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When Formula One announced in the spring of 2022 that it would stage a race in Las Vegas, it made too much sense not to happen. The city’s glitzy, entertainment-focused nature is a perfect fit for the sport. All the major players are invested not only in 2023 but in giving it a permanent place on the calendar.
So, the F1-Las Vegas union can’t fail, right?
It’s possible, actually. We know that because it’s failed before — and pretty spectacularly. All one has to do is look back to 1981 and 1982 to understand why this bet does not offer a guaranteed payout.
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The allure of Las Vegas
F1 first came to the Nevada desert in 1981 with the same kind of thinking that marks racing today. It now has two races in the US — at New York’s Watkins Glen International and in Long Beach, Calif. — but Vegas offers something different.
As the 1981 season finale, it was billed as a star-studded affair that would showcase the glitz and glamor that Las Vegas had to offer, marketed toward a high roller demographic similar to how casinos promoted other sporting events.
“Caesar (Palace) holds these boxings in their pavilion behind their hotel,” said Chris Pook, the founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix, who was brought in by race promoters to help organize the new event. “There aren’t many seats, but the seats are very expensive, and crowded. Everyone who wanted to come along and gamble on the match came, so they sold out in literally hours.
“So Caesars is pretty confident if they do something like this for an F1 race they’ll be able to get all their high rollers invited to come and participate and enjoy the event.”
Mario Andretti, then driving for Alfa Romeo, was excited when he heard that F1 would visit Las Vegas. The popularity of F1 in the US is on the rise, with Watkins Glen establishing itself and Long Beach quickly proving popular. Racing in a city as glamorous as Las Vegas makes sense.
Then Andretti learned the details. The race isn’t held on a permanent track like Watkins Glen or even a well-developed street circuit like Long Beach. Instead, organizers chose to create the course in a parking lot adjacent to the Caesars Palace hotel and casino located on the Las Vegas Strip.
That’s why the race is not the Las Vegas Grand Prix but the Caesars Palace Grand Prix.
“We thought it was going to be exciting, and we were all looking forward to it,” Andretti said. “But after seeing the area where it was, I didn’t think it would have much life because geographically it was very tight.”
Where the circuit is located within the city and how it is laid out will be significant factors in why F1 only lasted two years in Las Vegas before ignominiously pulling the plug.
The value of compromise
It is a compromise. The lack of suitable options elsewhere and the desire to have a circuit as close as possible to the main casino supporting the event meant working within a small plot of land located opposite a casino, Interstate 15 and the Las Vegas Strip (which, according to Pook, the city won’t allow organizers to use in full).
The result is a 14-turn, 2.2-mile counter-clockwise circuit that features no elevation change and requires multiple back-and-forth sections to meet the 2-mile minimum length due to the small footprint.
“To fit it into the space was a challenge,” Pook said. “It was difficult then. Those cars, even in those days, had to stretch their legs and the circuit layout restricted them quite a bit.
“It’s a little unfair to call it a parking lot race because it’s not really a parking lot — it’s part of a parking lot and there’s a lot of desert, dirt, where the circuit is built. Caesars spent a lot of money, a huge amount of money, on building the circuit.
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Hitting the track confirmed the skepticism. Andretti and Derek Daly, who also competed in both Caesars Palace Grands Prix, recalled a physically demanding circuit with short straights and constant tight turns. Drivers were pushed even further physically and mentally for the 1982 race when the ambient temperature was nearly 99° F (37° C). (This year, drivers are more concerned about the cold.)
“The heat was intense,” Daly said. “For the first and only time in my life as a racing driver, with about three laps left, I started to feel dizzy in the brake zones because of the heat. I was very dehydrated, and the track was very wet, and there was no rest.
The circuit is also aesthetically uninspiring. Built primarily on the space where The Forum Shops mall now resides, that area of Las Vegas in the early 1980s lacked many of the signature structures that gave Las Vegas its distinctive look. And during the Saturday afternoon race, the trademark neon lights went unnoticed. The setting is a bit bland, lacking the kind of backdrop one would associate with Las Vegas hosting a high-profile global sporting event.
“It’s more of an event than an event,” Daly said.
A wedding on the rocks
Support within the city has also been muted. Because Caesars Palace exclusively promoted the race and footed the bill, other casinos and hotels did not help sell the race to its clientele, a far cry from the new Las Vegas Grand Prix, where almost all the known casino has a financial bet and is therefore motivated. to advance the race.
According to Andretti and Daly, even though the drivers stayed in the casinos, their presence went unnoticed. And with some celebrities in attendance, there was quite a bit of buzz around the festivities.
“We all stayed at Caesars Palace, and we could get fully dressed in our rooms, which we did, walk to breakfast in your driver’s suit, which we did, and nobody noticed,” Daly said. “Nobody understands Formula One. Nobody knows Formula One drivers.”
The contestants soon realized that the city and F1 were destined to end like so many Las Vegas marriages: apart.
“Honestly, honestly, when you look at everything, there’s no way this thing has a long life,” Andretti said. “Mostly, again, because of where it is; you don’t have a solid infrastructure. At that time, you know you only have a year or two left.”
Few were surprised when, after two years, F1 bid adieu to Las Vegas. With the Caesars Palace Grand Prix a money-losing proposition and fan support lukewarm, it doesn’t make much sense to return despite the years remaining on the contract between the parties.
In 1983 and 1984, the circuit hosted IndyCar races, which also proved unsuccessful. It will be 41 years before F1 returns to Las Vegas, but when it does next week, it will be under different circumstances and at a different venue.
The new Las Vegas Grand Prix has strong support from state and local governments and is held at night on a course filled with neon lights and in front of crowds of up to 100,000 each weekend. Pook estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 people attended the inaugural Caesars Palace Grand Prix for comparison.
What happens at the Las Vegas Grand Prix will be determined over time. However, a lot would have to go wrong for it to have anywhere near the infamous legacy that the Caesars Palace Grand Prix holds in F1 annals.
“I think the legacy is a lesson learned,” Pook said. “You can’t put two pounds of fertilizer in a one-pound bag. And in this case, Formula One was great in those days. The racing was great, the competition was great, everything was great. It just didn’t work. It didn’t it fits in there. It didn’t do justice to the Formula One product.”
An ironic compromise: Why the Las Vegas GP starts at 10 pm PT
(1982 Caesars Palace Grand Prix top photo: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images))