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.