It was a bold and risky move back in 1984, teaming a century-old civic celebration with a vibrant motor race. Sure, the Portland Rose Festival had supported the amateur Rose Cup races in the past. But this was different. This was big time. The same cars and drivers that made history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be coming to Stumptown to make history at Portland International Raceway. Would a town smitten with professional hoops and outdoor recreation make room on its crowded summer schedule for an Indy Car race?
The answer was - and is - a resounding, "Yes." Today, 24 years later, the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland is as much a part of the Portland landscape as the Grand Floral Parade and traffic jams on the Sunset Highway. For over two decades now, race fans - and local businesses - have been treated to a first-class, major league sporting event, a spectacle that has infused nearly $200 million into the local economy, pumped $4 million into track improvements, and provided motor racing fans with enough thrills and memories to fill a lifetime.
The story of Champ Cars and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) in Portland is one of vision, persistence, guile and serendipity, and the credit goes to a handful of visionaries who realized that professional big-time auto racing would play in Portland. Foremost among them was a long-time Portland transplant from Massachusetts, William Hildick.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hildick managed the motorsports program for Norton Company, which was a sponsor of Roger Penske's powerful race team. In other words, he knew the inner workings of racing. Hildick, a Dartmouth grad, also happened to be Director of the Rose Festival Association and chairman of the Rose Festival Race Committee, which oversaw the Rose Cup event. Thus, he possessed a unique resume: racing kingpin and local mover-and-shaker. He also had one other thing - a deep desire to bring Indy cars to Portland.
Concurrently, the Indy car racing scene was in transition. The fledgling CART series, which had broken away from the United States Auto Club in 1977, was looking to expand into new markets. Sure, Portland was a "reach," Hildick thought, but why not? Portland had a track, albeit one that needed sprucing up, and a town hungry for a second professional sports "franchise." Hildick bounced the idea off friend and fellow motorhead Robert Ames, then an executive with First Interstate Bank, Mike Nealy, a local promoter who was responsible for the success of Portland's IMSA sports car race, the G.I. Joe's Gran Prix, and Norm Daniels of G. I. Joe's. Ames was dubious that Hildick's idea would fly, particularly the economics, but he agreed to help Hildick sell the idea to local business leaders and politicians. Nealy knew motorsports would work in Portland; he had proven it with IMSA.
In 1982, Hildick had preliminary discussions with then-CART chairman John Frasco, meeting him in Phoenix. "I remember looking up at big John," recalled Hildick, "and he wouldn't give me the time of day. I kind of laid this thing out - he wasn't showing a lot of interest - and then he said, next time I'm in Portland, I'll look you up."
Hildick believed this was a positive sign, and he continued to sell Frasco on the idea. Moreover, his old Norton contact, Roger Penske, kept encouraging him. "It just started making more and more sense," Hildick said.
At the same time, the City Council was buying into the idea. Mayor Frank Ivancie was positive, as was Commissioner Mildred Schwab. What happened next was a turning point in the effort: Hildick and Nealy organized an Indy-car audition, with Al Unser, Sr. doing the driving duties. This was akin to having a one-player slam-dunk demonstration as a tryout for landing an NBA franchise.
On September 3, 1982, Unser blasted around PIR in front of Rose Festival brass, CART officials, City Council members, and Oregonian sports columnist Steve Duin, then gave the track a thumbs up. As Hildick later told The Oregonian, "We were all up in the third floor of the tower. The mayor was there. So was (Rose Festival president) Al Bullier and (CART director of operations) Kirk Russell. Boy, when that thing started blasting around, I mean, everybody in the place was smiling. CART said, maybe we can do this. The test showed that the whole thing was a possible reality."
Of course, running a lone Indy car around a track with no spectators is one thing. Hosting a full-blown CART race was something altogether different. To accommodate a real CART event, PIR would need to undergo a major facelift - extensive improvements that would require extensive investment. While CART was inclined to add Portland to the 1983 schedule, PIR wasn't ready; the financing and construction couldn't be completed in time. However, Portland was indeed added to the 1984 CART schedule, as the final event of an expanded three-week Rose Festival.
With the date set, PIR's transformation began. The changes included relocating the CART paddock/pit area to the infield, revamping and repaving Turn 9, resurfacing the main straight, adding concrete barriers, upgrading communications, telephone, electric power, and water lines, and erecting reserved seat grandstands for 23,000 fans.
As construction crews swarmed over PIR, the organizers went about filling two important roles in the organizational effort: a promoter and sponsors. The promotional question had a simple answer: Nealy and his agency, Thunder Media (today called Global Events Group). Nealy had already been instrumental in landing the race, and he could boast prior motorsports experience. Moreover, the flamboyant Nealy was as comfortable booking a one-man band at a county fair as he was schmoozing a CEO in a corporate boardroom. Nealy was a natural.
Race officials also didn't have to look far for a title sponsor. At the time, the Northwest's most loyal patron of motorsports was G.I. Joe's, a backer of both the Rose Festival Rose Cup Races and the IMSA sports car race, the G.I. Joe's Gran Prix. Guided by young, energetic executive Norm Daniels, G.I. Joe's was ready to take its motorports involvement to the next level - to Indy cars.
