The F1 races in the US that didn't work: Indianapolis, Dallas & more
As Formula 1 prepares for its latest new track in the United States with the inaugural Miami Grand Prix this weekend, it acts as a cautious reminder about past venues which failed to meet expectations over the years. Here’s a look at the US tracks which didn’t work out for the series
Sebring (1959), Riverside (1960) and Dallas (1984)
Sportscar calendar linchpin Sebring missed the spot when it hosted Formula 1 for what would be a one-off in 1959. Tickets sold for the title decider were barely half that of the famous 12-hour enduro. Organiser Alec Ulmann was also out of pocket after coughing up for the prize fund, so he decided to move the race to sunny California…
Ulmann again relied on a huge money pot to boost the appeal of Riverside. The 1960 season finale – the last round of the 2.5-litre era – also helped launch the career of local lad Dan Gurney, who qualified third. But having already lost both titles, Ferrari didn’t turn up. Neither did the fans or local media to watch Stirling Moss land his first world championship victory since his enormous Spa shunt.
Dallas was perhaps the worst destination F1 ever found in the USA. It held one GP only, famous for searing heat causing the decent-enough street circuit to disintegrate, and for polesitter Nigel Mansell collapsing as he pushed his Lotus 95T over the line after its gearbox failed. Race promoter Dan Walker was locked up for financial misconduct, leaving the series in search of another location following Keke Rosberg’s famous win for Williams.
Alan Jones, Williams FW07B Ford, leads Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T5
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Watkins Glen (1961-80)
The revered permanent circuit in Upstate New York was by some way the best early attempt to find a full-time home for F1 in the States. Crowds peaked at 125,000 despite the autumnal weather, and the race was beloved by drivers too. That was naturally helped by a $100,000 prize pot for the winner in the 1960s and generous starting money for the rest of the grid. Little wonder the Glen was ostensibly a three-time winner of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association’s award for the best-organised and staged event.
It was not all sweetness and light, however. Nearby facilities were below par, and the challenging circuit was the site of fatal crashes for Francois Cevert (1973) and Helmuth Koinigg (1974). Despite improvements, the bumpy track never shifted an unsafe reputation thereafter as the high-speed ground-effect era arrived.
Then, given what had made Watkins Glen so popular in the first place, fans being too rowdy tarnished the image. Similarly ironic given the lucrative early rewards, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation failed to pay the $800,000 it owed to teams. The company’s swift bankruptcy forced the race to be canned for 1981.
Podium; Race winner Niki Lauda, McLaren, second place Keke Rosberg, Williams, third place Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari
Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images
Long Beach (1976-83)
Under the moniker ‘United States Grand Prix West’, it looked as though F1 had found two welcoming homes in the US as the Long Beach street course in California worked its way into fans’ hearts alongside Watkins Glen.
The track opened in 1975 to host Formula 5000, and the grand prix paddock arrived the year after. Packed grandstands plus widespread mainstream media attention became the norm as the layout evolved to suit F1’s needs.
But the business relationship between race promoter Chris Pook and F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone soured during negotiations in 1982. The event was struggling to turn a profit thanks to annual host fees north of $2million. That figure was only set to rise as the contract rolled on. Ecclestone was immune to attempts to drive the price down, leading Pook to forge a deal for Long Beach to host CART instead and suck up the subsequent dip in coverage and sponsorship.
For the F1 swansong in 1983, the GP attracted another bumper crowd and team bosses came out in support of the venue. Ecclestone then attempted to reopen talks to retain the race. But it was too late for Pook to renege on the CART contract, and F1 lost the event.
Michele Alboreto, Tyrrell 011-Ford, leads Mauro Baldi, Arrows A4-Ford
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Las Vegas (1981-82)
Cher was in residency at Caesars Palace in the famous Colosseum venue in October 1981. At the same time, similarly glamorous F1 was nestled in the casino’s car park. For the drivers and few fans who did rock up for the two season finales, oh how they wished they could turn back time…
The significance of the race gained momentum when it became clear that a replacement was needed for Watkins Glen to bolster F1’s footing in the US. Las Vegas seemed like a premier location but, rather than making use of the Strip, the GP paddock was virtually hidden from view around the back of the famous hotel.
