Twists in an American F1 tale


Austin, Texas, my American friends tell me, is a pleasing town very different in character from such as Dallas or Houston, and ever since plans were announced for a new state-of-the-art circuit, bringing Formula 1 back to the USA, I had been looking forward to going there for the inaugural race in 2012 – particularly after it was rescheduled from June, when the temperature would have been off the clock, to November.

Now, however, it looks to be the case that the US Grand Prix at Austin won’t take place until 2013 – if ever. Disputes – inevitably financial – have broken out between different entities in Texas, construction work on the circuit has ceased – at least for the moment – and the whole thing not surprisingly has infuriated Bernie Ecclestone. If there’s one thing Bernie can’t stand it’s dithering: if something is promised, then not delivered, his patience swiftly evaporates.

History shows, too, that Ecclestone’s fuse tends to be shorter when dealing with the USA than with anywhere else (save perhaps Silverstone). Although the F1 teams – and particularly their sponsors – have repeatedly made clear to him the importance of having at least one Grand Prix in America, Bernie and rights holder CVC have preferred to expand F1 in the Far East, where most people couldn’t care less about motor racing but cash-rich governments are apparently prepared to spend whatever it takes for the prestige of hosting a Grand Prix.

F1 first ventured to the USA at the end of 1959 (above), and the venue chosen was Sebring, already long familiar to most of the drivers as the home of the 12 Hours. Although the final race of the year, and a World Championship decider, the event was not a great success – resonating with American fans far less than the sports car race – and in 1960 the US Grand Prix transferred to Riverside, one of the country’s finest circuits. Again, though, it failed to raise much of a ripple and the ’61 race, it was announced, would be run at Watkins Glen in upstate New York.

This was the start of the great period in Grand Prix racing in America. The Glen was a success from the beginning, and at last the US Grand Prix had found itself a natural home. Throw in the fact that at that time such as Clark, Brabham, Hill, Stewart, Hulme, Rindt et al also became Indianapolis 500 regulars, and that many of the top F1 drivers competed in the Can-Am series, and you can readily see how their names became part of the American racing fabric. You went to the Glen and you saw fans every bit as committed – and knowledgeable – as their counterparts in Europe, F1’s spiritual homeland.

The whole thing started to get even bigger in the mid-70s, when Chris Pook put on an inaugural race for F5000 cars through the streets of Long Beach, and then announced that in 1976 the event would be a round of the F1 World Championship. Again, it was a great success, and – briefly – we had the ideal situation in America with a Grand Prix on the West Coast at the beginning of the season, another on the East Coast at the end.

It didn’t last, though. By the late ’70s crowds were starting to dwindle at the Glen (above) – and, in this new era of F1, the price of putting on a Grand Prix was going up. At the time much was also made of the fact that Watkins Glen, quite a way from any metropolitan centre, lacked the sort of five-star hotels and restaurants required by sponsors and their guests. (Quite clearly this problem was put on ice during negotiations for a Korean Grand Prix, where the joys of Mopko awaited, but hey, look at the cheque…)

The last Grand Prix at the Glen was run in 1980, but at least Long Beach continued to thrive – and had it remained on the F1 calendar, as it should have done, the sport in America would today be very much stronger than it is, for the link would not have been broken.

In 1981 and ’82, there were abortive races in Las Vegas, and perhaps someone somewhere should have taken on board that F1 wasn’t necessarily welcome in all parts of the USA. They didn’t, though, and when we went to Long Beach in 1983, it was for the last time. I remember talking to Pook that weekend: “Bernie’s trying to nail us to the cross on a future contract. I’ve told him we have to make money, too, and given him the figure that makes financial sense to us – and if he can’t accept that, on Tuesday I’m announcing that the 1984 Long Beach Grand Prix will be a CART race…”

This Chris duly did, for Bernie had called his bluff, and found that it wasn’t bluff at all. To this day, even with Indycar racing in a poor state, the Long Beach Grand Prix gets a good crowd, and it has always seemed to me that Ecclestone’s letting the race slip away was one of the few major miscalculations he has ever made.

By now, of course, we also had a Grand Prix through the streets of Detroit, and that ticked over for a few years until 1989 when it, too, became a CART race. In 1984 there was a one-off in Dallas, and if the race was chaotic with the appallingly laid track breaking up in the July heat, it certainly attracted a lot of spectators and seemed to have a future – except that someone went AWOL with the mess takings, and F1 never got paid. Went down very badly, that.

After the demise of Detroit another deal was struck, another city – Phoenix – tried, but the less said about those three races, from 1990-92, the better. One year there was a conflicting event – for ostrich racing – and it pulled a bigger crowd.

As F1 flitted around the USA, trying this venue and that, with sometimes a race in the World Championship calendar, sometimes not, it’s hardly surprising that it slipped increasingly out of the American consciousness. The fans had known all about Niki Lauda and James Hunt, but who were all these new guys?

When Ecclestone finally did a deal with Tony George for a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it seemed that perhaps – at last – Formula 1 had found a new permanent home in the USA. The first race, in 2000, attracted more than 200,000 spectators, and if this were small compared with a 500 crowd, still it was a figure unapproached in Grand Prix racing since the great days of the Nordschleife. Subsequent crowds were never to match it, but even so remained substantial by comparison with other F1 races.

After eight races at Indy, though, it was all over. Having spent a fortune not only on constructing a road circuit, but also partially remodelling the IMS as an F1 venue (in terms of covered pits, and so on, which did not sit well with traditional 500 aficionados), Tony George found himself unable to meet Ecclestone’s fiscal demands for 2008 and beyond. Many, myself included, have always felt that Indianapolis – in more ways than one – was treated shamefully by F1, which was now, yet again, out of America.

As F1 continued to spread itself ever wider towards the Far East and all that loot, the team owners maintained that something had to be done about the USA. Amid endless trumpeting about the need for a World Championship, it was patently absurd that North America – Canada apart – was missing from the schedule. Then the Austin project came up, and very promising it seemed…

Who knows where it is now – but perhaps it has suddenly become less crucial to the F1 business plan, for recently it was announced that in 2013, the weekend after the Canadian Grand Prix, another race will take place in the US on a street circuit in New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. This is as close to Ecclestone’s long-held dream of a New York Grand Prix as ever we will get – and closer than most of us imagined could ever happen.

Many in the paddock have long maintained that there should be a minimum of two Grands Prix in the USA, and the New Jersey announcement was greeted with delight – even if it didn’t go down well with those involved in the Austin project. Now it may be that Jersey will be the country’s only race once more: here there’s no need to spend untold millions on building a track, and all the investment is private, so there should be no controversies about ‘wasting tax payers’ dollars’ in a time of economic stringency. As for Austin, well, time will tell…


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