Sure enough, Daniels signed up G.I. Joe's as co-title sponsor, but a second title sponsor was needed to cover costs. Coincidentally, Detroit-based Stroh's Brewery was about to introduce its beverages in the Northwest. Persuaded by Nealy's salesmenship, Stroh's signed on to sponsor the inaugural race. It would be called the Stroh's/G.I. Joe's 200.
Stroh's would continue as co-title sponsor for two years, before Budweiser joined G.I. Joe's for the 1986 race. The event's Bud life lasted until 2000, when local trucking giant, Freightliner Corporation, became co-title sponsor. G.I. Joe's continued as the lone marquee sponsor for another six years after.
With the sponsorships in place, there was still one nagging question: "I don't think anyone, and that included Bill, was absolutely dead certain that enough people were going to show up," recalled Ames.
The worries proved unfounded. The inaugural Stroh's/G.I. Joe's 200 was a home run, the motorsports equivalent of a 500-ft. Barry Bonds blast. More than 40,000 weekend spectators jammed PIR's verdant expanse. The corporate "chalet village" buzzed with local and national business tycoons. And the race itself was scintillating, a Hollywood-type script that saw Al Unser, Jr. - who a week earlier served as Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade - beat back a challenge from Geoff Brabham for his first career CART win. ESPN televised the drama to a national audience. Local merchants reaped the financial rewards of millions of dollars in economic impact. It didn't even rain.
The first year's success set the stage for a series of Portland races that secured its place as a regular stop on the CART tour. Mario Andretti won in 1985, and again in 1986, this time beating his son, Michael, to the finish line by a mere seven-hundredths of a second. On Father's Day no less. Over the next few years it seemed as if only CART's best could conquer PIR's challenging 1.9-mile road course. Bobby Rahal won in 1987, Danny Sullivan in 1988, followed by Emerson Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti, who won three in a row. Altogether, the list of Portland winners reads like a who's who of CART greats - Unser Jr., the Andrettis, Sullivan, Fittipaldi, Alex Zanardi, Mark Blundell, Gil de Ferran, Max Papis, and Christiano da Matta.
Perhaps the biggest winner of all was the City of Portland. In two decades the race has pumped nearly $200 million into the local economy and over $4 million in improvements at PIR, while the national and international television broadcasts have showcased Portland's unique beauty to millions of viewers worldwide. The value of this exposure is incalculable. For one weekend, the sporting world's attention focuses on the Rose City. Furthermore, the race has progressed from simple car race to a community-wide party that appeals to race and non-race fans alike.
"It's hard to overestimate the impact the race has had on Portland," explained Nealy. "It's been a tremendous boon to local businesses and has spurred growth in the city. For hotels near Delta Park, it's their biggest weekend of the year, and downtown restaurants, from Jake's to Morton's, are crowded with CART fans and glitterati. More than dollars, though, the race brought a much-needed second major sport to the city."
Hildick concurs. "When I think about it now, it was a pretty bold idea to bring the Indy cars to Portland
It's been a total team effort: Rose Festival, Global Events Group, the hundreds of Festival volunteers, sponsors like G.I. Joe's, Stroh's, Budweiser, Freightliner, and countless others
and, of course, the fans. Northwesterners love their motorsports, and we feel privileged to have delivered the best open-wheel racing in the world for two decades"
After financial trouble in 2004, the CART series was reborn into the Champ Car World Series and now it is stronger than ever. And Portland officials are working hard to keep Champ Car here. In 2003 a group of business, civic, and tourism leaders - the Portland, Oregon Visitors Association (POVA), the Portland Business Alliance, the Oregon Sports Authority, and the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber - formed a coalition to not only promote the race and its immediate financial impact, but also to find ways for the race to power state-wide economic growth.
With the coalition's efforts and with fans like you supporting the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland, we hope to keep the Champ Car World Series in Portland for years to come. Thank you for your support.
Past Race Winners: Portland Champ Car Event
June 17, 1984 Al Unser Jr.
June 16, 1985 Mario Andretti
June 15, 1986 Mario Andretti
June 14, 1987 Bobby Rahal
June 19, 1988 Danny Sullivan
June 25, 1989 Emerson Fittipaldi
June 24, 1990 Michael Andretti
June 23, 1991 Michael Andretti
June 21, 1992 Michael Andretti
June 27, 1993 Emerson Fittipaldi
June 26, 1994 Al Unser Jr.
June 25, 1995 Al Unser Jr
June 23, 1996 Alex Zanardi
June 22, 1997 Mark Blundell
June 21, 1998 Alex Zanardi
June 20, 1999 Gil de Ferran
June 25, 2000 Gil de Ferran
June 24, 2001 Max Papis
June 16, 2002 Cristiano da Matta
June 22, 2003 Adrian Fernandez
June 20, 2004 Sebastian Bourdais
June 19, 2005 Cristiano da Matta
June 18, 2006 A.J. Allmendinger
June 10, 2007 Sebastian Bourdais
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