Why did an incredible lakeside track only hold 1 race in 22 Years?
By Zack Klapman
This is the Portrero de los Funes Circuit, located in San Luis, Argentina, and this is me falling in love at first sight.
I’ve never driven it. I hadn’t even heard of it until two days ago. But it’s 3.9 miles, running around along a lake, like a freshwater Pacific Coast Highway. But it’s better than PCH, because there are safety fences, and no police. There’s no lane lurkers, semi trucks, or buses. It’s like someone shrunk the Nurburgring around Lake Como.
Nurburgring + Lake Como. It’s like hanging beautiful art on your favorite ski run.
Like the Nurburgring, the Funes Circuit is filled with difficult high speed corners and puckering undulations, and that’s why people liked it. Elevation changes -gradual or abrupt- add something understated to driving fast. The change in the pitch of the road greatly affects how a car will behave. It changes your braking distance, traction, and acceleration to surprising degrees. To the brain that has only auto-crossed or is beholden to a world of evil flattness (like Florida), it’s like Homer discovering the 3rd dimension.
(Most of the tracks I’ve driven in the US have some form of elevation change, even if it’s a man-made pimple on a bed of dust. By comparison, the private track Bilsterburg is like driving a car on the tracks of that rollercoaster at Wally World; The close proximity of the numerous off-camber crests will remind you that camping in Colorado is very different from surviving along the Amazon.)
It’s not just the form of the road that I like, it’s the setting too. Scenery is very influential to a track experience. Your main interaction is with the asphalt, so that impression is the most important; a square track of cobblestones set in a Swedish town filled with topless soon-to-be models is still a bad track. But places like Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, though very good, lose most of their charm when you step out of the car. Those isolated and desolate locations always make me feel like I’m driving on an island of outcasts. “Oh, you want to drive fast? Exile them to the desert! And make sure the nearby hotels look unsafe!!”
But (Mazda Raceway at) Laguna Seca, Sonoma, Spa, and of course Green Hell, these tracks make you feel like you’re someplace special. A secret land. A place where nature’s foliage and topography are intact, enveloping a playground for some of our most inefficient and pleasurable inventions. They’re a great party held in a Greek cave that overlooks the ocean.
In Argentina, land of natural beef and amazing wine, is 3.9 miles that looks like a tasty canyon road, but with the safety of catch fences.
GTA-R laps the track, with driver Warren Hughes commenting.
So why did this land of milk, honey, and apexes lay dormant and untouched by professional racing from 1987 to 2008?
Last night I watched “1“, an exceptional documentary about the history of Formula 1. If you watched Senna or RUSH, watch “1″. Whereas the main character in SENNA is…Senna….the lead in 1 is Formula 1 itself. The movie brilliantly and continually rotates through the facets of the sport: Business, the technology, and successes, painting a complete picture of how it all came to be, but the main current that carries the story is the increasing dangers of racing. Cars got faster, drivers died, and for too long, safety was put on the back burner.
Because of that movie, I read about this track with danger and consequences on my mind.
The Portrero de los Funes is a “semi-permanent” circuit built off an existing public road. It was completed in 1987, and held its first race the same year, the Tourismo Carretera (similar to touring cars).
Can you imagine that place back then? Imagine they widened the Col de Turini, put it above water (you can’t breath in water), and sent you out 20 cars at a time? There was no sticky run-off, and I bet there were a few cliffs with fencing so low even a white guy could bound over it with ease. Put a welding school on top of a gas station while you’re at it.
During a preliminary heat, a crash killed two spectators. Then, during the main even the next day, there was another (non-fatal) accident. To call it a bad opening is a huge understatement. The track didn’t host a professional race for 22 years. I’m speculating, but I think the dry spell was directly related to risk. We all like to imagine we possess the talent of Sebb and the balls of Travis Pastrana. “Daily drive a (insert ridiculously fast and/or powerful car here)? Of course I would. If you don’t, you’re no fan of cars!” The ‘Ring used to have 17 jumps on it, per lap, but they wouldn’t race here.
Though their fixed roofs and lower speeds probably made them safer than the 900HP Gerridae in F1, sliding at 100MPH into ARMCO, in a 1985 Anything 300i SL DL TL LOL is not a safe place to be.
1987 was 7 years before Senna’s fatal accident, the crash that would finally spur the FiA to scientifically analyze what happened to an F1 car during an accident, resulting in cars so safe that there hasn’t been an F1 fatality since.
In 2008 the silence was broken by the FIA GT Championship, but only after chicanes were added, and a dangerous high-speed turn was tightened.
Today I sat and thought about that, and the movie, and the ‘Ring being regarded as one of the most dangerous tracks in the world, and with new (dare I say matured?) eyes I looked back at Funes. Danger doesn’t cross my mind very much, because I’m never driving at the limit of the limit. I’m not pushing the limits of the human body. I know I will never go around a corner at 160MPH in an open-wheel car, and thus, I (stupidly) believe anything less is safe. So, to me the Portrero de los Funes is a playground sitting on prime real estate. Those drops and cliffs are just extra stimuli, flooding my brain with dopamine in a way flatter or more gradual tracks never will. That is why I couldn’t understand why it isn’t a feature track.
But now I do. For those tip-toeing on the edge, racing there was like setting up industrial fans to blow at your back.
Zack Klapman is a Senior Editor for The Smoking Tire, produces “TUNED” and “BIG MUSCLE” on the /DRIVE Network, and a contributor to AutoComparisons.com.
ONE FB page https://www.facebook.com/1thefilm