Need for Speed

- by

With the future of Hutchinson Island’s road course in question, local automobile aficionados race to preserve Savannah’s sports car culture

“IT WAS A SPIRITED TOUR.” 

This is how Kevin Iocovozzi describes the “race line” tour he recently provided Savannah City Manager Jay Melder and Councilman Nick Palumbo around the Grand Prize of America Road Course on Hutchinson Island. Yes, the drive in his Mercedes Benz S500 was enjoyable, as it is in the nature of fast cars to be fun. However, Iocovozzi’s purpose was less about raising heart rates and more about raising awareness. 

“There’s this great asset sitting right here in our city that’s being Overlooked,” he says. “And we’re trying to save it.” 

Iocovozzi is a vintage car racer and founding president of the Oglethorpe Driving Club, a faction of some 50 Savannah automobile enthusiasts that was formed in 2006 for those whose interests weren’t solely dedicated to a single carmaker. 

A look back at the 2017 Savannah Speed Week at the Grand Prize of America Road Course on Hutchinson Island. // Photography by MICHAEL HRIZUK

Prospective members of the club (mind you, there is a waiting list) don’t necessarily have to own a car to join, but Iocovozzi does insist on three criteria: an appreciation for all things motorsport, saving the Hutchinson Island track and raising money for Bethesda Academy. Each year, in addition to hosting oyster roasts, rallies, track days and awards banquets to name their Sportsmen of the Year, the club also holds the “Cars on the Burn” car show at Bethesda to raise funds for scholarships to the former orphanage-turned-private-school for at-risk young men. On average, the club has raised $15,000 per year for the last three years. (This year’s event was moved to Labor Day Weekend due to rain on the original date in July.)

This is a cause that is close to Iocovozzi not only for personal reasons, but also because it harkens back to the early 20th-century American Grand Prize Races, when spectators purchased lemonade at a homemade stand by the residents of the Bethesda Home for Boys as drivers whizzed past at more than 80 miles per hour. 

Kevin Iocovozzi rounds the bend on the Grand Prize track, turn 3. // Courtesy of OGLETHORPE DRIVING CLUB

A REARVIEW LOOK

Picture it: Savannah, mid-March. 

The early spring air feels electric, as throngs of people — some local, some just visiting — line the fringes of familiar roadways like Bull Street and Estill Avenue (now Victory Drive). 

Spectators pack into position as they vie for the perfect viewing spot, scanning the slick, freshly oiled roadways for any signs (or sounds) of approaching automobiles. Local businesses have closed shop early in anticipation of the revelry sure to accompany the day’s events. Even public schools have taken a holiday; though the countless high school students who threatened to skip class anyway might have had something to do with that. 

Sound familiar? Sure it does. But before visions of shamrocks and shillelaghs start dancing in your head, let’s back things up a bit. 

This is 1908. And it’s not St. Patrick’s Day — it’s stock car racing. 

At that time, the races were orchestrated by the Savannah Automobile Club (SAC), an organization founded in 1904 that boasted some of the city’s heaviest and most influential hitters, including Club President Frank C. Battey. They believed that establishing Savannah as a major player on the racing circuit would reward the city tenfold, bolstering economic, social and industrial interests with affluent guests from across the globe.

Hutchinson Island Grand Prize track, 2017 // Photography by MICHAEL HRIZUK

As is expected of the Hostess City of the South, Savannah gave a warm welcome to the thousands of worldly guests who descended upon their seaside city. The carefully banked curves along White Bluff and the lengthy Dale Avenue straightaway gave competitors the speed they craved while also ensuring that things were still (mostly) safe. Savannah racing was such a success that SAC continued the streak with the American Grand Prize Races in 1908 and 1910, and even the Vanderbilt Cup in 1911.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s, when a group of like-minded individuals sought to reignite that same fervor for international racing in Savannah. Following discussions with city and county officials, a swath of county road on Hutchinson Island was allocated to serve as a technically sound, professionally designed (and taxpayer-funded) racing circuit that would attract the same worldwide attention à la 1908.

Approved by the Fédération International de L’Automobile (FIA), the track was slated to host only two events per year — races aren’t exactly quiet — with an Indy Lights race dubbed the Dixie Crystals Grand Prix slated for opening day on May 18, 1997. Sadly, the push was ill-fated. Although it was well received by the teams, drivers and spectators, several businesses involved with the track’s construction and food vendors were impatient for profits to roll in, and all subsequent races were canceled.


