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The loneliest race track

Sitges-Terramar's history

15/02/2014 09:30 | Comments: 

A beginner bursting with enthusiasm, happy to learn the tricks of the trade from the greats of Hungarian automotive journalism. Doesn’t own a car yet, which makes him a queer fish at the office. A curious all-round talent who also blogs about New York and the Middle-East.

Sitges-Terramar, the old, abandoned Gand Prix track in Spain with a sad history.

The roaring 20's. A term referring to the period between the end of World War I and the Great Depression of 1929, characterized by enormous economic and technological progress both in the US and Europe. The relative welfare and the excessive optimism of the investors had a good effect, among many things, on car manufacturing and motorsports. While oval tracks were all the rage in the US by then, in Europe the trend was just about to emerge.

For a long time the only decent oval track in Europe was Brooklands in England, built in 1907. On the continent the races were mostly held on converted public roads and airports, then between 1922 and 1924 three oval tracks were built all of a sudden. One in every year, actually: the Autodomo Nazionale Monza was built in 1922, and the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry just outside of Paris, in 1924. Both of them mixed the features of an oval track with other designs. The track in Monza may be familiar, if only because clips of the legendary final are being shown every time a Formula-1 Grand Prix is being broadcast. The Montlhéry oval track is lesser known, although it is in a far better condition than the Italian track. There is, however, a third oval track, which was built in Spain 1923, namely the Autódromo de Sitges-Terramar, which is neither well-known, nor in use.

It’s hard for me to think of a more sorry sight than a decaying race track. And the Autódromo de Sitges-Terramar had a sorry past to match. The track carved in rocky land 30 kilometres outside of Barcelona was the brain child of a local hero, Frick Armangue, who intended to build an oval track near Sitges and turn the sleepy seaside town into a hotspot of European motorsport.  After 300 workdays, 4 million pesetas spent and 3.5 million kilograms of cement used the  2 km long track with 60 degree banking turns was ready for action. It had everything going for it. It could have become the definitive track of its time.

The opening event was an international race named Spanish Grand Prix held on 28 October, 1923, which was supposed to make Spain return to the Grand Prix circuit after 10 long years of absence. Two-litre cars were expected to take part in the 200-lap race, to which only seven contestants showed up, among them the wealthy Earl Louis Zborowski with his Miller. Of the only 5 contestants finishing all of the 200 laps it was a little known French racer, Albert Divo who came first in his Sunbeam, with an average speed of 155.89 km/h.

The future of the track was  sealed by a scandal right away: the prize money  was never paid. Although Frick Armangue had done a great job making sure the construction of the track was finished in time, he wasn’t very reliable when it came to financing it. Refusing to be made fools the unpaid construction workers had taken the proceeds from the ticket sales, leaving the organizers without a penny. The international car racing community wasn’t thrilled to learn what had happened and blacklisted Sitges-Terramar immediately. The Catalan Motorsport Association tried to keep the business going by organizing local races, but those didn’t make enough money to keep the boat afloat. The worldwide economic depression was only the coup de grâce; a few years after opening the track was already abandoned. The last major race was held there in the fifties. After that it was reinvented as a chicken farm and a place to graze sheep.

Although the track looks almost one with its surroundings due to the weed growing in the cracks of the concrete, it is in surprisingly good condition. This is mainly thanks to the Catalan climate, but the builders must also have made a great job if a track hasn’t crumbled after 91 hard years without any structural intervention. Today the track is privately owned. Now and then the owners give permission for a photo shoot, but organizing races there is completely out of the question.

It says a lot about the sad history of Sitges-Terramar that until two years ago the rack record was held by Louis Zborowski with his 45.8 from 1923. No one beat that for 89 years, largely due to the lack of opportunity, of course. Then in 2012, it was none other than Spanish rally legend Carlos Sainz who broke the record. With the intention of raising public awareness to the derelict track, Red Bull organized a show driving for a DTM driver and Sainz. The two professionals were asked to drive an Audi R8 LMS, and Sainz did a lap of 42.6. As the technology of 2012 is light years away from that of 1923, the difference of 2 seconds doesn’t seem like much, but under the given circumstances, is certainly praiseworthy. As usual, a video has been made of the event sponsored by Red Bull (in Spanish, with English subtitles): 

The future of Sitges-Terramar is just as uncertain as it has always been, though. Its owners are planning to revive the place, and may just succeed at what Arangue has failed at, although that will take a lot of time and even more money.

 

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