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.
LONG BEACH, 1976-'83
If the Glen remains the USGP's most cherished “ghost track,” Long Beach is perhaps its most enduring legacy. The first and foremost American street circuit is now preparing for its 39th race and, although it has been associated with Indy cars for the past 27 years (and actually launched with a Formula 5000 race in 1975) it was Formula 1 that put Long Beach on the map as an international destination, helping transform the sleepy port town into a tourist and business Mecca with its downtown street festival.
On the downside, the compromises required for a racecourse on public streets had a significant impact on the competition – the bumpy course made the early F1 races as much a test of endurance as speed, and passing opportunities were scarce. In addition, the growth of the city forced regular evolution of the track design, with the spectacular downhill dash onto Linden Avenue a much-lamented early casualty. But in terms of maintaining a high media profile and consistently strong attendance, Long Beach remains unmatched – and F1's assumption that other U.S. street circuits would serve its needs as effectively proved to be a historic error that Indy car racing was happy to capitalize on.
LAS VEGAS, 1981-'82
The curious decision by the Caesar's Palace casino to build a temporary track for a Formula 1 race in its parking lot resulted in a venue that pleased just about no one except reigning World Champion Alan Jones. The tough Australian, while agreeing with rival Jacques Laffite's comparison of the go-kart-twisty layout to a goat path, made its grueling physical nature work to his advantage as he crushed the field in the 1981 season finale. The promoters saw enough promise to try again the following year, but not even the presence of Mario Andretti in a Ferrari persuaded enough fans – or high-rolling gamblers – to come. The circuit was reworked into a temporary oval for Indy cars, with no better luck.
Yes, F1 visited the USA three times in 1982, as Detroit's downtown street course joined Long Beach and Vegas. It also emulated those cities by going on to dump F1 for Indy cars when the grand prix circus proved cost-prohibitive. Detroit's tight, 17-turn layout, which proved even slower than Monaco, is not as fondly remembered as its California predecessor, but its Motown vibe at least offered a more fitting setting than “Caesar's folly.”
John Watson's blast through the field to win the inaugural race, driving “like he was on a mission from God,” as Keke Rosberg put it, helped give the Detroit GP a running start, but the roughness of the track remained a sore point. In fact, the 1984 Detroit race set an F1 record for futility, with 20 of the 26 starters failing to finish.
Austin will be the Lone Star State's second try at an F1 race and, like the Circuit of The Americas, the Dallas Grand Prix was conceived as a way to demonstrate the area's “arrival” as a world-class city. Unfortunately, its chances of doing so went wildly wrong thanks to a breathtakingly bad choice of date.
Yes, it was another downtown street circuit, but circuit planners had came up with an interesting and relatively fast layout. Unfortunately their efforts were squandered when the freshly laid pavement disintegrated under the racers' wheels in the 100-degree heat of a Texas July.
Keke Rosberg – who resisted calls for a drivers boycott on race morning because of the track conditions – kept his cool and manhandled his Williams-Honda turbo around the course to take the win. But the event is most remembered for Nigel Mansell's effort to recreate Jack Brabham's feat of 1959 and push his stricken Lotus to the finish line. He collapsed from heat exhaustion short of his goal, a fitting epitaph for this dog of a race.
Despite its dubious record in America's deserts, F1 swapped Detroit for Arizona with the same June date – and got a double dose of searing heat and tropical humidity for its fourth U.S. street racing venture. Switching to a more sensible spring date for the second year helped, but the flat and bland downtown course, dominated by 90-degree bends, failed to strike a chord with the locals or the racers. After striking out for a third time in 1991, when the attendance at ostrich races staged outside the city famously outshone that at the grand prix, the Phoenix GP passed into history without a tear being shed.
Phoenix did help serve notice of Jean Alesi's precocious talent, as the Frenchman spurred a brief resurgence by the Tyrrell team in the 1990 race. Alesi charged into the lead at the first corner, and held it until half-distance when Ayrton Senna's McLaren demoted him. Undaunted, Alesi then repassed the World Champion at the next corner with a memorably daring maneuver – even Senna was impressed – before bowing to the inevitable and settling for second.
It seemed so obviously the right move when F1 arrived at the home of American open-wheel racing, but all the natural synergies never jelled sufficiently to give the USGP a permanent home.
Certainly, IMS's iconic venue and detail-oriented management gave the sport stability it hadn't enjoyed Stateside in decades, and its massive grandstands encouraged record attendance for a USGP. However, its infield road course, while beautifully manicured, failed to inspire, and events twice conspired to make a mockery of the races.
First came the spectacle of team orders at its ham-handed worst, when Michael Schumacher gifted a “win” at the finish line in 2002 to Rubens Barrichello, which only embarrassed both of them and had fans crying foul. Then in 2005 came the infamous withdrawal of teams running Michelin tires, resulting in a race run with just six cars – and an extremely embittered crowd.
When, two years later, the Speedway and F1 reached the same commercial impasse that had scuttled all previous USGP venues, lingering ill-feeling from these debacles led nation's sports media to greet the news with a shrug. “Who needs F1?” was the widespread view.
Now, Circuit of The Americas in Austin steps up to answer that question with a no-expenses-spared facility, a seemingly well-oiled promotional plan and excellent timing – the fall Texas weather is tipped to be in the 70s, and the World Championship battle is poised at its climax. Will it truly, finally all work for F1 in America? That will be up to the fans to decide.
Adapted from an article originally appearing in the July 2011 issue of RACER magazine.