At the circus

The other day we went to see the Cirque du Soleil in Del Mar, California. This was not the purpose of the visit, but as the circus was there and we had a big gang of kids, it seemed like a good idea. With school holidays, a soon-to-be- abandoned family and Europe in the grip of winter, it was a good moment to head for California to catch up on other members of the family and get a little sunshine. And so we ended up in Del Mar, a pleasant little town not far from San Diego. And there was the Cirque du Soleil.

Ever since I saw the Cirque du Soleil involved in the launch of a Jordan F1 car a few years ago at the Albert Hall in London, I wanted to see a full show but it was one of those things that we never quite got round to doing until we saw the big top at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The Cirque du Soleil has breathed new life into the world of the circus since Montreal's Guy Laliberte set up the business in 1984, basing his shows on a blend of high technology, originality and good old fashioned audience-wowing acrobats. He has turned the business of impressive proportions.

As we wandered out after the show my mind strayed to motor racing for a moment. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that there had been racing in Del Mar in the 1980s and I wondered if perhaps the racing had been on the streets of the town or perhaps even in the fairgrounds. I decided that when I had a spare moment I would look it up and see. Motor racing is one of those activities that one never really escapes from. Even when I go off on holiday I always seem to keep up with what is happening, thanks to the dubious benefits of the Internet, and wherever I go I seem to end up digging up motor racing connections in the neighbourhood.

The story I unearthed was fascinating and began in the 1920s when this quiet backwater of the California coast became quietly popular with Hollywood stars who liked the climate and the seclusion that the region offered. In time a number of luxury hotels and golf courses developed and in 1937 Bing Crosby and some of his Hollywood pals including Pat O'Brien and Jimmy Durante decided to invest in a racecourse which they called the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. The board of directors featured not only Crosby but also O'Brien, Oliver Hardy and Gary Cooper. With such a high profile ownership success was virtually assured and Crosby made sure that everyone knew about Del Mar when in 1938 he recorded a song called "Where the Turf Meets the Surf" and hosted a now famous match race between the great American champion Seabiscuit and South America's top Ligaroti at the track. The race was attended by the likes of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy and Ray Milland and the glamour soon began to rub off on the area. By the 1940s everyone from Hollywood was hanging out in Del Mar. It was a glitzy place.

In the immediate post-war era, some of the wealthy folk of the region decided that they wanted to hold motor races and the local car club did a deal with the authorities to lay out a track on the roads of a disused army base known as Camp Callan, on the cliffs to the south of Del Mar. Between 1951 and 1956 the track, known as Torrey Pines, became one of the fabled early venues for modern US road racing, along with Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, Elkhart Lake and Pebble Beach. In the end the locals decided that a car race once a year was not a great use of the land and the venue was turned into a golf course. Torrey Pines is now so flash that it will host the US Open in 2008 and the idea that smelly old cars used to race up and down the tracks would shock the golf set.

The racers moved on to an airbase near Miramar (the famous base which was once the home of the "Top Gun" School) but Hourglass Field, as it was known (because of its shape), has now disappeared beneath the campus of the San Diego Community College. The racers went up the coast a way to Carlsbad Raceway, a drag strip which had a circuit of roads that they could use. That is now buried under a business park which is being constructed. And so the racers of southern California turned to Riverside up in LA.

However in 1962 the SCCA decided to hold a race in the parking lot of the Del Mar Fairgrounds and laid out a track. It was on the very spot where I had sat in the big top watching the Cirque de Soleil and at the first event in 1962 a guy called Steve McQueen won the Formula Junior race in a Cooper. The event lasted a few years and then it died out and Del Mar returned to genteel quiet until the mid 1980s when the city fathers concluded that they wanted to give the place a boost and laid out a new circuit in the same old parking lot and did a deal with the Long Beach Grand Prix to use all of its infrastructure to run a race in the autumn. The event was run by the Long Beach people, hoping no doubt to increase their profits and the Grand Prix of Southern California took place until 1992 when it was decided that enough was enough and Del Mar faded once again from the racing scene. Potter around Del Mar today and you are more likely to find NASCAR merchandise (including dominos and other such extraneous items) than anything else. Road racing just does not seem to make any impact these days.

Come the weekend the desert racing people headed their vast RVs out to the east to do whatever they do out there and Del Mar was left to play golf and wander on the beaches. For races fans there was the Daytona 500 and it seems that 39m people (including me) tuned in to watch NBC's coverage of the race. This was the highest NASCAR rating in history with a Nielsen rating that was 0.3 up on last year, which was 0.3 up on the race in 2004.

It was interesting to watch how the NASCAR people put on their show and the technology they use for the programming. As much as one likes to think of F1 being the elite racing series in the world, the sport has much to learn from NASCAR.

And it struck me that F1 needs to take a good hard look at itself.

A bit like when Laliberte took a look at the circus business.

Print Feature