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Portland Grand Prix Racing Has Portlandia-Esque Origins

Portland is weird, sure, but it is also all about racing

Audrey Davis
September 16 2021

In case you missed it, the Grand Prix of Portland took place this past weekend – and yes, you’re thinking of the right Portland.

The weirdness capital of the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly known for motorsports, or any kind of motors for that matter. In a city so preoccupied with staying green, it’s natural to assume that residents would prefer to either take public transportation or ride around yelling about bicycle rights. At the very least, you’d think there would be some Portlandia style shenagins involved:

But in reality, car culture in Oregon has been around for decades, and traces back to the same root causes that brought automobile obsession to other parts of the West Coast.

Portland International Raceway entrance: Wiki Commons

The Grand Prix of Portland takes place at the Portland International Raceway, which is also home to drag racing, motocross, and classic car cruise-ins. IndyCar racing is relatively new to this raceway, starting up in 2018 after the end of the annual CART series race brought about a decade-long hiatus. But the Portland International Raceway is not unfamiliar with hardship; in fact, it owes its existence to a devastating natural disaster from over 70 years ago, just after a major industrial boom expanded and transformed Portland.

In the 1940s, at the height of World War II, a newly built housing project outside of Portland became the second largest city in Oregon. Initially, Vanport, Oregon wasn’t supposed to be a city at all, just a place to house workers from Portland’s wartime shipyards. Like in parts of California, wartime industry had arrived in Portland in a big way, and new housing was necessary to accommodate the large influx of labor. However, many of Vanport’s 40,000 residents left after the war ended, and those who remained were stuck in vulnerable, hastily built homes. In 1948, a year of unusually heavy rain (even for Portland), a railroad dike cracked and sent waters from nearby Smith Lake crashing down on Vanport. In just one day – Memorial Day 1948 – intense flood water wiped out the entire city.

Vanport Flood: Wiki Commons

The land that had once been the city of Vanport became a part of Portland in 1960, and by this time, professional auto racing had become a wildly popular sport in the U.S. Given how fully and completely the Memorial Day flood had destroyed Vanport’s housing structures and other buildings, it seemed like the perfect spot to start from scratch and build a racetrack.

Chip Ganassi Racing: CGRTeams/Twitter

Three-quarters of a century later, the site of the Vanguard housing project is booming once again, thanks to a revived racing series that challenges Grand Prix cars with a 12-turn course over 1.967 miles. The big winner of this year’s race was Chip Ganassi Racing, which finished in both first and third with Hondas driven by Alex Palou and Scott Dixon, respectively. These results moved Palou ahead of second place driver Alexander Rossi to claim the IndyCar championship lead, an exciting development that proves motorsports in the Pacific Northwest can’t be ignored, no matter how weird things get. 



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