Portlandia (Race: 1999)
A trip down memory lane for a then-twelve-year-old motor racing fan.
The year: 1999. I was 12 at the time and sitting in the back seat of our family van. We had spent our Spring/Easter break week in Central Oregon visiting my Grandparents and were heading home on the I-5 Freeway towards Seattle.
When we reached Portland, Oregon, the halfway point of the trip, I sat up in my seat and began looking. Having made this trip several times before, I would always look for the off-ramp to Portland International Raceway, home of various Indy Car and IMSA sportscar races in the 1980's and 1990's.
Even from the freeway, you could see the entry gate and the long right-hander leading onto the main straight. Sometimes you could see race team trailers parked near the entrance: it could be for a vintage race event or maybe a race team testing at the track.
As we neared P.I.R., like most areas, the sides of the freeway were littered with all sorts of billboards. But one of them caught my eye:
"This August: Toshiba presents the Rose City Grand Prix, and the American Le Mans Series, to Portland International Raceway. For tickets..."
Event Program (photo c/o Michael Pitt.)
American Le Mans Series? I had read about this. It was new (to me at least): sportscars and teams, which had raced at Le Mans in Europe, were now racing at tracks in America. I had grown up watching Formula One and Indy Car races, knew of Le Mans, but had never seen the races or knew anything about the drivers.
Back in the van, I asked, somewhat timidly, "Dad? Can we go to the Rose City Grand Prix in August?" My Dad, a motor racing fan too, happily said, "Sure!"
I had a few months until the race, so I decided to learn more about the cars and drivers. I read magazines like On Track and Autosport and visited their websites, as well as the ALMS website. (I remember going to my middle school's computer lab during lunch period and visiting the ALMS site. I was amazed that they actually had pictures and videos of the cars you could watch on your computer! It was a long time ago...)
There were several drivers' names I recognized and most of them happened to ex-Formula One drivers. People like: J.J. Lehto, David Brabham, Jan Magnussen, Stefan Johansson, Alex Caffi and others. I had learned their names growing up watching Formula One races as well as reading Autocourse Formula One Annuals almost religiously since 1992. I realized that the 1994 edition would have the most of them featured either as then-current Formula One drivers (Brabham and Lehto) or as "up-and-comers" (like Magnussen.)
1994 Autocourse Annual (photo c/o Michael Pitt.)
I'd take this with me should I want to do any "autograph hunting" in the paddock.
August, well late July, had arrived. My Dad and I had decided we would visit the track on Friday for the first practice sessions. Friday's are generally the least busy and he felt that would give us the best chance to see the cars and drivers. We headed out early Friday morning, again taking I-5 from Seattle to Portland, and arrived at P.I.R.
Portland International Raceway is built on what used to be the town of Vanport (situated between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington) near the Columbia River. It was flooded in 1948 and its residents never rebuilt or returned.
Track map (c/o portlandraceway.com.)
The track itself is just under two miles long, made up of a long drag strip, which also serves as the main straight, a twisty middle section, then a long back stretch with a quick chicane and a hairpin-like bend which leads back onto the main straight. The Festival Curves, a chicane about two-thirds down the main straight, was added in the 80's to slow down the Indy Cars.
Once we made the long walk from the parking lot to the main straight, we reached the entrance to the large crossing bridge, which you can see from the freeway. I had seen the bridge many times watching Portland Indy Car races growing up and was extremely excited. My Dad purchased a race program for me and we crossed the bridge into the paddock.
When we reached the other side, I was amazed at what I found: race cars! Actual race cars! They were just sitting there in the paddock, right out in the open: some were being rolled through, others sitting half-assembled in the teams' own covered trailers. There must have been a support race going on out on the track because, even with all the ALMS cars in the paddock, I still remember the sounds of engines buzzing in the background. My Dad and I walked up and down the paddock a few times just looking at the team trailers and cars. It was amazing.
1999 BMW V12 LMR (photo c/o David Pitt.)
I then decided to do some autograph hunting. It was early in the morning, some drivers had not yet arrived, but those that had were either in their team's hospitality unit or talking to mechanics in the team trailers.
I first went to the Doyle-Risi Racing Team trailer. They ran some of the legendary Ferrari 333-SP's in the series. I realized Alex Caffi was one of their drivers. Caffi had driven several seasons in F1 but I had remembered him most for a massive crash he had in an Arrows during practice for the 1991 Monaco Grand Prix. I asked if he could sign my race program and he was happy to do so. I wonder if he was more happy, or stunned, that a 12-year old kid in America knew who he was?
Alex Caffi (left) and myself (photo c/o David Pitt.)
While at the trailer, I noticed another driver I had just learned about having read the program: Max Angelelli.
Max Angelelli (left) and myself (photo c/o David Pitt.)
Angelelli has had great success in sportscar racing, winning two 24 Hours of Daytona outright. He also has an F1 connection of which I recently just learned: while never an F1 driver himself, he did drive the Formula One Safety Car in 1994 at the infamous San Marino Grand Prix when Ayrton Senna died. Technically, he's the last person to have ever led the Brazilian.
