Inaugural race in Washington DC opens

Washington, DC, July 19 - Starplex. That's what they sometimes call the DC Armory and RFK Stadium complex. From its history, maybe star-crossed would be apt. The stadium was built in 1961 to house the new Washington Senators...replacements for the...

Washington, DC, July 19 - Starplex. That's what they sometimes call the DC Armory and RFK Stadium complex. From its history, maybe star-crossed would be apt. The stadium was built in 1961 to house the new Washington Senators...replacements for the team that moved to Minnesota. The new team stayed 10 years, then moved to Texas. The stadium still housed the Washington Redskins - until the Redskins owner decided he needed a stadium with his name on it, and moved them across the river to Maryland.

So now they have built a race track across a couple of RFK Stadium's parking lots. A major automobile race in the Nation's Capital. Something that hasn't been tried for 80 years. Washington, DC, sometimes known as the pothole capital of the world, set about building a track for some of the most sophisticated race cars in the world.

And there's more to fret over - if you're the fretting kind.

This is the center of bureaucracy, with a local government that is even micro-managed by Congress. And a local press with a lust for blood. A reporter for the Washington Post (which is a sponsor of the event) has been digging hard for dirt. How did the Mayor authorize a contract without every city councilman sticking his finger in it? How did they skip doing an environmental study? And what about that group of activists handing out earplugs in the adjacent neighborhood, telling residents to call 911 "should they experience breathing problems or ear pain" during the race?

Fortunately, none of this has fazed the city, its mayor, or promoter National Grand Prix Holdings. They have put together a first rate facility, and brought world class teams for the inaugural Cadillac Grand Prix.

Thirty-four American Lemans Series, twenty-two Trans Am Series, twenty-eight Star Mazda, twenty-two Speed GT and forty-nine Speed Touring cars unloaded and took to the track today for their first practice sessions. There were even a dozen or so celebrities touring the track in Panoz GT-RA racers, preparing for a celebrity match race Saturday evening.

And they found the track to be Good.

The track, like all temporary urban circuits, had to fit the space available. At first sight it looks a little Mickey Mouse. A nicely curved pit straight, then mostly short straights and hairpins. A bit reminiscent of the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans that hosted the 1967 French Grand Prix. The hairpins on that track tore up drive trains. Everyone hated it. But, like the political climate here, the "you'd think" was wrong. Especially the hairpins.

"I'm very impressed with what we've got here - it's good to drive on," said Johnny Herbert, who topped today's speed charts in his Champion Racing Audi V8. "There are a lot of hairpins, but that's not a problem - that gives us lots of opportunity to overtake. I think it's going to make the race very interesting. The width of the track is going to make it much easier to pass the back markers, which always is a factor."

Butch Leitzinger, who put his Corvette on the pole for tomorrow's Trans-Am race, was equal in his praise. "This is an excellent track. All of us have commented on how great a job the organizers have done putting this event together. The grip is so good on the asphalt that it's going to provide a lot of passing opportunities. It's going to inspire a lot of confidence in the drivers, and I think we'll have an exciting race tomorrow."

The mood at the track today was that of a festival warming up for a good run. With cars tuning for five races (plus the celebrity event), the action never stopped. There was a modest crowd of hard core race fans wandering the paddock and scattered through the stands all day. As the afternoon wore on, more and more families started to arrive. Even after 5 pm, when there was only a final Mazda practice to go, people were still coming into the facility.

There is something to be said for urban race tracks. Paved streets leading all the way up to the place. A well-run subway to get you to the track, so you don't even have to worry about parking or getting in and out. A seasoned cadre of street vendors if you're not happy with the food and souvenir offerings inside. The charm of an elevated Metro Rail segment emerging between hairpins and crossing over the final turn leading onto the pit straight. And the opportunity to introduce racing to a new crowd. They live nearby, and it's not a hassle to come here - this is the same place they used to come for baseball and football games, and they still come for soccer and the circus. A lot of those folks arriving in late afternoon looked like newcomers to racing. They all had a look of anticipation, thinking they were going to see something cool.

At last - a "you'd think" that's right. This is going to be very cool.

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About this article
Series ALMS , PWC , Pro Mazda , Trans-Am
Drivers Johnny Herbert , Butch Leitzinger