It's been five years since Formula 1 lost its most recent foothold on American territory when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended its eight-year run as host of the United States Grand Prix, but that is just the start of the story of F1's circuitous path in this country. This weekend's inaugural USGP at Circuit of The Americas is the nation's 10th venue for a Formula 1 World Championship race. No country has given F1 chances in more places, but never before has a USGP been staged on a state-of-the-art circuit built from scratch to suit F1's palatial tastes, as Austin's new venture has. We'll find out how that plays out starting this weekend, but first, here's a look back at the first fallen, if not failed, efforts that preceded it:
It was an immediate hit as a sports car venue, but Sebring International Raceway was a quick bust as a Formula 1 track, as the first USGP – which was also Sebring's last – demonstrated. Despite the presence of seven American drivers in the 18-car field – a percentage far higher than any successors could boast – a huge winner's purse for the time of $6000, and the status of being the World Championship decider, the Dec. 12, 1959 race proved a commercial flop. The crowd was less than half that which had turned out for the 12 Hours that spring, and those who did show up were bemused by a spectacle in which half the field had fallen by the wayside on the rough airport circuit before the race reached its midpoint.
For all that, Sebring's USGP did provided one of the greatest last laps of F1 history: Jack Brabham, chasing his first World Championship against Stirling Moss, began to run out of fuel while leading, just two turns from the finish. His Cooper-Climax teammate, Bruce McLaren, loyally slowed up to avoid passing him, which allowed the third-placed car of Maurice Trintignant to close in. McLaren wound up with the win – barely – while Brabham climbed out of his stranded Cooper and pushed it the final 400 yards uphill to secure the fourth place he needed to secure the title. Too bad so few were there to witness all this.
Fast, gritty Riverside International Raceway took over as the USGP's home the following year. The track on the edge of the California desert had opened three years earlier as a “sporty car” venue, looking to tap into the burgeoning Southern California car culture scene, and its fast layout proved a better match for F1 cars than had Sebring. The race also had a solid contingent of local heroes, headed by Dan Gurney.
Yet, even with all that going for it, only 25,000 fans made the 60-mile drive from Los Angeles. This may have been partly the fault of promoter Alec Ulmann, who had made the mistake of comparing the track's Los Angeles Times Grand Prix sports car race that spring – which attracted 70,000 spectators – unfavorably with “a real grand prix.” Times publisher Otis Chandler duly made sure that his influential newspaper ignored the November F1 race….
Those who did attend got to see Moss at his best, though, as he won from the pole in a privately entered Lotus-Climax.
WATKINS GLEN, 1961-'80
Just when F1 desperately needed a home, Watkins Glen founder Cameron Argetsinger stepped up with a proposal to bring the grand prix circus to his upstate New York road course. The Glen's evocative and challenging circuit proved a perfect fit with the GP ethos of the 1960s and '70s, and its USGP consistently drew sufficient attendance to justify some of the heftiest paydays going in F1. By the end of the latter decade, however, F1's commercial demands had grown beyond the Glen's reach. After the track was rescued from bankruptcy, its new management opted to focus on domestic racing series but, for many fans, it remains the most-missed USGP.