Remembering The Grand Prix Of Denver

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Greetings from a warm and comfortable hotel room in a very cold Denver, Colorado. I don’t travel much at all with my job. This is only my fourth work-related trip in the past three years. I’ve been to Atlanta, Denver, Louisville and now back to Denver – and that’s it. But I’ve already been told to expect a trip to Washington, D.C. in mid-January. Why can’t they send me to Miami or Phoenix in these winter months?

I have been here in Denver since Monday. The last time I was here was in July of 2016. It was very pleasant then, but it was predicted to be a bitter 14° here on Monday night. I’m not sure if it made that far down, but I know it was cold. I was told that cold temperatures don’t feel as cold in Denver. Baloney! Don’t let anyone tell you that. It’s frigid here.

My hotel is right in the middle of downtown. In fact, I’m just a few blocks away from where Champ Car raced in Denver from 2002 to 2006. Just a few blocks the other way, was where CART raced in 1990 and 1991.

By the time Champ Car raced here in the 2000s, my allegiance had already shifted from CART to IndyCar – so I don’t think I paid too much attention to those five Denver races that were won twice by Bruno Junqueira, twice by Sébastien Bourdais and once by AJ Allmendinger. But those two Denver races back in the nineties were back when I couldn’t get enough of CART.

In my two trips here in the last couple of years, I’ve seen parts of each track up close and personal. It’s hard to look at the area and think that Indy cars were once whizzing by amongst the tall buildings and narrow streets. But even though I’m not partial to street races, I found this race somewhat fascinating in 1990 and 1991.

One thing that I recall was that Al Unser, Jr. won them both. In 1990, Al battled Bobby Rahal all day but took the lead for good with seven laps to go. In 1991 he dominated, leading sixty-four of seventy laps. In 1991, it was one of only two races that Little Al won (the other being Long Beach). It was a somewhat disappointing season, since Unser, Jr. was coming off a championship season in 1990. But for whatever reason, the streets of downtown Denver suited the driving style of Little Al. Maybe it’s because the Unsers originally came to Albuquerque from Colorado. Probably not, but it sounded good.

I cannot over-emphasize what I mean when I say they were racing around tall buildings. This was not a remote area of downtown. It ran right by the state capitol and had a series of 90° turns as most of that area is built on a grid. It was not the most thrilling of races to watch because cars could never really reach high speeds. But the backdrop of the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Denver rivaled Long Beach and Toronto for scenic race shots.

One thing that sticks in my mind were the ABC cameras showing residents of downtown Denver gathering on balconies and peering out of windows that literally looked straight down onto the track. Talk about a great place for a viewing party…

Another thing I remember about this race were the giant brake ducts on the cars. Apparently the thin Colorado air did not suit the brakes that were overused in the tight confines of downtown Denver. It seems that I recall brake issues playing havoc in both of those races.

As I said earlier in this post and many times over the years; I’m not a fan of street races at all. I can live with the ones we have now (St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Belle Isle and Toronto), but we’ve seen many more of them come and go than we’ve seen stay. The list of former street races is way too long to mention, but a few recent notables are Baltimore, Houston (twice), Tamiami Park in Miami (twice), Cleveland, Edmonton, The Meadowlands, Vancouver and Denver.

Baltimore was a favorite among fans who travelled there, but the locals were against it. The Meadowlands was a joke as they raced around a freeway interchange near Giants Stadium. Cleveland was one I enjoyed and hope to see back some day. And then there was Denver.

I’m not sure why the CART version lasted only those two years. It seemed to be well-attended. If I was going to selected races each year then like I do now, that would be one I would have chosen. There are worse places to be in August than Colorado, although I can’t say the same for December. I know when the race ran in August of 1991, they were expecting it back on the schedule for 1992. But by the time the next season rolled around, Denver was absent on the CART schedule.

Champ Car returned a decade later, but times had changed and I don’t recall it being very well attended. By 2007, Denver was off the schedule again.

Although I’m complaining about the bitter cold temps here, I really like Denver. It’s rustic and cosmopolitan all at the same time. I wish that a race could pop up here at some point. But with Pikes Peak International Raceway not making it as an IndyCar track and two versions of a Denver Grand Prix failing – the chances aren’t good at IndyCar making a return here any time soon. But being here and looking at where that beautiful Valvoline Lola-Chevy was taking the checkered flag almost thirty years ago, sure brought back a lot of fond memories.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “Remembering The Grand Prix Of Denver”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Thanks for sharing. I was kinda young and not gung-ho into motorsports like I am now so I don’t think I was aware that races happened in Denver. Might have to search them out on YouTube, sounds like it was a cool sight.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – If you have the opportunity to travel a bit from Denver, you might want to look up the Castle Rock Race course.