“At these events, they’re able to have a little friendly competition and have authentic talks. Everyone can really enjoy the experience and culture of cars.” — Ken Lee, Solo Savannah Chairman for the Buccaneer Region of the Sports Car Club of America


GRAND PRIX DREAMING

In the ongoing attempt to prove that the paved gem nestled into Hutchinson Island wasn’t just some “asphalt on dirt,” but instead fully deserving of the glory it was intended, the Oglethorpe Driving Club worked closely with organizers of the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance & Motoring Festival to develop Savannah Speed Week back in 2008. 

The annual Speed Week — which of course included vintage automobile races — continued through 2019 and was fully expected to return after its COVID-related hiatus in 2020. Recent development on Hutchinson Island, however, dropped another fly in the motor oil, and, once again, the future of racing in Savannah ended in a question mark. 

But with this year’s announcement that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon would no longer take place in Savannah, Iocovozzi believes that the window of opportunity has opened to establish another major event certain to attract people to the city for a much different kind of race — and without tying up the streets for hours on end. 

Courtesy of OGLETHORPE DRIVING CLUB

Iocovozzi envisions a marquee event that is as beneficial for patrons as it is for the development groups that are currently creating multiple mixed-use spaces on the island. Think crowds attending car shows in the adjacent Savannah Convention Center, shopping in retail stores and watching the day’s races from hotel balconies, as they do in the streets of Monaco and Long Beach.

And with some of the same proponents who spearheaded the original construction in 1997 behind this new endeavor, it’s all possible. But as Iocovozzi says, it’s a path that needs to be walked slowly and in careful conjunction with Hutchinson Island’s varied set of stakeholders.

“I can’t fault the developers for wanting to minimize their costs,” he says, though this may be at the detriment of the course itself.  “What we need to impress upon our city’s leadership is the importance of having this advantage — and to invest in it. Eventually, the racecourse will complement whatever they’re developing.”

Ken Lee, who currently serves as the Solo Savannah Chairman for the Buccaneer Region of the Sports Car Club of America, also believes that Savannah needs racing.

The organization hosts one autocross competition per month on Hutchinson Island. Although they are largely limited to the track’s paddock area, Lee says that the years-long development projects, like the $271-million expansion of the Savannah Convention Center, have sometimes reduced their playground on race day. Still, competitors often travel from a wide range of distances to participate, and membership is continuing to grow. Organized events like these, Lee says, allow drivers to create a much-needed sense of community with each other in a safe, sanctioned space.

“We help keep people connected,” Lee explains, adding that without coordinated racing, drivers might be limited to hanging out in empty parking lots or other less desirable locations. “At these events, they’re able to have a little friendly competition and have authentic talks. Everyone can really enjoy the experience and culture of cars.” 


Courtesy of OGLETHORPE DRIVING CLUB

CRUSADE FOR THE CUP

For the Savannah Automobile Club, hosting the Vanderbilt Cup Races was the holy grail in the early 1900s.

Started by American business magnate W.K. Vanderbilt and held annually in Long Island, New York, the prestigious series of sporting events had amassed quite an international following. Yet, popularity came at a high cost; as the crowds swelled to unmanageable sizes, accidents became more frequent. 

New York’s citizens balked at the inconvenience of road closures on race days, and its governor balked at the dollars being spent on deploying military safeguards to keep said citizens safely off the track. After a spectator was fatally injured in 1906 and several bids for relocation of the 1907 running ultimately failed, the race’s future was in dire straits. 

Recognizing that Long Island’s loss could become their gain, the SAC — as well as Savannah Mayor George Tiedeman — pitched Savannah not only as a potential replacement for the Vanderbilt Cup, but also for a race that could be even better. Prison laborers (who would eventually become spectators on race day) performed the arduous task of building out and upgrading many of the city’s more neglected roadways. To offset the same pedestrian-related incidents that had plagued their northern counterpart, Georgia Governor Hoke Smith enacted an aggressive military and police presence to preserve and protect the course. 

The city went out on a high note in 1911, for it was the last race to be held in Savannah for quite some time.