Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

Track Back - Burke Lakefront Airport, Cleveland, Ohio - Mixing the world of corporate jets and racing cars

Published by Adam Burn

Cleveland Memorial Shoreway
Cleveland Memorial ShorewayCredit: bankbryan / creative commons

6L/24R. 6R/24L. BKL.

Pieces of information you'd usually associate with an airport and not with a race track. But for a long time, until 2007 in fact, the two came together.

For 51 weeks a year, Burke Lakefront Airport (BLA) was an airport fronting Lake Erie that serviced mainly corporate jets and air taxis. But for that other week, it was a racing circuit. A roughly 4 kilometre circuit was devised back in the early 80s featuring mainly 90 degree corners and switchbacks between the runways and taxiways. I don't know who designed it or why, but it certainly made for an interesting spectacle.

When I started watching CART racing in the mid to late '90s (thanks to Surfers Paradise), the races were on a delay of many hours. We wouldn't see them until late Monday night - in my case being a teenager at the time, I'd watch them on video Tuesday afternoon!

BLA was one of the first American tracks to grab my attention. It wasn't that it was a Spa-like serious test of a driver's "balls" or that it had history like Monza, but what it did have was such an unusual setting for a race and also some pretty darn good racing!

For anyone who's ever watched a motorbike race and a car race on the same circuit, one thing is pretty obvious. Motorbikes make a track look incredibly wide, thus making passing much more likely. Where normally a car in front could shut the door and make things nigh on impossible, a Rossi or Lorenzo doesn't have the same safety net of taking up a fair portion of the bitumen.

It seems such an obvious solution for racing circuits - make them wider! Width provides more opportunities for passing, but it also gives drivers multiple possible lines through corners instead of being presented with a choice of one.

But BLA's width extends far beyond even F1's modern circuits. Take Sepang as an example. I remember thinking when I first saw it that it looked like a pretty wide track. The tape measure says it varies between 16 and 25 metres wide. Now let's compare that with BLA. One of its runways is over 30 metres wide, while the other is almost 50 metres wide. In a space of 50 metres, you could fit the entire F1 field for 2010 side by side and still have space left for the safety car!

In terms of the setting, it was the only active airport in the US hosting such a race. I couldn't think of any similar settings worldwide either, but I wouldn't be surprised if I was wrong! I know particularly in post-World War 2 Europe, many former airfields were used for racing, the most famous of them being Silverstone which, of course, hosted the first World Championship Grand Prix in 1950. Other airports used in a motorsport context include Top Gear's test track (aka Dunsfold Aerodrome) and the former RAF Elvington airfield, which British F1 teams have used for straight line aerodynamic testing in recent years.

I did read while researching this article that the runways at BLA required careful maintenance during the year to keep them safe for racing cars. But as I recall, it was still one of the tougher races on the calendar because of the bumpiness created by huge planes landing! What's smooth to an A320 is far from it in an open wheeler...

An article written in July this year gives hope that racing may return in the near future. It suggests that a window of opportunity is available while the IRL is cancelling low-attended oval races in favour of new road and temporary circuits. The promoters are targeting June/July 2012 as a possible date for the race to go ahead again. Will it be the last chance for Cleveland, given that the Mid-Ohio circuit is only a couple of hours away? And also, which company or organisation will foot the bill for staging the event?

Only time will tell, but hopefully we'll see one of the world's more unusual motorsport venues back in years to come.