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Off Track

NEED FOR SPEED - The gentlemen started their engines for the Caesars Palace Grand Prix on October 17, 1981.
Photography courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

NEED FOR SPEED - The gentlemen started their engines for the Caesars Palace Grand Prix on October 17, 1981.

Nearly 40 years ago, Formula One racing roared into Las Vegas. The result was a spectacle — just not the one racers were hoping for

Formula One’s 1981 season was a strange one. A leader failed to emerge for most of the seven months, despite fierce competition during more than a dozen races around Europe and South America. But in the final third of the season, just as the sport’s traveling circus of mechanics, journalists, and racing-inclined glitterati was preparing to make the trip across the Atlantic for the final two races in Canada and America, three contenders emerged: Carlos Reutemann from Argentina, the Frenchman Jacques Laffite, and Nelson Piquet, a notoriously prickly Brazilian. In the rainy penultimate round, held on a lush island in Montreal’s Saint Lawrence River, Piquet managed to narrow Reutemann’s lead in the championship standings to just one point. The championship would be decided in the final race.

The plan at the start of the season was for the racing teams to travel south into New York, where the season finale would be held at the legendary Watkins Glen circuit. But after the track went bankrupt in May, following a long struggle to afford Formula One’s pricey requirements, organizers were forced to improvise. The opening round of the season had taken place on the streets of Long Beach, and so organizers tapped the race’s American promoter, Chris Pook, to throw together a last-minute race in the United States. And so was born one of the strangest events in racing history: the Caesars Palace Grand Prix.

Carved into the casino parking lot and ringed by drab concrete barriers, the completely flat, 2.2-mile course constantly doubled in on itself, the result of having to fit a lot of track in the tight space between the Strip and Interstate 15. The start/finish straightaway sliced right through what are today the Forum Shops. The remainder wound around empty scrubland that would later become the site of the Mirage. Organizers laid new tarmac and had taxicabs drive the circuit to smooth it out. Construction reportedly took around 45 days and cost $3.5 million.

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Conveniently, the event coincided with Formula One’s ongoing pivot to television and the lucrative advertising that went with it. It was hyped more than any other race in recent memory, according to journalists who flocked to Caesars in the days leading up to the event. NBC went all out, airing a promo featuring melodramatic slow-mo footage of the drivers over Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” They even hired Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret Thatcher and a motorsport enthusiast in his own right, as a pit-lane reporter.

But things didn’t go so smoothly. For one, even in October the desert heat proved far less comfortable than the mild continental climate F1’s retinue of Europeans was used to, and hotter than what drivers had trained for. Exhaustion was a common complaint in practices leading up to the race. There was something else wrong, too: Neither locals nor high-rollers were showing up.

Legendary English F1 correspondent Nigel Roebuck stayed at the MGM Grand, now Bally’s, during the race weekend. He recalled being asked by a gambler what all the fuss was about. When he explained it was the race that would settle the World Championship, the man scoffed, “I wouldn’t even care if it was the American championship.” The local response seemed to add up to one big shrug. The glamour and European chic of Formula One had met the gauche inelegance of a desert mob town, and the response was about as you’d expect.

“It was like Romanée-Conti (an expensive French wine) in a plastic beaker,” Roebuck wrote in 2012. “Most people in Vegas found racing cars a noisy distraction, far preferring to settle their rolls of fat on stools and feed quarters into machines.”

The race itself fared only slightly better. Reutemann squandered pole position in the first corner, falling several places before being passed by Piquet. From there, the Brazilian just had to finish ahead of Reutemann to become world champion, which he did, but not before throwing up in his helmet due to the heat and having to be dragged out of his car.

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As a piece of television, the race also fell flat. Camera operators frequently lost track of drivers, leaving viewers at home to miss key moments of the race. NBC cut from a commercial at the last minute, catching Australian Alan Jones just as he crossed the finish line to win the race. For spectators braving the desert heat to watch in person, concrete barriers were apparently so high that on some parts of the track only drivers’ helmets could be seen. To top it off, Thatcher, whose security detail followed him all across town during the weekend, apparently made a fool of himself in pit-lane interviews.

Most drivers could barely contain their hatred of the track. Gazzetta Dello Sport, an Italian daily based in Milan, quoted Jacques Laffite in an article lambasting the circuit, which included the phrase “ridiculous go-kart track.” For that, the newspaper was slapped with a $10 million lawsuit from Caesars, alleging “flimsy and unprofessional journalism.” Jones, who had already announced his retirement, called it “a goat track, dragged down from the mountains and flattened out. What a bloody place to be ending your career …” And though the race stayed on the calendar for one more season, it couldn’t escape its first impression. It was dropped after 1982. In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman in 2012, Pook maintained that the fault lay not with the track but the casinos. He told the paper, “Caesars didn’t reach out. There was not a relationship with the other casinos. It’s really, really important that everyone is behind a race.”

