During 1954 – 1966, the Nassau Speed Weeks were a high-octane end of season ‘play-off’ in the sun between Americans and Europeans – serious racing and even more serious partying!
Opportunism played its part in the establishment of the Bahamas Speed Weeks. It was one American in particular, Sherman F. Crise who had the foresight to approach the Nassau Development Board with his idea of promoting motor racing in the Bahamas. Development Board members Sir Sydney Oakes and Robert Hallam Symonette were receptive to Crise’s idea and together they set about forming the Bahamas Automobile Club, with Crise as its Chairman. The Club sought and gained approval from the RAC in London and the AAA in America to organise races, as well as permission from the Bahamas Government to utilise Windsor Field airfield.
The first event was held in 1954, on an airfield that had had little or no work carried out on it since the end of World War II. The runways were abrasive and the surrounds overgrown, but they made the best of what they had. The event started with motorcycle races, the only year they were held, followed by a Bahamas Resident’s Race and three other main races. The Bahamas Automobile Cup was won by Alfonso de Portago in a Ferrari and the Nassau Trophy race won by Masten Gregory, also driving a Ferrari.
The next two years were ones of growth in entrants and the number of races held, but it took until the final race of 1956 before any marque other than a Ferrari won one of the major races. Stirling Moss won the Nassau Trophy race driving a Maserati 300S borrowed from Bill Lloyd.
1957 saw a major upheaval for the Speed Week organisers as the races were relocated to Oakes Field airport, as the Civil Aviation Authority needed the larger Windsor Field site.
Renamed Oakes Course, a track was laid out measuring 5 miles with the cars travelling in an anticlockwise direction. The Island Legislature donated £50,000, which was spent on a pit complex, a press box and a large scoreboard. A GT race was added to the list of races, and for the second year running Stirling Moss won the Nassau Trophy in a borrowed car, this time, the Ferrari 290MM owned by Jan de Vroom.
Following a number of driver complaints on the grounds of safety, the race direction of the track was changed to be clockwise in 1958. The circuit was also shortened to 4.5 miles by cutting out Blackbeard’s Bend and Ecky’s Twist. The problem of professionalism raised its head, and drivers were demanding more prize money. A few of the drivers also expected to have appearance money but Crise was unwilling to pay it. Consequently a few drivers, including Stirling Moss failed to make an appearance. In the absence of Moss, Chuck Daigh drove a Scarab to victory in the Nassau Trophy race.
The organisers set aside $96,000 for the 1959 event, it was no wonder that over 400 race applications were made. The World Karting Championships were introduced, and proved to be a great success even though they were held under lights late into the night. This year it was the turn of popular American driver George Constantine to win the Nassau Trophy race driving an Aston-Martin entered by investment banker, Elisha Walker.
1960 and the changes kept coming. This time it was the introduction of the Formula Junior single-seat cars, and Crise had managed to secure the final round of the Pan-American Championship series. Prize money had attracted some of the ‘hard nose’ drivers and the day of the ‘gentleman driver’ was fast disappearing. The other aspect of change was the influence of the TV companies that insisted on scheduling races for their convenience. Another sign of change was that for the first time, a rear-engine car won the Nassau Trophy race. It was a Lotus XIX driven to victory by Dan Gurney.
32 Midget racers joined the other cars in 1961. Noticeable this year was the increase in the number of teams attending the event. Rosebud Racing, Team Roosevelt, Scuderia Serenissima and NART were all present, and it was the Lotus XIX entered by Rosebud for Dan Gurney that took the Nassau Trophy for the second year running.
1962 was to witness more changes with the introduction of Prototype cars, though the drivers of these cars were not eligible to claim prize money should they place in the races. Innes Ireland created a little bit of history when he piloted his Lotus XIX to victory in the Nassau Trophy race, making it a hat trick of wins for the car.
American cars came to the fore in 1963 with Ford and Chevrolet challenging the European marques. Crise continued to ring the changes, gone were the Formula Junior cars, the Karts and the Midgets, and in their place appeared the Formula Vee cars and Volkswagens. Chevrolet powered cars swept the board by winning all of the major trophies, A J Foyt winning the Nassau Trophy race.
The weather was taking its toll on Oakes Course, and Crise needed funds to repair the track. The Development Board reluctantly helped out in 1964 and racing progressed as normal, with Ford and Chevrolet continuing their battle for supremacy. Roger Penske won the Nassau Tourist Trophy and the Governor’s Trophy in a Chaparral, then co-drove with Hap Sharp to win the Nassau Trophy race.
‘No more money’ was the message for 1965, so with limited funds Crise made 1965 the ‘Year of the Rookie.’ However a few drivers did bring prototype cars that would be participating in the newly formed Can-Am series in America. Hap Sharp repeated his victory of last year by winning the Nassau Trophy race, this time unaided.
1966 was to see the last of the Speed Weeks for the time being. The World and Motor Sport were changing rapidly and the racing season was extended throughout the winter months in many countries.
However, a couple of young guys, one in Nassau and the other in England had been captured by the spirit of Speed Weeks and they didn’t forget…