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SEPTEMBER 13, 2006

A place for F1 in Alabama?

The Alabama Gulf Coast is not a big area but its white sand beaches and clear waters are popular with the locals, who flock to the beaches in the summer months. The area is not as well known as the nearby resort cities of Biloxi, Missipippi and Pensacola, Florida, but the locals think that there is a lot of potential in the cities of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Perdido Key. A consortium has been put together to fund the construction of a major new motorsports and entertainment park to be called the Alabama Motorsports Park, with the support of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. The company, which is called Gulf Coast Entertainment is intending to build a 75,000-seat three-quarters of a mile oval, a smaller dirt oval and a 3.5-mile road course, plus a drag strip and a large park for recreational vehicles. According to a spokeswomen for the project, the investors have purchased options on four different sites in the region: two of them to the north-west of the city of Mobile and two to the east, nearer the beaches. The $350m project has been around for a while but in recent months the plan has expanded beyond the idea of getting a NASCAR race.

"We're interested in Indy or Formula 1 type races," a spokesman says. "We didn't want to just limit it to NASCAR. We thought if we had a road course, we could open it up for different types of events."

The consortium includes local developers and businessmen, some of whom were involved in a $44m project in the late 1990s to build a 13.5-mile toll road to the beaches, half of it funded by private money and the rest with public money. This opened in 2000 and the beach areas have been developing fast since then. The area has a mild climate for much of the year but is vulnerable to hurricanes and has suffered serious damage, notably in 1979 when Hurricane Frederic flattened many of the seafront buildings. Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 also caused serious damage from which the region is now recovering. There is major development going on, with 34 current projects in the region.

It remains to be seen whether the locals could find the kind of funding needed for an F1 race and whether the infrastructure is up to F1 standards. The region boasts only around 1000 hotel rooms at the moment but this is increasing all the time. If all goes to plan the track will be built by 2009.