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Formula 1’s American Street Races Were Doomed to Fail

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Eddie Cheever at the United States Grand Prix in Phoenix, Arizona.

Eddie Cheever at the United States Grand Prix in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport (Getty Images)

For years, Formula 1’s Long Beach Grand Prix succeeded against all odds. There was no reason why a race at a run-down port city should have worked, but it did, and the sport spent years trying to reclaim the glamour of a race it allowed to die with several other ill-conceived street events around America that tried — and desperately failed — to capture the attention of the American fan.

This blog is part of a series on Formula 1’s presence in America. The sport has had a storied — but not particularly successful — history in the country. As F1 grows in America, and as we approach the 2022 United States Grand Prix, Jalopnik is taking a look back at the venues left in the dust and what ultimately led to their abandonment.

You could, perhaps, forgive F1’s hubris when it came to street races because it had managed to put together an extremely successful event in Long Beach that truly should not have worked. Chris Pook, a former travel agent turned race promoter, saw potential for a Monaco Grand Prix-style event in America and set his sights on the town of Long Beach, California thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles.

Pook’s plan really shouldn’t have worked. In the late 1970s, Long Beach was a fairly depressing industrial port city that was soon swept up in a corruption scandal and would require over $100 million in redevelopment to prepare it to host an international event, Randall Cannon writes in Caesars Palace Grand Prix. Much of that money went to the restoration of the Queen Mary, but in 1975, Pook was finally awarded his Long Beach Grand Prix.

The FIA-sanctioned event for 1976 was previewed by a 1975 Formula 5000 race. At the time, Formula 5000 was hugely popular among American open-wheel drivers, and even international talents like James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, and David Hobbs would travel Stateside to compete alongside the likes of Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, and Sam Posey.

But not everyone was happy. From Caesars Palace Grand Prix:

Pre-race press also noted the involvement of the Long Beach General fund in the motorsports promotion. “Long Beach city officials agreed to advance $400,000 that was already scheduled in the master plan,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “and to pay another $101,500 for special reinforcing, pavement, curbs, and safety barriers that will be paid back by the race promoters.” Amid the federal investigation and increased scrutiny at City Hall, the public investment in the otherwise private for-profit promotion would become a flashpoint. “The city is being paid of extraordinary costs, such as extra police,” was the terminology offered to the public.”

The Los Angeles Times also touted the investment and financing of the Long Beach Grand Prix Association itself. Building on a $40,000 start-up investment by Chris Pook and his partners, “additional funding is being arranged through a special intrastate public offering to raise from $950,000 to $1,575,000 for operational and organizational expenses.”

With the funds ultimately earned, the Formula 5000 race at Long Beach was set to run. Drivers lauded the unique safety measures and the guts it took to actually host an event in the middle of a city — especially considering the circuit felt refreshingly modern when compared to the ailing Watkins Glen International.

The finances weren’t quite as promising. Pook admitted that he had overestimated the number of people who would buy a ticket to the event, and the first Long Beach race reported a loss of $300,000.

Things also declined heading into the track’s 1976 event. The barriers seemed to have closed off some track surface, and the asphalt was crumbling. At the end of the event, it appeared that Pook had once again overestimated attendance figures, with financial documents showing yet another massive loss. The 1977 race took place despite Pook and other organizers owing $150,000 to FOCA, a union composed of British teams.

After its initial growing pains, though, Long Beach became known for its exciting races, and it took on a huge level of significance after Watkins Glen lost its race date ahead of the 1981 season. There was still a problem, though: As reported in the Indy Star, Pook was essentially putting together a $6 million event in the hopes of making $100,000. That was largely due to the massive fees F1 charged an event venue just to show up at its locale. For the 1984 season, Pook decided to throw F1 to the curb and allow Long Beach to become a premiere event for CART, a progenitor of the modern-day IndyCar series.

Pook’s decision highlighted a significant problem that was growing in F1: The sport was just too damn expensive, and the requirements it levied on its tracks were absurd. Successful tracks in America didn’t need to spend millions to draw F1 in order to host a successful racing event; they could make a profit by drawing in smaller crowds for a CART event.

As a result, F1’s options for race venues in America became… rather strange. First came the chaos of F1’s first trips to Las Vegas, where it took over 75 acres of Caesars Palace’s parking lot to host a race. (Compare that to, say, the 1,000 acres available at Watkins Glen, and you’ll start to get an idea of the scale here.) The track was wide enough to facilitate some overtaking, but the mid-day races and the strains of a counter-clockwise circuit made the track one of the most difficult on the calendar.

