Thursday, January 18, 2018

Catching Up with Portland International Raceway

The addition of Portland International Raceway to the 2018 Indycar calendar was one that came as some surprise to me and forces me to connect with the sport's past in a new way during this off-season.

This track originally existed on the Indycar calendar at a time when I was often preoccupied with the matters of adolescence and young adulthood, and also during the time of year (June) when still satiated of racing from the Indy 500.

Early-summers for me meant being fully into my golfing practice schedule (for which I dedicated the most of my time, playing competitively in high school and college). Summer weekends of the 1980s through mid-1990s rarely found me in front of a TV in the mid-afternoon.


As a result, I cannot say that I ever watched the Grand Prix of Portland live on TV. Once the track stayed with the CART/ChampCar calendar in 1996-2007, I felt no significant reason to prioritize its viewing.  Now I find myself, decades later, researching the history of the race and wanting to become familiar with the track layout. In doing so, I found a very interesting history of the track's emergence into being. For some more dedicated than myself to Indycar during those years, this will probably be old news, but for fans newer to the Portland International Raceway and the Grand Prix of Portland, these are the bits I found of most interest:

1. Portland International Raceway was built on the site of a former small city.
Vanport, Oregon was essentially washed from existence during the Memorial Day weekend of 1948, by the massive flooding of the Columbia River.  The existence of Vanport, built on a low-lying area between Portland, Oregon and neighboring Vancouver Washington to the north (hence the portmanteau of Vanport), began as a wartime public housing project conceived, designed, and completed in less than a year (1942) to house an influx of workers involved with the local shipbuilding industry.  At it's peak, over 42,000 people inhabited the residential city, the second largest in the State of Oregon.

In late-spring 1948, after a heavy, late-season snowfall followed by torrential seasonal rains, the snowpack and rainfall across the Columbia River watershed (from as far away as Montana and British Columbia), coverged into the Columbia River, pushing the oncoming water to over the dike system developed to protect Vanport. The entire area was flooded by as much as 20 feet of flowing water, releasing the housing and structures from their meager foundations.  With much of Vanport's population transient workers, the decision was made to not rebuild the public housing and the young residential city ceased to be.  


(l - Vanport City, r - current day PIR)

The City of Portland annexed the area in 1960 and began contemplating how to use what little remained - the city streets of Vanport. Alas, as racing was a burgeoning post-war sport and, when combined with the Portland Rose Festival, automobile and motorcycle racing became staples of those grounds.

As the danger of remaining building foundations and precious little protection for drivers and fans existed, fulfilling the requests by racing sanctions saw the reconstruction of the area into a fully-dedicated drag-racing and road course facility, now what we see as Portland International Raceway.  Trans-Am (SCCA sanction) racing in the mid-1970s brought attention to the track by those in charge of CART.  Some of the remaining visible Vanport city features have been highlighted in yellow in the photo above.

2. Longtime Sponsor - G. I. Joe's was not related to the toy of the same name.
With the decision to bring Indycars to PIR for the 1984 season, Stroh's Beer was the first title sponsor to come on board for two years. Following thereafter, local military surplus-turned-sporting goods chain - G. I. Joe's - began it's run of being primary or co-primary sponsor of the race for 20 of the next 21 years. G. I. Joe's was originally a military surplus store which grew into a local chain and expanded offerings to include outdoor gear, automotive parts, and sporting goods as military surplus dwindled.

Joe's, as it came to be known following an equity buyout, suffered in the mid-2000s, fell into bankruptcy proceedings in 2007, and was liquidated in 2009.  The event's return this year is simply listed as 'The Grand Prix of Portland'.

3. Justin Wilson holds the track record.
Set during qualifications, Justin Wilson set the current track time record of 57.597 for one lap of the current 1.964 mile layout, driving the RuSport entry in 2005. His time equates to an average speed of 122.756 mph. Previous layouts and measurements in the history of the event show a quicker time and the slightest of faster average speeds, but those layouts are not the current one in use today.

(Justin Wilson on a qualifying run at PIR, 2005)

4. Pole and Race Winners are a 'Who's Who' of American Open-Wheel racing.
If the history of this Indycar race says anything, it's that only a titan of the sport will win at Portland.  Multiple Pole Winners include; Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi, 3 times, and Justin Wilson twice.  Currently active driver Sebastien Bourdais is the defending Champion (2007). Past Race winners listed following;
1984 - Al Unser, Jr.,
1985, 1986 - Mario Andretti,
1987 - Bobby Rahal,
1988 - Danny Sullivan,
1989 - Emerson Fittipaldi,
1990, 1991, 1992 - Michael Andretti,
1993 - E. Fittipaldi,
1994, 1995 - A. Unser Jr.,
1996 - Alex Zanardi,
1997 - Mark Blundell
1998 - A. Zanardi,
1999, 2000 - Gil De Ferran,
2001 - Max Papis,
2002 - Cristiano Da Matta,
2003 - Adrian Fernandez,
2004 - Sebastien Bourdais,
2005 - C. Da Matta,
2006 - A.J. Allmendinger,
2007 - S. Bourdais

I look forward to delving into more of this race's history and watching older race footage if available online. At the very least, I'll be watching what I expect to be another great race and for the first time in my history, live.


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