Car parks have seldom been renowned for their dramatic landscape, and so what resulted was a flat layout defined by repetitive switchbacks to fit into the designated space. That said, this was a ‘street’ circuit wide enough for overtaking.
Despite its status as the title decider, the prospect of Nelson Piquet (1981) and then Keke Rosberg (1982) sewing up their first F1 crowns failed to attract enough spectators through the gates for Caesars Palace to recoup its costs. Despite the success Rosberg achieved there, it was his least favourite track. Then came a move to Michigan…
Ayrton Senna, Lotus, Nelson Piquet, McLaren, Alain Prost, McLaren
Photo by: Motorsport Images
By the time F1 rocked up at Detroit in the early 1980s, the local Motown soundtrack was no longer ringing quite so loudly. Combined with the oil crisis that offered foreign automotive industries a window of opportunity, Motor City was in decline. But a street course that encompassed the General Motors headquarters at the Renaissance Centre still represented a third annual GP in the States – a feat that will only be matched with the addition of Las Vegas to the calendar in 2023.
But the track was almost universally unpopular. Tighter, rougher and therefore slower than Monaco, it produced dull races that were marked by attrition. A surface that loved to break up in hot and humid weather only hurt its standing further. A 1982 debut was marred by disorganisation too. Thursday practice was cancelled, Friday qualifying delayed and, when it finally took place via two Saturday sessions, a downpour meant only the morning run was used to decide the grid.
Then F1 governing body FISA declared the facilities to be behind the curve and demanded an upgraded, permanent set-up for the pits. The city refused to open its purse and so, when few rushed to defend the Detroit GP, it soon slipped off the calendar.
Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford leads Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda
Photo by: Sutton Images
In the knowledge that a five-year contract had been agreed with F1, the Arizonan city of Phoenix stumped up $3.5million to construct a timing tower and garages plus resurface its 2.36-mile street circuit ahead of a first race in 1989. But only three would be held, largely because the race was a commercial flop.
The venue could accommodate 40,000 spectators but not even half that number attended. For those who did, they found grandstands to be poorly located with only a limited view. Not helping matters, the event was badly promoted, and ticket prices were astronomical. Those factors combined when CART and NASCAR were enjoying a boom period. Domestic drivers were household names, and hundreds of thousands of fans made their way to races. For those viewing at home, F1 registered a TV audience share that was 83% smaller than its oval-based rivals according to contemporary Nielsen ratings.
F1 therefore lost its negotiating power when it came to finding a date that didn’t clash with headline events at the permanent Phoenix International Raceway. Despite the US GP moving to become the season-opener for 1990-91, it dropped off the calendar the year after. F1 didn’t return to the US until the new millennium.
The start of the race with only six cars
Photo by: Steve Swope / Motorsport Images
With the Indianapolis 500 running to different regulations, few regular-season teams and drivers entered the race when it was an anomalous feature of the ‘F1’ schedule between 1950 and 1960. This entry therefore focuses solely on the Indianapolis road course that joined the GP fold at the turn of the millennium.
It had been a full decade since the previous US GP and there was evidently pent-up demand for F1’s return when a then-record crowd of over 200,000 fans flocked to the Brickyard in 2000. The run thereafter was a little rocky: the proximity of the 2001 race to the 11 September attacks, Ferrari trying to stage a dead heat in 2003, and shifting dates in 2004 as F1 learned its place in relation to NASCAR and the Indy 500. It often felt as though the GP paddock was merely squatting in IndyCar’s back garden.
But it was the tyre debacle of 2005, when only six cars took the race start, that soured the taste most of all as spectators booed and ripped up their tickets in disgust. Somehow, F1 returned the year after but with a damaged ego. Enormous hosting fees and the venue’s struggle to attract blue-chip sponsors meant championship organisers and circuit bosses grew apart in their valuations of hosting the race. It dropped off the calendar after 2007.
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