still young Palm Beach circuit. Plans for a 5.5 mile course were soon drawn up (sadly lost to the mists of time) at an expected cost of another $1.5 million dollars. In addition 80 covered pits would be built for the entrants, plus bleachers for the spectators, private parking, a scenic lake and spectator access roads. A 10-year deal was duly signed to host the renamed Florida International Grand Prix of Endurance, provided the circuit was ready for inspection by CSI officials in early 1967.
It was this last point that proved the scheme's undoing. The Palm Beach area suffered unprecedented rains, delaying the start of any groundworks by a full two months and by November it had become clear that the high water table was going to prevent completion in time for the April 1 deadline. The race contract was duly cancelled and the endurance classic stayed at Sebring.
So it was that the track extension came to nought and Palm Beach soldiered on, continuing to host regional SCCA races and other minor events alongside its drag races. Soon the track became almost as famous as a venue for non-racing events. In November 1969 it hosted a major rock concert, featuring some of the largest acts of the day, including the likes of Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Sly & The Family Stone and Jefferson Airplane. Another to appear subsequently was Eric Clapton, while a 1975 concert headlined by Led Zeppelin was cancelled at the last minute when concerns were raised over the facility's capability to handle the 50,000 expected attendees.
On track, among the more notable incidents was the pro-racing debut of Lyn St James in 1979. The future Indy 500 Rookie of the Year had an inauspicious start to racing however, ending her race – as others had done before her – in a swampy lake after spinning out. She scrambled to safety as her car sank in the mud...
Dick Moroso buys in and makes improvements
By the beginning of the 1980s the circuit was in poor shape and its then-owner Dave Rupp was looking for a way out. After deals with other investors fell through, in stepped racing parts magnate Dick Moroso, who purchased the facility and adjoining land for $2 million in 1982, despite being initially concerned about the investment needed. "When I first looked at the track, I laughed," he said. "It was in awfully bad shape. But then I went home and started thinking about it a little more and, I thought: 'Well, I could repair this and rebuild that,' and before I knew it I had talked myself right into it."
To fix the problems Moroso immediately spent around $200,000 on essential repairs to grandstands, rest rooms and access roads, while a team of workers was soon put to work repairing the pot-hole infested track surface. The spruced-up facility was now back to something close to its prime and was henceforth to be known as Moroso Motorsports Park.
SCCA club racing and AMA motorcycle events continued in the upgraded surroundings and further investment – including to the pits and paddock – saw the track included as the season opener for the popular Trans Am series. Not everyone was happy, with David Hobbs voicing his concerns that it was unsuitable for the big cars. "In a way we shouldn't be racing here," he said at the time. "It's not really a professional racing track; it's too narrow for these cars and the run-off areas leave a lot to be desired. But it is good fun to drive on."
Whatever the opinions, the racing continued apace with 36 cars taking the start. Pole-sitter Tom Gloy lead away in his Mercury Capri but fell back with suspension problems, allowing Hobbs to take the lead. He too suffered problems when a stuttering engine allowed Gene Felton to sweep by for victory in a Pontiac Trans-Am. The same race was also notable for featuring Hollywood legend Paul Newman, who was enjoying the start to a season of racing in a turbo Datsun.
Perhaps Hobbs' was not alone in his view as to Moroso's suitability for top-level racing, as 1983 was to be its one and only Trans Am event. However, the track built up an enviable reputation as a good testing venue and was frequently used by IMSA and Indycar teams. It also became one of the most filmed venues in the USA, frequently being featured in television commercials of the day, even if most viewers didn't realise it.
Among the innovations under Moroso's ownership was the hosting of the 'Super Chevy Show', the premier national event for all Chevrolet enthusiasts. Upwards of 100,000 people packed into the facility for a showcase of everything Chevy over three days. After several years the event went elsewhere but was quickly replaced by Moroso's own version which continues to the present day, generally each March.
In 1996, Moroso considered investing $2 million in an oval track but the plans eventually came to nothing. Two year's later, Moroso was dead from brain cancer and his family inherited ownership. Things continued much as they always had, with regional racing and drag events being the staple, alongside testing. At the beginning of the new millennium, several chicanes were inserted to slow cars around the lap, although only the Turn 7A/7B complex became mandatory for all sessions.
The track once again found itself the venue for various TV appearances, when MTV filmed a drag racing documentary in 2002 and the circuit was used as the backdrop for an episode of the Speed Channel's Pinks show in 2007. That same year it had its most famous cameo, when the stars of the BBC motoring show Top Gear lapped the track during their USA Special, joined by 'The Stig's American Cousin'.
New owners take over after Moroso's death
In 2008, a consortium purchased the facility and announced plans to completely redevelop the site. With the restored the name of Palm Beach International Raceway, a new track was drawn up under the supervision of circuit designer Martyn Thake. The old facility was completely altered, adding a new road course similar to the original but now separated completely from the drag facility. Low-glare lighting was added to the track along with brand new safety barriers and an enlarged paddock area, which now backed directly onto the kart facility. The new course, which reopened in October 2008, was homologated to FIA Grade 4 standard.
In 2010, the track hosted a round of the ARCA Racing Series, won by Justin Marks. Rather like the Trans Am race nearly 30 years earlier it proved to be a one-off, though the re-vamped circuit has once again become a popular club and regional racing venue and also hosts a Skip Barber Racing School.
The end nears as circuit set to sold for development
In 2021 the property's owner, Moroso Investment Partners, announced the circuit was to be put up for sale. Within months, Portman Industrial LLC, a division of Portman Holdings in Atlanta, inked a deal to buy the 149-acre property for an undisclosed price. Portman has plans to build more than 2 million square feet of warehouses on the property, to meet the burgeoning demand from distribution companies. The sale of the site is thought to be conditional on these plans being approved by the Palm Beach County Commission, though these are expected to be rubber stamped at a meeting on April 28, 22.
In the meantime, a rival group of racing enthusiasts, including Indy 500 winner and local resident Danny Sullivan, has formed Formula Race Promotions and launched a public campaign to buy the facility and save it for racing. Their project is said to have the interest of the Palm Beach County Tourism Development Board, though sources close to the sale say that Formula Race Promotions didn't submit an offer that could come close to the many offers made by real estate developers seeking to turn the property into a logistics hub.
Nevertheless, the group, which also includes other celebrity supporters including Pitbull and Hall and Oates, intends to keep campaigning until the track is finally sold. "I'd still like to see it happen," said Sullivan of the idea to keep racing going at PBIR. "We do not plan on going away until they start scraping the track."
It does however seem likely that the sale to Portman will proceed, meaning the end of the racing circuit after nearly 60 years of operation. In anticipation of the sale, the circuit has organised a final racing meeting for April 23, 2022, the Pro Hydro-Clean Last Lap. It will feature racing and demonstrations of cars and other vehicles associated with the circuit down the years, with free parking and tickets for just $10. Bids are also being taken for the honour of the real last lap to be taken around the course or a run down the drag strip, at a private event at a date yet to be revealed. 100% of the proceeds of the auctions go to benefit the part-time employees of PBIR.