By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Monaco is one of the smallest countries in the world. It’s tucked along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by France. Monaco’s most famous import is probably movie actress Grace Kelly, who left Hollywood to become a Princess there. The rich and famous flock there – some for the beauty of the area, some for the tax advantages. And who wouldn’t want to “break the bank” at Monte Carlo, the region that hosts its famous casino?
It’s not easy for a small nation like that to become associated with a sporting event. Yet Monaco has done that over the years. Americans have been watching the Grand Prix of Monaco, a course carved out of the city streets, on television for decades.
While visiting France on vacation last week, I had the chance to spend a morning in that country and walk around a bit. Who could resist the idea? While I was early for the Grand Prix, which will take place on Sunday, the course was set up for another event. An e-race took place on Saturday.
The visitor comes into town by train – I’m not sure I’d want to even to drive in a place that crowded – and gets a passport stamped at the Tourist Office in the train station. Then it’s out the door, down a hill … and hit by the sight of the country. It’s like standing in a forest of buildings, so tightly packed together that you have no idea what surrounds you. From there, you notice that a race course has been dropped into the middle of it. That makes walking around on foot difficult, as you might imagine. Detours are everywhere. Reportedly it takes six weeks to put the race course up and three weeks to take it down, so about Monaco is a bit more of a mess than normal for about a fifth of the year.
We took the long way to the waterfront, but the view is spectacular. The Alps come almost straight down to the sea in Monaco, so every square inch seems to be occupied.
The Grand Prix has been a part of the calendar in Monaco since 1929. The Automobile Club of Monaco wanted to become a full partner in the developing auto racing scene, and it needed a big race of its own to qualify. A course was carved out of the city streets, and the tradition began.
Native son Louis Chiron won the event in 1931, the only native son of Monaco to take a checkered flag. By 1955, the Formula One series as we more or less know it had been created. In the Sixties, ABC couldn’t resist sending a television crew to this glamourous spot, and the Grand Prix was a staple of “Wide World of Sports” each year. The network usually showed Graham Hill winning the race; he won it five different times in that era. Later Ayrton Senna of Brazil won the race six times, with five of them coming in a row.
The course is a tough one. Remember, city streets weren’t designed for race cars, and there are plenty of changes in elevation along the way. They’d never add it to the schedule today because of that, but the event’s tradition keeps it going. It’s the shortest Grand Prix race on the circuit, going only 161 miles.
Dropping a race course into a city’s nooks and crannies does give the race a little character. Visibility of the course is limited, and giant television screens are in place to help fans follow the act. On the other hand, you can be standing on the grounds of the Royal Palace on the hill overlooking the country, and see parts of the course placed in front of you. A balcony of a hotel room can provide a good free seat for racing.
During our too-short visit, the e-racing cars were warming up for that day’s race. Outside the gates, we spotted fathers and sons walking around the city, repeating the age-old ritual that applies to sporting cathedrals around the world. The commentary of the public-address announcers, done in three languages including English, was ever-present in the background. The usual roar of race cars was replaced by the whirr of electric engines – something like golf carts heading off the first tee.
Still, it’s the Grand Prix that is the main attraction. I can’t imagine the chaos that causes in the city, as it hosts what is considered one of the three great races of the year (Indianapolis and Le Mans are the others, although Daytona might have an argument).
I’ll have to catch some of the action on television on Sunday, May 26. For the first time, watching the race will set off memories instead of dreams.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)