Savannah

 

 

I kicked around in the soft earth, hopeful at first but soon losing heart in my fanciful daydream. All I'd accomplished was to disturb the soft mulch of decomposing leaves and acorns, my bright white trainers hazed in fine brown dirt. An SUV slapped its horn with wanton abandon because I'd dared to stray within a full car length of the traffic.


What had I hoped for? A scrap of bodywork, a rusting oil can? A nut, a bolt, a louse-riddled beam? Even a long-forgotten plaque, an eyesore of a sculpture I'd hoped for something, but would have taken anything. I kicked about in the dirt some more anyway, my reward for walking three miles out of my way on a sharp spring day. The traffic lights changed at the crossroads. Accelerator dipped, engine revved, a car roared down the boulevard, broke ahead of the pack. That was the spirit.

Most visit Savannah for its southern charms and crab meat chowder, others for the picturesque town squares that blossom with character. I was there to walk the finish line of America's first Grand Prix.

Savannah wasn't the country's first home to motor racing; Nassau County in New York's Long Island claimed that title in 1904 when cars first vied for the Vanderbilt Cup, but the event was suspended in 1907 because of safety concerns. The organisers refused to recognise new rules drawn up by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus, the fledging governing body established to govern motor racing around the world, and a small city in South Carolina saw its opportunity. The Savannah Automobile Club agreed to adopt the new Grand Prix regulations, and the scene was for the first official event on US soil.

Convict labour toiled away at the 25 mile-long course to the south of Savannah's now-historic downtown district, bordered by the occasional palm and oak showered in Spanish moss. A sprawling spectator stand, some two blocks long was erected at the trackside of what was then Estill Avenue, now Victory Drive, a vantage point that allowed cars to be seen up to a mile away. It was hardly adequate for the quarter of a million spectators drawn to the event; like a Chuck Jones cartoon, hotelier's eyes spun with dollar signs as they threw open the doors of their ballrooms and welcomed guests to bed down.

As the early morning fog bled away on Thanksgiving morning, November 26 1908, a flag was waved and the first US Grand Prix was underway. 20 drivers from the USA, Italy, France and Germany motored along at bone-rattling speeds averaging 65 miles per hour for 402 miles over 16 laps. Avoiding potentially lethal perils such as loose chickens and stray dogs on the track, Frenchman Louis Wagner won the race in a sporty little Fiat and lifted the first American Grand Prize Cup. International motor racing remained in Savannah for only three more seasons, but in that time the hearts of millions more spectators pounded; in awe of the magnificent men and their driving machines, and with affection for the sweet, tree-lined charm of the city that hosted them. 

 

Those days of glory have all but been lost to time. There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it collection of photos in the Savannah History Museum; one member of staff only knew of the city's racing heritage through stories told by an octogenarian friend. There's nothing along Valley Drive to sugest the city ever contributed to the world of motor racing. Today it's a four lanes of cross-town traffic, with Savannah oaks lining the boulevard and local drivers going about their day. Most of those Savannahians aren't aware of their morning commute's place in history, yet every day they're speeding across the line of the greatest race on Earth.

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.