Did you know the United States, and more specifically Savannah, was the first place to host an automobile race using the name Grand Prix outside of France in the early 1900s?
I certainly did not, but was afforded the opportunity to right that wrong and learn more about Savannah's racing history during a visit to Hutchinson Island on Oct. 24 for the Savannah Speed Classic's media day. As a part of the Hilton Head Motoring Festival and Concours d'Elegance, this event spans three days, from Oct. 25-27, at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa.
I journeyed to the pit row to await my opportunity to go on some "hot laps" with an experienced driver at race speeds. My only previous experience with racing dates back to when I was a teenager, racing at breakneak speeds against the clock to get home by curfew.
This was much, much different.
I signed the necessary waivers, grabbed a helmet and waited for my vehicle and driver to appear. I was slated to go for a ride in a 1969 Ferrari with a driver named David, who was a friendly chap with what sounded like an English accent.
With my racing harness secured, all David needed was an OK from me.
"Are you ready to go for a ride?" David asked.
"Good to go," I responded, and we were off.
Despite the deep, throaty roar of the engine and exhaust, we were only doing idle speed until we got out onto the actual track. Once we got into the open, however, it was go-time.
The car screamed down the track and approached the first turn with no noticeable drop in velocity. I glanced over at David, who looked every bit the seasoned driver, and I felt calm.
Six turns later, we finally hit the first major straightaway, and that is when I got to experience the true power of that late '60s Ferrari. David later said we likely topped out somewhere between 120-130 mph.
David took me around the track three more times, and with each lap, I grew more confident and calm. At one point, I even put my arm on top of the door to relax as if out for a Sunday afternoon drive. I did that until I realized how bad of an idea it was.
Back in the pit row after my three laps, I got out of the vehicle and started to come down from the exhilarating high of traveling in excess of 100 mph in a vehicle worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was then that I met James Redman, the general manager for Historic Sportscar Racing. HSR helps to organize and put on the Savannah Speed Classic.
Redman, whose father, Brian, was a racer in the 1960s, was another friendly gentleman with an English accent. He took myself and others around the pit area and introduced us to dozens of racers, owners and crew members. We all chatted and got up close and personal with the different teams and their vehicles.
I started to get a very open and welcoming feeling from this event. Redman noted HSR events are in fact an open environment, and not only do they allow spectators to walk among the teams and talk with them in the paddock area, but they encourage it.
"Fans can walk around here and feel free to chat with the teams and the drivers," Redman said. "We sometimes have prior winners of events like the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona, so they get to experience a bit of the history, too."
In addition to three days of racing action and an open environment for fans, there are nine groups and classes of racers and dozens of vehicles.
Spectators will see Porsches, BMWs, Mustangs and Camaros from several decades. Also racing will be historic stock cars, open-wheeled Indy cars, big-bore and small-bore cars, cars from England, France and Italy as well as pre-war cars. Perhaps the most interesting car of the day was a 1919 Ford Model T Speedster nicknamed "Marty."
Long story short, there will be plenty for racing fans of all backgrounds to watch.
Also on hand was former South Carolina Lt. Gov. AndrÃ© Bauer. He is the driver for the Palmetto Academy for Learning Motorsports, a charter school in Myrtle Beach. He was out practicing in a car PALM students built from the ground up.
"It's great to be out here in this car that these young students built," Bauer said. "We're operating with significantly less money invested in our cars compared to other teams, but as far I'm concerned, the only thing holding these kids back is their driver."
Practice is from Oct. 24-25, while qualifying runs begin the morning of Oct. 26. Actual racing will be from Oct. 26-27.