Something strange was happening at Arawak Cay on the Nassau shorefront. In front of a row of brightly coloured food shacks with names like Da Fish Fry and L’il Hut, and with the turquoise Caribbean Sea in the background, stood a line-up of some of the most expensive cars in the world. Road cars dating from the 1950s to the present day had congregated to rev their engines and shatter the calm of this pretty island spot in a nostalgic move to revive one of the most glamorous motoring events in history.
The original Bahamas Speed Week was an annual affair that ran in Nassau from 1954 to 1966, traditionally in the first week of December, bringing together stars from the USA and Europe in an end-of-season play-off.
After years of planning and hoping, car enthusiasts from the Bahamas and around the world received the support they needed to revive the Bahamas Speed Week in December 2011, and it is now set to return as an annual event in the racing calendar, if the island’s minister of tourism and aviation Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace has his way.
A neat link to Speed Week’s past was provided by the presence of Sir Stirling Moss, now 81 and, as of last year, officially retired from a racing career that began in the 1940s. But he revealed he is still a deft hand at the wheel of his 1950s-era Osca FS372 sport racer.
Jay Michaels, moderator at the opening ceremony, compared Speed Week to the success of other racing events such as Le Mans, Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.
“The Speed Week Revival 2011 was merely an idea and a vision of so many people too numerous to mention, who wanted to capture an excitement that hasn’t occurred here in Nassau for some 45 years,” said Michaels.
“It was through that vision that we stand before you today with the first of what we feel will be an incredible annual event.”
Historically, they included everything from Minis to Chapparals, great Ferraris and Maseratis. In 2011, sports and GT cars from the period, capable of running in a Tour Auto-type road event, were on show, and road cars from the 1950s to the present day drove essentially the same route around the island as their predecessors had in the past.
The 40-plus entries in 2011 ranged from a local Austin-Healey ‘Bugeye’ Sprite to a likely $10m-plus Ferrari Testa Rossa and a $7m Maserati 450S entered by Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton. Mercedes SL, Aston Martin Vanquish and a Ferrari F40 among others sparkled in the tropical sunshine as their owners fussed over their pride and joys. Their precious cargo had come by ship from the UK, Europe and the US East Coast.
Entries for the 2011 Revival began earlier in the year at the UK’s Donington Festival with some stunning cars including a Ferrari 250 GT SWB, Jaguar XKSs Corvette, Lotus 11 and 15 among other classic car royalty. Classic car festivals throughout Europe and North America followed as key recruitment venues for Speed week, which culminated in $100m worth of cars being entered for the Revival.
Speed Week got under way in a Le Mans-style ceremony led by patrons Sir Stirling Moss in his red OSCA, accompanied by Governor-General Sir Arthur Foulkes.
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” says Michaels, only to be admonished later as two of the drivers were women.
Because it was not possible to replicate the old Windsor Field track (which is now the airport) the organisers decided to take advantage of the natural topography of the Arawak cay and Fort Charlotte areas for the Hill Climb and Sprint circuits – the more serious hill-climb and road race events were Speed Week’s centrepieces.
These were augmented by a new addition to Speed Week: the 007 Island Tour, which saw the cars parade around New Providence Island stopping at points of interest with a James Bond theme. Much of Casino Royale was filmed on Paradise Island – and Daniel Craig as Mr Bond waded out of the sea at Albany Resort in his Speedos was a memorable moment for many.
It was no coincidence that the Concours d’Elegance line-up took place at the exclusive Lyford Cay Club, which just happens to be home to Sir Sean Connery, who obligingly stepped out of his front door to wave at the passing motorists. This setting provided an opportunity to see some veterans from the original races in a line-up that included 16 entries that had made their way from the UK.
Among these, Richard Lake’s AC Ace Bristol had been here in 1958, while from the US, Rob Walton’s Maserati 450S had come over in 1957 (coming third in the Governor’s Trophy) and a 1959 Bocar, was here in 1960 as the spare car on the Scarab team.
Stephen Bond sped to victory in his Lister Bristol in the time trials held at Arawak Cay. Bond completed the circuit in one minute, nineteen seconds and thirty-eight milliseconds edging out Phil Brett who finished with a time of one minute, 19 seconds and 62 milliseconds. The Hill Climb was won by the most modern of the entries a Ford GT, owned by City worker Phil Brety, with David Cottingham coming in as the most nimble of the classics in his blue Jaguar E-type.
As in the 1950s, the sparkle of Speed Week was as much about the socialising as it was about the racing.
On the terrace of Government House, an elegant gathering of VIPs mingled, drinking champagne and looking out to sea in much the same way as the jet set may have done in the days when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor resided here after the Duke’s stormy abdication as King Edward VIII.
To remove him from the public eye, the Duke was made Governor of The Bahamas and swapped palaces for palm trees.
But this particular group of glitterati were here to toast motoring royalty and the launch of the 2011 Speed Week revival. Former Playboy Bunnies, wealthy car owners and Ray Mullings, composer of the 1970s hit Funky Nassau, mixed with government ministers.
No-one can come to the Bahamas without trying conch. Pronounced konk, this tasty mollusc is the most famous Bahamian delicacy and is eaten all over the islands.
Conch shacks are found all over Nassau, especially at Arawak Cay where the motorists enjoyed an informal fish fry and Bahamian feast, washed down with a local Kalik beer or a Bahama Mama, the islands’ own version of Caribbean rum punch.
Later in the week the cars were escorted to Bay Street in downtown Nassau where they were parked up on display in front of the capitals’ exclusive shops. Open air barbecue was on offer as local musicians played and the competitors took advantage of some retail therapy at the tax free stores.
After the Concours d’Elegance on day three, the party moved to Graycliff, one of Nassau’s most famous old hotels and owned by an Italian family steeped in motoring history. Enrico and Anna Maria Garzaroli turned the former private home of Lord and Lady Dudley, third Earl of Staffordshire, into the elegant hotel and restaurant that it is today.
In 2000, following a major expansion the hotel inaugurated a new section at the Graycliff Cigar Company. The hotel has 20 rooms and two restaurants, a gym and two swimming pools. It has one of the world’s finest wine cellars of which Speed Week guests were given a private tour and their palates were graced with some rare vintages. It’s certainly worth a look. And a taste.
As the sun came down on a week of fast living: the combination of exhilarating fast racing, fine dining and some seriously good partying in the tropics seemed certain to cement Speed Week in the diaries of the international motoring crowd.
British Airways operates a direct non-stop service from London Heathrow to Nassau, five days a week; ba.com. Hotels: hiltoncaribbean.com; graycliff.com More info: bahamasspeedweekrevival.com; bahamas.co.uk