Next down the pit lane was another Formula One driver I recognized: Erik Comas.
Erik Comas (middle) and myself (photo c/o David Pitt.)
I mostly remember him driving the blue and white Ligier F1 cars of the early 90's. He also drove for the Larrousse team in 1994, his last season in F1. He also had a nasty crash at Spa during practice in 1992 which knocked him unconscious. Ayrton Senna famously stopped his car on the side of the track, ran across it to help Comas whose car, while stopped, had its throttle stuck open. Perhaps this is why at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix when Senna was killed, Comas refused to join the restarted race.
On a happier note, the next driver I ran into was Stefan Johansson:
Stefan Johansson (Right) (photo c/o David Pitt.)
I knew of Stefan from Formula One, where he had driven for McLaren and Ferrari (among other teams) and Indy Car (primarily the Bettenhausen team) but he also had an impressive career in sportscars (himself a 24 Hours of Le Mans winner.) Again, like so many of the drivers, he was kind and welcoming.
Another duo of drivers I found in the Panoz team garage were David Brabham and Jan Magnussen. They were teammates driving the then brand new Panoz LMP-1 Roadster - a remarkable take on the early Le Mans roadsters. I asked if they could sign my Autocourse annual (both were in it: Brabham driving for the Simtek team and Magnussen driving for Paul Stewart Racing in F3.)
Jan Magnussen (left) and David Brabham (center) (photo c/o David Pitt.)
After they had signed, they looked through the annual and they must have found a photo of the cars before a race on the starting grid. Brabham said to Magnussen, "Look! There we are! You're in 25th and I'm in 26th!" Being 12, I wasn't quite sure how to react to this self-deprecating humor but appreciated it, was grateful for meeting them and for the experience.
My Dad and I continued up and down the pit lane. At one point, my Dad, almost jumping, grabbed my attention by saying, "Look, there's Hans Stuck, get a picture with him!" I recognized the name, but didn't know as much about his racing career as I do now.
Hans-Joachim Stuck (left) (photo c/o David Pitt.)
A Le Mans winner, he also won the 1990 DTM with Audi, the World Sportscar Championship with Derek Bell and Porsche in 1985 as well as securing a couple of podium finishes in Formula One.
He was easily the most outgoing, friendly, almost goofy driver I met that day. He signed my program and let me take this nice photo with him. He's still one of my all-time favorite drivers.
The first practice session was about to start so my Dad and I decided to see the cars in action. Sitting near the final hairpin, we were able to see the almost instant acceleration of the cars coming back onto the main straight. I remember the wail of the V12 in the BMW LMR as well as the earth-rattling roar of the Ford V8 in the Panoz (a sensation you hear as well as feel.) We then went down to the Festival Chicane where we saw the prototypes and GTS decelerate, again almost instantly, from top speed. It was too something to behold.
With about ten minutes left before the session ended, we decided to head back to the paddock. I had met many of the Formula One drivers I had wanted to, but there was one left: J.J. Lehto. He had driven for several teams, like Sauber and Benetton, in F1 and had scored a podium finish in 1991's San Marino Grand Prix.
He was driving for the factory BMW Team Schnitzer, so I headed to that pit.
J.J. Lehto inside the BMW V12 LMR (photo c/o David Pitt.)
Like at most tracks, there is a concrete retaining wall separating the fans from the pit stands. Then there is another concrete wall separating the pit stands from the pit lane itself.
I waited by the BMW pit and noticed Lehto getting out of the car. He noticed me and gestured: signalling he had to talk with his mechanics first but that he would sign my books in a few minutes. Standing a few feet from the retaining wall, I was a little nervous. The 1994 Autocourse I had brought covered his season with Benetton. During the season, he suffered a massive testing accident which shortened it. It was his last year in F1. Would he be offended? Well, if he was, I had the race program he could sign instead. I wasn't going to pass up another chance to meet a Formula One driver.
After a few minutes, Lehto had finished talking with his mechanics and started walking towards me. He was about 10 or 15 feet away when, seemingly out of nowhere, four or five people jumped in front of me, asking him to sign their die-cast cars, books and programs. I was stunned. But what happened next made it all worth it.
J.J. Lehto (center) talking with a local television station reporter (photo c/o David Pitt.)
Lehto walked straight past the other fans, only signed my book and program (I thanked him) then walked straight back to his team trailer. If there was ever a motor-racing equivalent of a mic drop, that would have been it!
There were many other drivers and team personnel I met. (I've included their photos in the album at the end of the article.) I can't thank them enough for how generous and welcoming they all were, especially to a twelve-year old who was just learning about their sport.
As we got back in the van and headed home, I had enjoyed each and every moment of the experience. Seeing the cars first-hand, getting to meet the drivers and learn about the sport in person was incredible. I had enjoyed it and, without needing to ask, knew my Dad had too.
I knew I needed to learn more about the sport. I needed to get ready for the next time we'd see them...in the future! All the way...in the year 2000!