Miami-Dade County

Race cars return to downtown Miami — on batteries

Clare Shikyma, executive secretary of business initiatives for PortMiami, stands next to one of the electric race cars that will be racing in the Miami ePrix on March 14, 2015.
Clare Shikyma, executive secretary of business initiatives for PortMiami, stands next to one of the electric race cars that will be racing in the Miami ePrix on March 14, 2015. el Nuevo Herald

The barricades are going up along Biscayne Boulevard. The cars are in from Buenos Aires. And in a couple of days, the makings of an “eVillage” will be visible in Museum Park.

For the first time in more than a decade, professional auto racing is coming back to downtown Miami. And this ain’t your daddy’s grand prix.

The Miami ePrix won’t go off until March 14, but already organizers are setting up shop in downtown, preparing for a race that will see 20 drivers steer high-tech electric cars along the bay, past the Freedom Tower, and under I-395 at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

The event — the midpoint of a 10-stop international circuit under the umbrella of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile umbrella — is two parts entertainment, one part green energy awareness. And Miami officials are so geeked out about it that they voted Thursday to bring the event back every year through 2019.

“I think for Miami it’s one of the biggest moments because we will be pioneers in electric car races,” said Mayor Tomás Regalado. “We are going to have an audience of 25 million across the world. [Fox Sports 2] is going to go live. And we are going to showcase Miami for free.”

On Thursday, 40 Spark-Renault SRT_01E cars, zero-emission electric race cars built by French company Spark Racing Technology, arrived at PortMiami. Formula E Miami, the company behind the race, is in the middle of a 10-city tour around the world and is coming off a race in Buenos Aires.

In Miami, the cars will race 39 laps along a 1.3-mile track that starts on Biscayne Boulevard, moves to Northeast Second Avenue, passes under the MacArthur Causeway and comes back down Biscayne before looping around the AmericanAirlines Arena. Top speeds should be around 90 to 100 miles per hour. But, unlike when Miami previously hosted races in Bicentennial Park, the noise will be minimal.

“These cars don’t make noise. They don’t pollute the air. It’s the thing of the 21st century. I think that downtown and Miami is ready for it and I just hope that the people will be part of this event,” Regalado said during a small press event at the port.

Miami first hosted a Grand Prix downtown in 1983, on a track in Bayfront and then Bicentennial parks. The race lasted 10 years. In 2002 and 2003, Miami held a champ car series that ran on a track south down to the Miami River.

This year, there is plenty of preparation involved. Chuck Martinez, general manager of Formula E Miami — a division of Andretti Sports Marketing — said preparations are already under way because they’re extensive. Two and a half miles of 10,000-pound, 12-by-4 barrier walls must be placed along the route.

“We built it already, but actually placing it isn’t like doing Legos. You need a forklift, you need a crane. It’s a process,” Martinez said of the track. “Then you have to put the fence on top of it. Doing all that takes a lot of time. … In order to accommodate all the people and not be working during the day, in order to do it on time and safely, we need about 21 days.”

Drivers won’t be able to test drive their cars until the day of the race. Each driver will actually be driving two cars during the race, because the batteries are too heavy to replace during pit stops so drivers will just switch cars.

To host the race, Andretti Sports Marketing also put about $1.1 million into the streets and city infrastructure.

“We're also doing a lot of work with infrastructure with electricity and solar-powered light,” said Martinez. “It's not as easy as putting an extension cord up to AmericanAirlines Arena. We had to do a lot of development under the ground.”

In Museum Park, which is being rented for $72,500, they’re erecting an “eVillage,” with stands, concessions, auto exhibits and a skydiving landing zone. At City Hall on Thursday, Commission Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort said that as many as 120,000 people are expected along the race route.

Regalado told commissioners that the event should bring $10 million in spending to the downtown area. With so much invested, he asked city commissioners Thursday to provide more stability to the hosts by turning a one-year, stop-gap deal into a five-year agreement ending in 2019.

The only catch at City Hall was the desire by commissioners to be able to back out of the relationship should things go sour. Downtown-area Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said if disaster struck, and one of the cars jumped a barrier, the city would no doubt want to sever ties.

“I strongly urge this commission: Run it once. See how it goes,” Sarnoff said. “See if you like it.”

Sarnoff said he wouldn’t have supported the race had the cars been gas guzzlers. But he said the green component was a deal-clincher.

“I’m promoting it because I think it’s exposure to a new concept that some people are not exposed to, he said. “Whether you believe in greenhouse gases or not, that’s your own choice. Global warming is a fact.”

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