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If you know anything about the

history of sports car racing in America

you know that it started in the early

1950s on public roads which were tem-

porarily closed off. It began as the

sport of wealthy amateur sportsmen,

the same country club types who

played polo. They competed for silver

cups and trays and pewter mugs.

Weekend sports cars racing on

public roads drew spectators who

lined the edge of the road as the cars

blasted by, inches away. A couple of

fatal accidents where spectators were

killed quickly put an end to that and

racers had to get serious about buying

property and constructing purpose-

built road race circuits near some of

the larger population centers.

Tracks were expensive to build

and required some racers to travel a

long way to get to them. So, event or-

ganizers began looking for alterna-

tives. Small, regional airports which

could be shut down on weekends fit

the bill. It also helped that Curtis

LeMay, the Air Force general in charge

of the Strategic Air Command, was a

rabid sports car enthusiast. He made

some U.S. air bases available on week-

ends for sports car competition.

The most famous airport racing

circuit was in Sebring, Florida. The

first race there was held in 1950. The

next running was 12 hours or “once

around the clock,” starting during the

day and finishing at night. The organ-

izers succeeded in getting FIA ap-

proval and the event became part of

the World Sportscar Championship

and the International Championship

for Makes. It was part of the presti-

gious FIA series that included Le-

Mans, Spa and Monza.

Airport circuits remained popular

for sports car racing through the

1960s but as safety standards became

more stringent, orange cones and hay

bales were no longer enough, and air-

port usage began to diminish. Unlike

asphalt, which was smooth and even,

the concrete runways were coarse and

uneven. They lacked elevation

changes and were billiard table flat.

They were also notoriously tough on

suspensions, tires and brakes.

By the 1970s and 1980s there

seemed to be plenty of racing venues

for sports cars as major NASCAR cir-

cuits created infield road courses

which were connected to portions of

the ovals. Also, the concept of private

country club-type tracks began to gain

popularity. Vintage racing became a

very popular form of sports car racing.

However, all this came at a price and

the cost of renting these racing facili-

ties was constantly increasing.We just

may be witnessing the resurgence of

sports car racing on airport circuits as

a solution to the problem of high costs.

The Amelia Island Grand Prix was

scheduled for the weekend after the

concours. The 2.1-mile course set up

on the Fernandina Beach municipal

airport which had been used for sports

car racing between 1963 to 1974.

SVRA attracted 125 cars and also

opened the event to motorcycles. De-

spite a threatening weather report for

the weekend, attendance was still

high and the only rain they saw was a

little in the morning. By the end of the

weekend the event was considered a

success and there was talk of doing it

again next year.

The SHELBY AMERICAN

Spring 2016 74

Fernandina Beach Airport was a sports car racing venue in 1963.

The SVRA has revived the event and attached it to the Amelia Island Concours.

Photos courtesy of David Ferguson/Sports Car Digest, Darek Stennes.