BUXTON: Why Las Vegas will finally get the Formula 1 race it deserves in 2023
It’s finally official. It’s finally done. After years of would it, could it, the answer is yes. It can. It will. Formula 1 is returning to Las Vegas.
The history of a Las Vegas Grand Prix is long, beginning of course with the 1964 running of the first annual Las Vegas GP, where Lucky Jackson, driving an Elva Mark VI Maserati, defeated Count Elmo Mancini’s Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta.
Students of motor racing history will recognise immediately that this race never actually happened. It was the central plotline of the Elvis Presley movie Viva Las Vegas, but at the height of those golden years of the Strip and Vegas as the idea of an opulent den of excitement and glitzy wonder, motor racing had been placed firmly at its heart on the silver screen.
The very next year, Can-Am began racing for real at Stardust International Raceway, running through to 1968 on the 13-corner track in the Las Vegas valley. F1 world champions John Surtees and Denny Hulme marked themselves out as winners on the circuit, and Bobby Unser won the only USAC Champ Car race held there in 1968.
Formula 1 itself first raced in Vegas in 1981 in what would be a short-lived two-year run at Caesars Palace. While the race itself should have been a grand affair, hosting it on a small, slippery track in the casino’s car park never really did full justice to the joining together of the world’s most glamorous sport and the world’s most decadent city.
Can-Am, CART and Trans Am would continue for a few more years at the venue, bringing wins to Danny Sullivan, Mario Andretti and Willy T Ribbs, but the circuit became one of the most universally disliked and derided. And with the ever-popular Long Beach just 300 miles down the road, motor racing in Las Vegas itself never quite established itself as strongly as everyone felt it should.
In all honesty, a race in Vegas needed to showcase Vegas. It needed to run down the Strip, at night, past the shimmering lights and the landmarks that immediately place the viewer and the driver in one of the most instantly recognisable cities on Earth. But such a dream was only ever thus.
There was just no way you could close down the Strip for an entire weekend, let alone build the infrastructure required for an international motor race of the scale required to do it justice.
Except you can. And they will.
Formula 1’s return to Las Vegas comes at a time of unparalleled success and interest in the United States. Even The Beatles worried about breaking America. And even they proved it isn’t always smooth sailing. But the ramping up of fanaticism surrounding the sport has finally seen a seismic shift.
I was fortunate to broadcast to the USA for a decade, first with SPEED and then NBC. I experienced at first-hand the genuine love that exists within the loyal American fanbase for the sport, built upon decades of often unsympathetic racing hours. But with every year, we saw viewing figures increase, as the committed bedrock of long-time fans was joined by a newer, younger audience experiencing the brilliance of the sport for the first time.
American sport, I’ve always believed, is marked out by the loyalty of its fanbase. Be it town, city, state or college, there’s a draw and a pull which speaks to the American sports fan in a game or a team’s presence.
An international sport which drops into the US once a year could never hope to garner those same emotions. Feelings of loyalty on the same level as for a sport played exclusively in the United States always seemed an almost impossible hurdle to leap for a sport such as Formula 1, which has always prided itself on its global reach and footprint.
The growth of the sport in recent years, however, has been huge. A combination of a massive push in digital content creation and social media outreach, allied to the untold popularity of Drive To Survive, has seen new fans, particularly in the USA, drawn to the sport and its characters.
While racing in Austin, Texas, gave the sport a firm foothold with a great race at a fabulous track, it is only fair to admit that the majority of fans, until recently, were pre-existing. The notion of “if you build it they will come” never really washed.
Sure Formula 1 could have raced at any number of great American tracks to add to the success of COTA, but taking F1 to Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Road America or Sonoma might only have served to play to an already engaged crowd. By putting the sport in front of people, in cities and on the streets where they live, a new fanbase can be found.
It's why the New Jersey concept found legs. It’s why Miami will join the calendar in 2022. It’s why Las Vegas will join in 2023.
For the first time in 40 years, Formula 1, with an ever-growing fanbase and US viewing figures hitting their highest ever heights, will visit America on three occasions next year. The timing could not be better. And in Miami and Vegas, it has two apparently well-designed street circuits which will highlight the speed and bravery of Formula 1’s finest.
Whether a street race in Las Vegas becomes a long-term addition to rival the likes of Singapore remains to be seen, but it has all the right ingredients and comes at the perfect time.
In the world’s gambling paradise, the Las Vegas Grand Prix feels not like a roll of the dice, but one of the safest bets you could place right now.
The stars have finally aligned. The right race, at the right place, at the right time.
For the latest information on the Las Vegas Grand Prix, visit F1LasVegasGrandPrix.com