Autodromo De Terramar – The Sleeping Legend

It’s early, before 9:00am, but even in late September, the heat of the day is making itself felt in Catalonia. I’m in Sitges, just south of Barcelona in Spain, tracking down a circuit I’d heard mention of on occasion, but had never really been able to find out much about. While Sitges may be more widely known as the gay capital of Spain, for me, the Autodromo Terramar holds significantly more fascination.

Built in the hedonistic, golden age of the birth of modern motorsport, Autodromo Terramar was constructed in the same grand ethos as Monza and Brooklands – that containing the sheer velocity of these incredible 1920’s racing machines was only possible by building a racing oval.

While Brooklands and Monza went on to become legendary names in the history of motorsport, for some reason, Autodromo Terramar has dropped between the cracks in the paving. I need to find this place to investigate more – is it intact, or just a collection of sad broken concrete?

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The main straight of Terramar
The main straight of Terramar

Google Maps makes the location easy to find and while I’m on foot, it’s actually just a short distance from the beach, Tapas bars and cafes of Sitges. Even so, as soon as you turn inland away from the sea breeze, the temparature escalates. By the time I’ve found the side turning off the main road, I’m feeling the heat on my back.

There’s no grand entrance or Art Deco styling. Just what could easily be mistaken for a mountain biking track down away from the tarmac road.

I double check Google Maps to be sure this is really correct as there’s no evidence of any huge oval circuit visible from the road. One hundred metres down the track, there’s what might possibly have been a grandstand behind a chain crossing the track. What looks like a sign for private property, but with no fencing or any boundaries marked, so I stroll around and up to the building.

There’s evidence of recent work, with modern rolling shutter doors covering some of the old arches. Several cars are parked a few metres away, but no sign of life. So if this really was the rear of a grandstand, then the circuit should, in theory, be around the other side. I stand for a while, waiting to be chased by an angry Catalonian landowner, but while there are a few people around, nobody is taking notice. The crunching of gravel beneath my feet breaks the silence as the heat goes up a few more notches.

Majestic banking of the western end
Majestic banking of the western end

Around to the ‘front’ of that old building and the angled roof is covered with sheeting behind which I imagine there may have been a grandstand.

And suddenly, there it is. I step out onto a vast expanse of cast concrete track, stretching into the distance, before curving majestically around and upwards into huge, arching speed bowl. There’s no wind whatsoever here and as I feel the hairs on my neck stand on end, sweat is dripping onto my sunglasses. This is a remarkable, majestic place.

The story goes that Autodromo Terramar was constructed in just 300 days starting in 1922, opening for a race weekend festival. The driving force behind the project, Fritz Armangue, completed the project which resulted in a 2 kilometre track with 60 degree banking.

The opening race weekend was less than spectacular. Project overruns meant that the builders hadn’t been paid. The solution, they concluded, was to take the prize money in payment. This resulted in no reward for the winning drivers. It would seem that from that inauspicious start, the circuit never regained it’s momentum. Standing on this main straight in the sunshine, I can imagine the excited exchanges that would have taken place when it became apparent that, after risking your life in the Catalan heat, you weren’t going to be paid.

Control tower on the back straight, which actually has a high speed kink to it
Control tower on the back straight, which actually has a high speed kink to it

I walk down the straight towards the closest banking and elect to walk a lap. The surface hasn’t really distorted or deteriorated at all. While it may be totally unsuitable on so many levels for modern racing, the structure is intact, complete with joints in the concrete that must have felt like riding a bronco in those early cart sprung racing cars.

I climb the banking of the bend. Or at least try to. Two thirds of the way up, it’s almost impossible to stand, the final few feet almost vertical. I elect for discretion, as taking a tumble back down with nobody in sight would not be a good thing.

Out onto the second straight, there are the remains of the control building, while opposite this in the undergrowth are some garages, apparently used by the Bugatti team when they raced here. The infield shows signs of life, with several houses who’s Catalonian architecture pre-dates the track.

Cutting through the rock, there's nowhere to go on the inside....
Cutting through the rock, there’s nowhere to go on the inside….

The opposite end of the straight, the second section of banking is quite remarkable. These old ovals were never designed for safety at any time but this one takes it to a new level. Carved out of a section of stone embankment, the concrete sections cut into the rock. You have a choice of being launched skywards over the outer banking or, even worse, crashing into a rock face at the foot of the curve. Intimidating is perhaps the kindest way to describe it….

In recent times, attempts have been made to develop Terramar into a Spanish motoring heritage centre. For sure, all of the ingredients would be there. It’s a short drive from Barcelona airport, the town of Sitges has a superb selection of bars and places to eat, together with a marina and the weather is perfect for much of the year. So all of the things that we love to do are at hand. The video created here is full of promise.

Despite the publicity created by Carlos Sainz and Red Bull lapping Terramar in an Audi R8 LSM, right now there is little sign of any movement. Plans were developed by the present owners, but funding for such a project must surely prove a difficult task.

I stand on the straight for a few more minutes, for no reason other than to take in the majesty of the oval before I stroll back down the hill to Sitges and the breeze from the Mediterranean in search of a Tapas bar for a snack and an ice cold Estrella beer to reflect on what might have been for Terramar.

The rear of what I imagine was the main grandstand
The rear of what I imagine was the main grandstand
Private property, it says I think....
Private property, it says I think….

I wish the old track well. While it may not spring immediately to mind like other great racing ovals of the period such as Avus, Brooklands, Monza or Montherey, it is in fact the most intact and best preserved. A testament to the dry Catalonian climate and the quality of the original workmanship.

At least the current owners have shown no wish to dismantle those spectacular curves. Perhaps one day the olives groves around Autodromo Terramar will echo to the sound of racing engines. Until then, she sits dormant, the piercing white of the concrete baking the feet of anyone standing on it.

Still totally intact, the circuit runs to 2 km in length
Still totally intact, the circuit runs to 2 km in length
It took some courage to drive into this....
It took some courage to drive into this….

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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