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How Hubris Killed the United States Grand Prix at Riverside



Stirling Moss leads American racer Pete Lovely at the 1960 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.

Stirling Moss leads American racer Pete Lovely at the 1960 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.
Photo: David F. Smith (AP)

Let’s say you came from out of state and wanted to host a pretty massive event at a venue that already has an established and dedicated local fanbase. It would perhaps make sense to treat that venue with ample respect — to assume, perhaps, that your event would not outshine all the other events and to act accordingly. Well, when Formula 1 came to California’s Riverside International Raceway, it did so with a massive ego that almost immediately came back to haunt the series.

(Editor’s Note: This 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.)

Alec Ulmann, the promoter who had arranged the 1959 United States Grand Prix at Sebring, had secured a three-year contract to host F1 races in America, and he was determined to make the absolute most of it. When his efforts at hosting a race in Sebring failed, he turned his eyes to the West Coast and, specifically, Riverside International Raceway.

Riverside was a key player in California’s motorsport scene. Owned by Hollywood automobile dealer Roy G. Lewis, the track had close ins with the local press, since Lewis hired Los Angeles Times writer Paul Schlisser to head his promotional team, Randall Cannon writes in Caesars Palace Grand Prix. This would become a key point of contention at the conclusion of the event.

The race itself was fine. Jack Brabham had already secured his World Championship, so Ferrari declined to send any cars overseas to compete. Local Riverside racer Dan Gurney competed, and Stirling Moss ultimately took victory.

But again, there were problems drawing support. Cannon writes that the race drew in a crowd of about 25,000 — which was pretty meager compared to Ulmann’s prospective crowd of 70,000, an estimate he had based on attendance figures for local events (specifically, the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix). And Ulmann also failed to learn his lesson about biting the hand that feeds. From Caesars Palace Grand Prix:

Just as Stirling Moss scorched qualifying, promoter Alec Ulmann then scorched the southern California media. “I am afraid there will have to be a change of attitude on the part of local press,” Ulmann said, emulating Moss’ comments about Sebring, “before I or any other organization would bring big time racing in [southern California] again.” Ulmann’s lament placed blame with the Los Angeles Times for a lack of promotion, in apparent competition with the Times sponsorship of the preceding Riverside sports car Grand Prix.

Competing newspapers in the Los Angeles market were quick to push back. “They bounced in with the missionary attitude so typical of New York types arriving on these shores,” wrote one pundit of the Ulmann promotion, “that they were the big town bringing light and urbanity to the grateful provincials.” Alec Ulmann was thus dispatched from Riverside, California, back to Sebring, Florida, to commence promotions for the 1961 Sebring 12-Hour endurance event. Ulmann would soon also announce a 20 percent reduction in Sebring ticket prices.

Of course, the true reasons for the event’s lack of attendance couldn’t be entirely pinned on local media — though that could have had something to do with it. After all, there really wasn’t much to promote with the Championship settled and a slew of unfamiliar European drivers making up the field. Still, Moss took home a stunning amount of prize money: $7,500, or about $75,000 today when adjusted for inflation. The formula for an enticing American event was there, but Ulmann didn’t seem to be the right person to capitalize on it. As Cannon adds:

As Alec Ulmann analogized his Formula One promotion with the Los Angeles Times-sponsored Riverside Grand Prix for sports cars, he also went vin on newspaper placements produced by the Times. “As a World Champion event it was played down until the last few days,” continued the promoter, “and the advertising we could buy… looked like nothing after what the public had become used to expecting from events organized by the local papers.” It is highly unlikely that Riverside International Raceway and regional Los Angeles media conspired to downplay such a prominent international event. Much more so, it is probable that Alec Ulmann planted — and then presided over — his own laments. As one California writer diplomatically painted Ulmann, “he may be a hard man to do business with in the future.”

Ulmann still didn’t let that talking point die. In March of 1961, he announced that the U.S. Grand Prix would not be returning to Riverside with vague allegations of sabotage. He claimed that there were multiple different locations that could possibly host the 1961 event, including Daytona, Laguna Seca, and a track in the Bahamas, but hard details failed to come to fruition. As the 1961 season approached its end, it seemed that a race in America may not take place. Thankfully, there was still one glimmer of hope shining from a race track in upstate New York: Watkins Glen International.

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