Once again, forces aligned in such a way that very few people showed up to either race, resulting in massive financial losses to Caesars Palace, Cannon writes in Caesars Palace Grand Prix. After the 1982 Grand Prix event, Caesars Palace hosted two years of CART before giving up on the prospect of transforming a parking lot into a race course.

Even before the dream at Caesars Palace totally died, though, Chris Pook was already trying to establish another foothold in America. The 1982 F1 season made history for being the first year that featured three races in the same country thanks to the June addition of the Detroit Grand Prix alongside Caesars Palace and Long Beach.

The race ran for five years, but part of Detroit’s interest in the event was rehabilitating the image of the once-great Motor City, and the decline of the city showed in a rough track surface prone to falling apart that even initially included a railroad crossing.

Problems were evident from the start. The 1982 Detroit Grand Prix was supposed to kick off with a Thursday practice session, but it was cancelled, and Friday’s qualifying had to be postponed due to organizational issues. As the years passed, even changes to the track layout failed to prevent high levels of attrition, and the mid-summer timing often resulted in unpredictable weather. When the last race was staged in 1988, it was so disgustingly hot and humid that the drivers struggled in the cockpit. Worse, the weather resulted in more significant track decay. Paired with a regular loss of money when it came to hosting the event, Detroit’s fate was sealed.

Formula 1 considered moving the track to Belle Isle, a park near Detroit’s downtown, but the series was ready to hang up its American hat in the Motor City. Instead, CART took over the Belle Isle track, and IndyCar has raced there ever since.

During Detroit’s run came yet another American venue, this time in Dallas’ Fair Park for 1984. I’ll just let a quote from Randall Cannon’s Caesars Palace Grand Prix set the appropriate tone:

Bill Weinberger of Caesars Palace and promoter Jack Long would be involved in both races [in Las Vegas and Dallas]. “[The] Detroit race was perhaps,” recalled Weinberger, “the biggest clusterfuck in which I have ever been involved.”

In Dallas, F1 tried to blend entertainment with Texas automotive history by hosting a fan festival in conjunction with Carroll Shelby and the TV show Dallas, but money ran low early. According to Caesars Palace Grand Prix, the race missed its first scheduled installment payment to FOCA and Bernie Ecclestone, even though a race co-sponsored by Texas oil money and Saudi Arabian conglomerate money should have been swimming in cash.

The event was something of a joke. No one seemed to realize that a midday Texas race at the start of July would make for a very hot affair, and as The American Legacy in Formula 1 notes, the track surface simply melted away when under racing duress. Only eight cars out of 25 starters finished, and when all was said and done, the Dallas Grand Prix corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early 1985. It, like Sebring and Riverside, would join the list of one-and-done events in America.

Even after Las Vegas, Dallas, and Detroit folded, Formula 1 still believed in the street race concept, and in 1989 through 1991 came the Phoenix Grand Prix.

Phoenix’s race arose out of the city’s desire to host an international sporting event and the cancellation of the Detroit Grand Prix. Bernie Ecclestone wasn’t ready to relinquish F1’s American dream quite yet and simply replaced Detroit with Phoenix for the event’s proposed 1989 date — which, yet again, took place in June. The heat played a role in the break-up of the track surface once again, prompting the race to be moved to a March season opener for the subsequent two years. Street circuits, though, are a cruel mistress, and every Phoenix Grand Prix was plagued by retirements.

And then it ended. In August of 1991, Ecclestone sent a fax to the City of Phoenix to say that F1 would still race at the event in March of 1992, so Phoenix hired a new consultant to whip the event into shape. In early October, though, Ecclestone called to announce F1 would not be returning to Phoenix. He agreed to pay the city $1.2 million but declined to mention exactly what the cause was. Now, commentators assume the combination of Phoenix only building 20,000 seats and the end of apartheid in South Africa (which renewed the interest in a Kyalami race) both led to to the decision.

In 2017, new Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey critiqued Ecclestone’s handling of American races, stating that to truly succeed, America needed longer-term F1 races that will “capture people’s imagination. You don’t do that with Phoenix, but in New York or Miami.”

Beyond all that, though, was one simple fact: F1 didn’t really know what it wanted from America in the street-circuit era. It knew it wanted to capitalize on an interested market, especially as open-wheel racing grew in popularity throughout the 1980s and ‘90s — but instead of looking at how to host an event for the fans, F1 personnel and promoters focused primarily on how much money they could make off of an event. And while money is perhaps the most important element of any business transaction, creating a long-term investment would have been more profitable in the long run. That, though, was never F1’s prerogative. It just wanted to make money. It didn’t care about making fans.

After the failure of Phoenix, F1 was tired of dealing with America, and America was in no desperate need for F1. The country went without a Grand Prix for nearly a decade when it debuted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How could racing in the heart of America’s motorsport scene go wrong?

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