How Times Change

The crowd for the Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix. [Credit: Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix]

by Pete Gorski

When I read that Formula One was coming to Las Vegas in 2023, my first thought was, “Well that seemed inevitable.” When I saw the track map, my second thought was, “My how times change.” A little history…

As many are aware, F1 led a semi-nomadic existence in the United States in the 1980s, with events in Las Vegas, Long Beach, Dallas, and Detroit. After the U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix in 1991, they waved the white flag (and not in a good way) and said Cherrio! to the U.S. market. F1 didn’t return to the U.S. until 2000, on a road course built inside Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the time, IMS was (arguably) the most famous racetrack in the country.

Las Vegas Grand Prix track map. [Source: Wikipedia]

Las Vegas Grand Prix track map. [Source: Wikipedia]

But it didn’t take long for fans to proclaim the circuit “boring”. One long straight, one shorter straight, and some unremarkable turns in between… or so some said, which makes the effusive praise lavished on the Las Vegas circuit all the more galling. What was seen as “boring” in 2000 is now “Woo! Vegas street course!” It’s not the worst layout (although that Turn 6 protuberance is kind of odd-looking) but it’s not really all that different from IMS — a long straight, a shorter straight, and some unremarkable corners in between. At least IMS had decades of history and its iconic front straight. I have seen some comments that point out the underwhelming nature of the Las Vegas circuit, so maybe the praise is less universal than F1 and Liberty Media would like you to believe. And the layout is certainly better than the course built in the Caesar’s Palace parking lot back in 1982. Which is a fine segue to…

The Miami Grand Prix. I was all set to hate this event. Another race in a parking lot in a hot environment…not exactly my idea of a compelling event. The racing itself was fine, with some help from a late safety car, and the environs, at least on television, didn’t look all that bad. Mostly flat yes, and much of the atmosphere was manufactured (looking at you faux marina), but overall…fine.

The most interesting part of the broadcast came during the prerace hype. Sky Sports commentator David Croft kinda said the quiet part loud when he opined that F1 is always trying to balance spectacle with good racing… and then went on with the rest of the broadcast. Call it bias on my part, but when I heard that, it sounded like maybe he wasn’t expecting the race to be all that exciting, but that the setting was irresistible.

As far as spectacle, if that’s what you’re into, then Miami and the prerace show paid off big. Innumerable celebrities from diverse fields of…celebrity(?)… packed the VIP areas and Martin Brundle’s grid walk. (For better or worse. Kinda worse.)

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you know that Liberty Media has been focused on growing F1 in the United States — from once a year at COTA to three visits in 2023. But I have to wonder, is Liberty on the road to oversaturation? Yes the Miami event was a smashing success from an attendance and glitterati standpoint. But I attended the inaugural F1 race at Indianapolis in 2000 as a spectator, and it too was packed…the first year. Fans sitting behind me brought chilled shrimp and champagne. Just a few years later (and before the infamous Michelin fiasco), attendance was still decent, but the race was hardly the must-see event of the season. I have no doubts the inaugural Las Vegas race will also be a huge hit…the first year. But I suspect that both Miami and Las Vegas may find the allure of “First time!!!” doesn’t carry over into “Third time!!!”

I also recall that there was concern that the Mexico GP was going to hurt attendance at COTA. Are there enough fans to split between Miami, Las Vegas, and Austin? Liberty seems to be operating in opposition to the show business maxim “”Always leave them wanting more.” Drive to Survive is going to have to be really compelling to keep putting people in the seats.

Let’s revisit Crofty’s comment about spectacle. It’s widely known that F1 looks at “destination” cities for its new races, and Miami and Las Vegas fit the bill. Tacit in F1’s not returning to IMS is that Indianapolis isn’t a “destination” city. And yes, if Tony George or the state could have put together the money required to keep hosting a race, the series would have continued running there, regardless of lack of allure or a boring circuit. But all three tracks on which F1 will race in the United States are out at the edges of the country. While Indy may not have the electric neon buzz of South Beach or The Strip, it is centrally located. And I’m not just saying this as somebody who lives in the upper Midwest, but it’s easier and more convenient for a large number of race fans to get to Indianapolis than the other three locations.

I’m going to wrap this up with a little motorsports blasphemy. If we accept that the IMS roval is boring, shouldn’t we apply that same standard to other rovals as well? Say…the Daytona roval? It’s not more “exciting” than IMS, unless the banking somehow makes it a better road course. So why is Daytona not saddled with the b-word? Time served. It’s been a fixture for so long, nobody thinks to complain about it. The sun is hot, water is wet, and the roval at Daytona…well… But I guarantee, if you built the Daytona road course today, the Internet would be alight with comments calling it just that. All Indy needed to do to transcend that pejorative was to hang on for another 20 years and any thoughts of “boring” would be forgotten!

So we’ll see how long Miami and Las Vegas hang around on a crowded F1 calendar. If you’re excited by the thought of F1 cars on The Strip at night, you might want to make sure you get there sooner than later. History is not on the side of an extended run.

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