In retrospect, some have criticized the track’s lack of sex appeal. Watching the two races — both of which are available in full on YouTube — one only glimpses flashes of sand, concrete, and the occasional distant highway, hardly an advertisement for a must-visit international destination. At the very least, the affair resulted in more than a few memorable images for Vegas lore-keepers, such as Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile (then the sport’s governing body) president and French motorsport aristocrat Jean-Marie Balestre on the winner’s podium alongside the customary bottle of Moët and a Caesars employee dressed in legionnaire garb.

Fast-forward to the present, and Vegas has now fallen in love with auto racing, albeit at the opposite end of the fandom. The city is firmly on board with NASCAR, whose premier stock-car series now runs two races each year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in addition to events from lower series. But while sponsors like Budweiser, NAPA Auto Parts, and Monster Energy may be a literal world away from the likes of Longines, Parmalat, and Santander, all is not lost for Formula One in Vegas. Liberty Media, an American media conglomerate, bought the sport’s commercial rights in 2016. One of its first moves was to renew dormant plans for another street race in America. Vegas is back on the short list, as are Miami, New York, and L.A.

“The U.S. is all upsides for us,” F1’s new CEO, Chase Carey, told NBC a year ago. “We haven’t invested in it the way we need to, to build the U.S. market.”

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It’s an inherently fraught endeavor, given the checkered fate of Formula One’s efforts in U.S. cities, but it also has the potential to be a huge untapped market as wealth and people centralize in metropolitan areas. Look no further than Singapore, which hosted its first Formula One race on the streets of glitzy Marina Bay in 2008. The race is visually stunning. Taking place at night, cars compete under the glare of lights and the city’s opulent resorts, including Sheldon Adelson’s Marina Bay Sands. It’s a great advertisement for the South Asian city-state, but Liberty is an American company with media holdings in cities that have the iconic skylines the luxury crowd is willing to splash cash in. Will Vegas again be one of them? It’s hard to say; nothing concrete has been announced, though it’s hard to imagine the factors that doomed Sin City’s race in the first place will have disappeared in 40 years. There’s also the question of traffic in a city with almost no public transport.

In 2014, prior to the Americans taking over, an effort headed by tech entrepreneur Farid Shidfar purported to sidestep these problems. Shidfar, who previously worked on the launch of The Cosmopolitan, claimed he had secured a promise of $150 million from unnamed Chinese investors in Beijing who wanted to see a race on the Strip. He was also given an official go-ahead from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, as well as Governor Brian Sandoval, who looked at the race as an opportunity for economic diversification. He was apparently so close to a deal on a new race that Formula One’s designers had a working track layout that they claimed would not impact resorts.

“Closing down the Strip happens multiple times a year,” Shidfar told Forbes. “For New Year’s Eve it happens, for the Rock and Roll marathon it happens, and for special events. There’s a NASCAR event with cars going down the Strip. It happens for hours.”

Supporters latched onto his words as proof the race was possible, but in doing so they tended to ignore the reality. A race itself might last only a day, but a Formula One Grand Prix goes for an entire weekend. That includes practice and qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday, and finally the race on Sunday. And that’s saying nothing of the time it takes the city to erect barriers, set up pit-lane facilities and grandstands. A race on or near the Strip could mean shutting down public streets for up to a month (setup for the Monaco Grand Prix lasts six weeks, plus three more for tear-down). That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s doubtful in the absence of a publicly released track layout. Suffice to say, those plans were never released and the effort appears to have fizzled.

In the meantime, a solution may have been quietly found in the lap of another big-money industry: eSports, which has close ties with Las Vegas and rakes in more than a billion dollars each year. Formula E, the all-digital racing series organized by the same governing body as Formula One, held a race between professional drivers and amateurs. But instead of shutting down public roads for weeks, they simply booked a ballroom at the Venetian during the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show. The race was conducted on computer simulators, all on a virtual Strip circuit that stretched between Mandalay Bay and New York-New York.

The winner was a 22-year-old Dutchman named Bono Huis. Also competing: Nelson Piquet Jr., son of the Brazilian who, 36 years earlier, won his first Formula One World Championship in the parking lot across the street.


Information in this story is drawn from the archives of Motor Sport magazine and, among other sources.