    Don’t know if it still is operational.

    One day closer to Spring ! !

    • Chris Lukens Says:

      If you are referring to Continental Divide Raceways, it is, sadly, long gone.
      I, along with about 500 other fans, watched AJ Foyt win a road race there in 1968.

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        Yes, indeed. It was Continental Divide Raceway at Castle Rock. Attended an SCCA Continental Championship Race (Think that was the title of the race series then) back in 1968 while attending a joint services school at Lowery AFB, which I understand my no longer exist as well.

        Chris – What has become of Continental Divide Raceway?

        Thanks. – Bruce.

        • Chris Lukens Says:

          Go to Google maps and look for Castle Rock, CO and for the inter section of Dawson Ridge Blvd and Gambel Ridge Drive North, click satellite view and you can see the vague outlines where CDR used to be. I have a lot of good memories of that place. I may have attended that same SCCA event.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Cleveland does need to return!

  4. johnoreovicz Says:

    Your allegiance shifted to the IRL, not IndyCar….

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Much more than the actual race, I recall the 90s Denver track (or rather, the representation of it) in the Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat video game. It was full of hairpins and 90 degree turns, like its real-life counterpart, though I recall it also raced much faster than the other road/street courses in the game (including flowy Cleveland).

  6. Chris Lukens Says:

    I also remember those large brake ducts. The other side of that story is that the teams had to cut out portions of the sidepods to get enough of that thin air through the radiators to cool the engines. They towed about 100 miles south to Pueblo Motor Sports Park to test their ad-hoc cooling systems.

  7. I remember watching the 2000s Denver races. Weren’t one of those where PT and Tag got into a bit of a dust up after the race, or was that somewhere else?

    • billytheskink Says:

      You might be thinking of San Jose, where Tracy foolishly re-entered the track from a run-off area without checking for traffic and ran right into the front of Tag’s car. Tag, with his helmet still on, then confronted Tracy in the pits and, with Derek Daly egging him on from the booth, grappled with him.

      Tracy and Bourdais tangled on the last lap at Denver in 2006 (in the so-called “mile-wide turn”, battling for 2nd, and Bourdais briefly confronted Tracy on track after the wreck, walking away as Tracy removed his helmet to continue the confrontation.

      This led to Tracy’s tremendously enjoyable stunt at Montreal, showing up in a luchadores’ mask and wearing the Quebec flag as a cape and winning over at least some of a French-Canadian crowd that Bourdais himself called on in the days before the race to give Tracy a hostile welcome.

  8. 1 . “Why can’t they send me to Miami or Phoenix in these winter
    months?” cheaper travel costs?
    2. “Apparently the thin Colorado air did not suit the brakes…”
    how does it suit you?
    3. “Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Denver…”
    sponsorship is the first step to race day.

  9. Carburetor Says:

    I attended the 1991 race and it was boring (and little Al was my favorite driver). There were long stretches of no activity (no cars within the viewing area) and the large screen monitors that were showing the action elsewhere on the track were just marginal. It was my first non-oval race that I attended, and it just reinforced my preference for ovals (especially the shorter tracks where you can follow the car around the entire track…). I believe one reason that the race was not renewed in Denver is because the local, downtown merchants and businesses were very upset at the disruption in traffic patterns and blocked pedestrian ways for the 3-4 days of the event and the negative impact on their business. The crowd was pretty good, but I heard that the crowd was not necessarily patronizing the local businesses.

    • That sounds about right as far as far as the supposed disruptions it caused downtown. I remember being disappointed at that attitude. It’s a big deal when an IndyCar event comes to your town and it should be embraced in my opinion. It was then moved to the Pepsi center in the early 2000’s and that was short lived as well. I’m glad I saw all of the IndyCar events here in Denver because they will probably never happen again.

  10. youtube 1991 cart indy car grand prix of denver. one of Paul Pages best intros! Symphony playing the Cowboy Overture, watch the car 14 slide aroung a corner. Great Stuff!

  11. After reading others’ comments, I forget whatever I’d intended to say. So I’ll say thanks for blogging and say that Champ Car raced not in Tamiami Park but Bicentennial Park 1995–2002 (I went from Tampa).

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