For the first time in almost half a century, the storefronts of Nassau’s Bay Street recently bounced back the open-pipes crackle of a Ferrari V-12 and the challenging blare of big-bore American V-8s as vintage racing machinery manoeuvred to provide the backdrop for a street party celebrating the Bahamas Speed Week Revival.
The high-revs racket of racing engines and a let-it-all-hang-out party atmosphere was what the original and legendary Nassau Speed Week was about when it was held annually between 1954 and 1966.
Back in the day, the elite of European racing – including the likes of Stirling Moss, Alfonso de Portago, Jochen Rindt and Bruce McLaren in their factory exotics – took on American aces Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Roger Penske and Dan Gurney and Corvettes, Cobras, GT40s and “specials” in an end-of-term, no-holds-barred, punch-up on the island’s Oakes Field aerodrome circuit.
Some of the paddock sights and sounds were much the same during the first annual Bahamas Speed Week Revival staged in early December to reprise those glory days, but the atmosphere was perhaps a little more genteel.
The 40-plus entries represented the wide variety of cars that competed in the old Speed Week and ranged from a local Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite to a likely $10-million-plus Ferrari Testa Rossa and a $7-million Maserati 450S entered by Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton.
They participated in a driving tour, a concours d’elegance and a reception at Government House among other social events, before getting down to the somewhat more serious hill-climb and road race events that were Speed Week’s centrepieces.
A neat link to Speed Week’s past was provided by Sir Stirling Moss, now 81 and as of this year, officially retired from a racing career that began in the late 1940s. Despite falling down an elevator shaft and breaking both ankles on landing a year ago, he revealed a still-deft hand at the wheel of his 1950s-era O.S.C.A. FS372 sport racer in a series of demonstration runs.
“It was just like any other race,” recalls Moss of the old days. “Except, of course, there were a lot of parties. I was teetotal and came to race, but the Americans who came over had a much more easy-going attitude, which was right. It was a lot of fun.”
He recalls racing on the Oakes Field circuit as “quite tough” but managed to claim his share of wins including a couple of Nassau Trophies.
But Speed Week wasn’t all about big names and another competitor who turned up for the revival was Bristol Zagato owner Anatoly Arutunoff of Tulsa, who’s served as a pit crew member in 1962 for talented but often unlucky Lloyd Ruby. He’d never driven the Lotus 19 prior to race, says a still admiring Arutunoff but, “he started in the rain, had a lead of 8-10 seconds from Innes Ireland in an identical car and then it blew up.”
Arutunoff returned a year later to race his own Lancia Flaminia Zagato and then his Appia Zagato. “As we did in those days we drove the cars from Oklahoma, put them on the ferry, ran the race and drove them home.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” says Arutunoff, who built his own race track near Tulsa and drove in the revival despite losing a leg in a recent road accident.
Cocktail party chatter is “all I do these days. Get cars ready, compete in them, break them and then do it all again.” This was Brit Mercedes 280 SL driver Alastair Caldwell, team boss at McLaren in the mid-1970s, who pop-riveted together the original McLaren M10, swapping stories with Lotus 15 owner Ian Pugh of Ireland. Competitors, who ponied up $7,500 to enter, were as diverse as they were interesting, which is pretty typical of vintage racing.
The actual “racing” events in the Speed Week revival included a hill-climb that started on the beachfront main road outside Nassau and wound its way up to one of the island’s colonial-era fortifications and included timed and fun runs. It was a mostly too-tight course for the big cars, and with a couple of exceptions nobody was trying very hard. But they were obviously having fun, except perhaps for the Corvette driver whose steering wheel came off in his hands just prior to smacking a trackside wall.
The racing circuit employed a stretch of this road and a parallel road on the beach itself connected at each end. This event was actually a sprint, based on timed runs with a couple of cars on track at the same time. Wind and showers made things interesting for some – one car spun and damaged itself on some curbing – but many took things pretty easy here, too.
But if the actual competition wasn’t quite up to the expectations of the more hard-core racers, nobody seemed to be complaining.
“Two thumbs up for the effort,” says Michigan-based Mike Fisher who ran a rare American-built V-8-engined 1959 Bocar XP5 that American Augie Pabst drove at Speed Week in 1960. “I think the crowd enjoyed having a big loud American V-8 over here, and we had a ton of fun, giving people rides and photo opportunities. And the support and hospitality were fantastic. It was a constantly moving event, we hardly spent any time in our hotel room. I hope it continues and expands.”
So does the Bahamian government, which spent two years creating the revival with help from British pro motor racing event organizer David McLaughlin who says there’s a solid commitment to continue. A track designer is looking at the possibilities for creating a “permanent site for a temporary circuit” something that Speed Week would use in the years ahead for serious vintage racing. “It needs to be real racing to have sustainability,” says McLaughlin.
Back in 1966
How The Grinch Stole Christmas, an animated film based on the book by Dr. Seuss, makes its debut. Still a seasonal favourite on TV and DVD, Boris Karloff narrated and delivered the Grinch’s voice.
Psychologist and advocate of psychedelic drugs Timothy Leary founds the League for Spiritual Discovery, an organization based on his chemically mind-expanded work that espoused the use of LSD for religious purposes. It didn’t outlast the 1960s, but was born again in the new millennium.
Bobby Hull becomes the first NHL player to score more than 50 goals in a season, earning a seven-minute standing ovation from the Chicago Black Hawks crowd for goal 51. His tally for the season is 54. The Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup.
The Beach Boys release Pet Sounds, an album which includes Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows.
Bob Dylan, who would soon spend a year recovering from a motorcycle crash, records his seventh album Blonde on Blonde, which features songs such as Rainy Day Woman, I Want You and Visions of Johanna.