Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Portland International Raceway

On the list of racetracks with long histories in American open-wheel racing, few can lay claim to as unusual a history as Portland International Raceway.

Far removed from the 114-year age of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or the hot-new-thing energy somehow still being emitted by Barber Motorsports Park some 13 years after its first NTT IndyCar Series event in 2010, Portland International was born out of chaos and destruction.

The city of Vanport, Oregon, was constructed in 1942 to house workers from the Swan Island Shipyard to support the American effort in the second World War. Following the war’s conclusion, the town was destroyed during the 1948 Colombia River flood, leaving 15 dead and over 17,000 displaced.

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With the town’s only remnants being its paved roads and the foundations of a handful of buildings, the area was acquired by the city of Portland in 1960 and the first sports car race on what became Portland International Raceway took place in 1961.

The circuit did not, however, host IndyCar racing until 1984. Al Unser Jr. took his first career victory in the circuit’s debut, ahead of Geoff Brabham and Teo Fabi. Two years later came what was, at the time, the closest finish in IndyCar history.

Leading the race during its closing laps, Michael Andretti began experience problems with his fuel pickup (he had not refueled during his most recent stop), and ran out of fuel coming to the checkered flag. Who was in second place, ready to capitalize? Just dad – Mario Andretti.

The senior Andretti beat his son to the line and the win by 0.07 seconds.

The Andrettis would repeat this feat four years later, though Michael came out on top with Mario in second in 1990. Michael Andretti followed his 1990 win with triumphs in 1991 and 1992, the only back-to-back-to-back wins in the event’s history.

The circuit remained loyal to CART over the IRL throughout the Split, and remained on the schedule to the end of CART’s (or Champ Car after 2004, to be proper) days, running it’s last event with the series in 2007. Sebastien Bourdais won the race which looked to be Portland’s swan song with the highest level of American open wheel racing. And things looked that bleak for 10 years.

It wasn’t until late 2017 that confirmation came that the Grand Prix of Portland would return to the calendar in 2018, ending an 11-year absence.

Since its return (barring a cancellation in 2020), the circuit has held its spot within the final three rounds of the IndyCar season, placing it in the heat of the fight for the Astor Cup.

Takuma Sato won the 2018 running of the event by playing a game of pit strategy chess one step above the rest of the field before holding off a charging Ryan Hunter-Reay for the win. However, this race is remembered by many for its first-lap crash which ended with Marco Andretti upside down and nearly compromised Scott Dixon‘s fifth championship.

In 2021, Alex Palou took the final of his three wins en route to his first IndyCar championship. The Spaniard also claimed the first pole of his IndyCar career that weekend, using the race to retake the points lead from Pato O’Ward. Palou went on the win the title two rounds later in Long Beach.

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Portland’s contract with IndyCar comes to an end this season, though the track recently picked up title sponsorship from BitNile.com, whom you’ll recognize from the Ed Carpenter Racing liveries from this season. Details are somewhat scarce surrounding the deal, but it may prove useful in securing Portland’s space on the IndyCar calendar moving forward.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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