Independence Day – America in F1

America – land of the free, home of the brave, and the one place Formula One just can’t seem to conquer. Naturally, NASCAR and IndyCar don’t do F1 any favours when it comes to ticket sales and as anyone watching F1 for several years will know, ticket sales at Indianapolis were almost laughable.

Leaving Indianapolis at the end of 2007 seemed like the final nail in the coffin of F1’s attempt at making it in the States. It was a disappointing end to a love/hate affair which began all the way back in 1950, which you may know was Formula One’s first ever season. However, the American round wasn’t a dedicated Formula One event. Instead, the F1 calendar incorporated the Indianapolis 500 as an official round, and any points an F1 driver earned in the prestigious Indy 500 would be added to his tally at the end of the season. It was through this that the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ came about. The Triple Crown is an unofficial honour to any driver who wins the Indy 500, 24 hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix – arguably Motorsport’s three most prestigious events.

Formula One got off to a less than impressive start stateside when a dedicated American round was added. The first race was held at the Sebring in 1959 and was held on the 12th of December. New Zealand’s Bruce McLaren took his maiden F1 win and also became the youngest Grand Prix winner, following Jack Brabham’s retirement mere metres from the line. He had to push his fuel-less car across the finish line where he finished fourth. The race was ultimately a failure though as organisers barely broke even and the prize money checks bounced.

For 1960, the race moved to Riverside where Stirling Moss stuck his Lotus on pole position and subsequently won the race. Again, the race was a commercial disaster and two private investors had to bear the brunt of paying the prize money.

1961 was the first year of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, and this race was F1’s breakthrough. The Grand Prix was a success and led to an eventual twenty continuous years of racing at ‘the Glen’. Held in upstate New York, it was regarded as one of F1’s most popular races. However, a track reshape in 1971 at first made the track more challenging and more entertaining for drivers and fans, but the track soon deteriorated which led to drivers complaining regularly about the surface. Also, the round had reached such publicity that soon, people who knew nothing about F1 were coming to the race and the round effectively became a social gathering. For example, in 1974 a tour bus was torched simply for entertainment value by rowdy fans.

The ‘Glen’ henceforth came to a rather unceremonious end, a shame given its earlier popularity and in 1980 the round was suddenly dropped. However, F1 was not gone from America as a second race had been run in Long Beach, California since 1976, just as the Glen started to deteriorate. Long Beach was also considered a successful round and stayed on the Calender until 1983 when F1 left America temporarily.

The 1981 and 1982 rounds of the Long Beach Grand Prix was also not the only American rounds. Despite Watkins Glen being dropped in ’80, a replacement was found in the car park, yes the CAR PARK of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It served as the curtain-closing round whereas Long Beach was the season-opening race. However, the Las Vegas round was incredibly unpopular among drivers. Firstly, as Las Vegas is set in the middle of the desert, they had the heat of the cars coupled with the desert heat to contend with. Mario Andretti, for example, won his World Championship by finishing fifth in Caesars Palace, but spent fifteen minutes post-race recovering from heat exhaustion. Secondly, the layout, although wide enough for overtaking and incredibly smooth, was counter-clockwise and put huge strain on the drivers neck, as they were accustomed to clockwise circuits.

And so, again, the race was changed. However, the Dallas Grand Prix didn’t come together in time for 1983 and so 1984 was it’s debut year. The race was even more unpopular than Caesars Palace as drivers had to contend with scorching temperatures, a tight, twisty circuit and a horribly rough surface. To fight the heat, race organisers bumped the race to three hours earlier than originally scheduled meaning a 7.30am warm up. Williams’ driver Jacques Laffite, obviously not much of a morning person, showed up to the track in pajamas. Due to damage inflicted from a support race, the circuit was under a state of repair all night and the warm up was cancelled as repairs were ongoing. Niki Lauda and Alain Prost tried to organise a boycott but Keke Rosberg, the race’s eventual winner, insisted the race go ahead.

Another failure in America saw F1’s early popularity in the states plummet and F1 would stay away until 1989 when Phoenix, Arizona was selected for a race. With lessons obviously not learned from the Dallas and Las Vegas rounds, the heat played havoc with the grid and twenty of the race’s starters retired during the race, leaving only six cars to take the checkered flag. The race was moved from June to March in 1990 to help combat the heat and Ayrton Senna won the round. He won the 1991 Grand Prix too, although only eight other drivers finished the race with him. And so ended F1’s three-year spell in Arizona.

It was a while before Bernie Ecclestone dared to set foot in the USA for a Grand Prix. He eventually chose the Indianapolis speedway as the location for a new circuit. As the Indy 500 uses the oval, an infield track was used to provide a more F1-suited circuit. The 2000 race is estimated to have drawn almost a quarter of a million spectators which obviously seemed to spell success for F1 which had been struggling in the states since Long Beach was dropped. However, audiences soon grew bored with F1 and the 2005 tire fiasco where Michelin withdrew, leaving only the three Bridgestone supplied teams to start the race, only counted to help kill the race.

And so America, again, was left F1-less until the Circuit of the Americas opened in 2012. While only one race has been held at the circuit so far, the inaugural round was a fan and driver favourite and offered a ray of hope to Formula One who seems to have finally found itself a home in the States. A second race, however, is struggling. A New Jersey round was announced and should have been held last month, just after the Canadian race. However, construction problems saw the opening postponed to 2014 – and that race too looks in doubt. 

America also has two World Champions to be proud of. Phil Hill grabbed the title in 1961, the same year that the Watkins Glen Grand Prix made its debut. However, Hill’s team-mate Wolfgang Von Trips had been killed in a crash at the beginning of the Italian Grand Prix, handing the Championship to Hill. Having won both the Driver’s and Constructor’s Championship, Ferrari decided not to participate in the American round which robbed Hill of his triumphant, although tainted, homecoming.

Mario Andretti also became an American Champion. Although born in Italy, he became an American citizen in 1964, well before his Champion year of 1978. In a macabre twist of fate, Andretti’s team-mate, Ronnie Peterson, crashed at the start of the Italian Grand Prix and lost his life, while Andretti won the Championship. Andretti failed to win a single Grand Prix after this and subsequently left F1 in 1982 where he ventured into IndyCar racing.

Currently, America has no Formula One drivers but Caterham’s Alexander Rossi and GP3’s Conor Daly lurk dangerously in the wings which could see either one of them become the first F1 driver since Scott Speed left F1 in 2007.

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One response to “Independence Day – America in F1

  1. Pingback: COTA: F1’s Modern Success Story | Ben Sweeney's F1 Blog

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