Racing in Las Vegas


Ever one to lob grenades at the world of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone this week fed a story to the press, via The Daily Mail, proclaiming “I don’t think we have to have an Italian Grand Prix. Somebody once told me a funny thing that you couldn’t have Formula 1 without a race in France. But we do.”

If that didn’t get a reaction, he added that promoters of a race planned in Las Vegas “have a contract. Vegas would be super.”

While it wouldn’t take much brain capacity to find a link between pressure on these events and a few more million in race fees dropping into the coffers, it’s a perfect opportunity to remember Las Vegas Grands Prix of old.

So let’s step back in time…


The track and pits of the Las Vegas Grand Prix

Wait! There wasn’t a Grand Prix held in Las Vegas in 1980 you say! Correct.

Formula 1 wasn’t quite the slick operation you know these days and come late February the season’s calendar had not yet been finalised. Moves were afoot to include a race at Las Vegas, largely to elbow an increasingly unpopular Watkins Glen from the schedule. As DSJ wrote in Motor Sport that March “the money-manipulators of Formula 1, headed by Ecclestone and Mosley, thought it would be a good idea to hold a Grand Prix in cahoots with the gamblers of Las Vegas.

“The United States Grand Prix East is back to its normal autumn date (October 5th) and is at Watkins Glen. And Las Vegas? Hmmm … We’ll have to wait and see.”

Watkins Glen was indeed dropped after 1980, never to return to the F1 calendar.


John Watson leads Jean-Pierre Jarier

Alan Jones bid farewell to Formula 1 in the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix at Caesars Palace. Winding its way for 2.26 miles around a billiard-smooth parking lot “the concept was rather novel,” though “few would actually admit to positively liking it.” DSJ stayed away for this one, leaving Alan Henry to cover for Motor Sport.

Carlos Reutemann, Nelson Piquet and Jacques Laffite all came into the event with a shot at the title. Many drivers struggled in the heat of the race, even in October, and the anti-clockwise circuit layout caused neck issues for many. While some staggered from their cockpits after 75 laps of racing “Alan Jones strolled confidently to the winners’ rostrum clutching a can of beer,” wrote AH.

In the end a fatigued Piquet held on for fifth place, which was good enough for the World Championship, while Reutemann trailed home a disappointing eighth after losing fourth gear in his Williams.

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Michele Alboreto en route to his maiden win

“Las Vegas 1982 took on the role of finale of a rather chaotic season and set the seal on a season that will surely go down in history not only as a doldrum but as a pointer that World Championships won on points, either for drivers or manufacturers, are seldom satisfactory,” Jeff Hutchinson wrote in Motor Sport.

He added: “a World Champion driver who only wins one race and clinches the Championship with a steady and undramatic fifth place in the last race, tends to leave you with an exclamation mark over your head.”

Despite only scoring one victory (at Dijon), Keke Rosberg cruised home to secure the title and Michele Alboreto took the first of his five F1 wins.


Michael Andretti in action

Formula 1 would not return to Las Vegas (nor race at the mooted New York GP either) which caused a calendar shortage, filled in at short notice by Brands Hatch. DSJ referred to FOCA reaching “its lowest depths with a race in a car park at Las Vegas, which some members of that almost defunct body considered to be entertainment.”

Replacing the costly F1 would be CART, racing around a modified version of the circuit. The infield ‘twiddly’ bits were bypassed to create a distorted flat 1.125 mile ‘oval’. Mario Andretti would take the victory for Newman-Haas.


TV coverage of the event

CART returned once more with minor changes to the final turn to help improve lap times.

Mario would finish second this time to Tom Sneva, but it would be enough to secure his first championship for 15 years.

This would be the end of racing in the car park at Caesars Palace. The cost of running racing events proved less attractive than utilising the land for development, and The Forum now sits over the site of the circuit.


Ryan Dalziel passes The California

As Champ Car fought to stay alive in the battle with IRL the series raced exclusively on road and street circuits. The season opener was moved from the traditional Long Beach event to a new street circuit in downtown Las Vegas, running around the famous Fremont St in Old Vegas.

Dan Clarke catches air

The circuit was popular with all involved – it was fast, wide and had some unique and exciting features including two quick runs through underpasses. A temporary chicane had to be installed at the end of the lap to stop cars from taking off over the crest as Ogden Ave crossed Main St.

Will Power started from pole and held off Paul Tracy in the 1hr 45min timed event to secure victory.

Paul Tracy heads Will Power at the start

Despite a five-year deal to host the opening race it would not return. The unification of Champ Car and IRL meant the race was dropped from the calendar. The outlay to the city of Las Vegas and severe disruption to guests and residents (as well as noise) likely spelled the end of any future street racing in Sin City.

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