Formula One
Formula One racing

Famous for failure: The U.S. Grand Prix might work ... in Austin?

Famous for failure: The U.S. Grand Prix might work ... in Austin?

Austin Photo Set: News_John flood_usgp found a home_August 2011_1
Under the famous Dunlop starter's tower at the 1967 USGP at Watkins Glen

Formula One in the United States is now just over 50 years old. The first Formula One U.S. Grand Prix was held at the now famous Sebring International Raceway in southern Florida in 1959. The circuit had already established itself as an international racing venue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring, first contested in 1952, and the promoters hoped to further their international credentials with the introduction of the F1 World Championships.

It could have been a success as 19 entries started the race. But it was held on December 12th, three months after the penultimate race at Monza, and race fans were busy with the holidays. Even though the title was decided at Sebring, attendance was poor and the event was never hosted there again. The promoters needed to reach into their own pockets to pay the prize money.

 Austin will be well liked by the international crowd that attends F1 races as Austin is very cool, very weird, and very interesting. 

In 1960, the promoters moved the race to Riverside Raceway in Southern California. The event was the last race of the season, and failed to attract enough interest to make it a success. The championship had already been decided at the last European race, and the best drivers in the world, including Sterling Moss, Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill, Jim Clark, and Graham Hill, could not attract the American race fans. As had happened at Sebring, the promoters had to pay the prize money out of pocket.

The future of Formula 1 in the United States looked bleak until an agreement was reached in the summer of 1961 with Cameron Argetsinger, the manager of Watkins Glen International Raceway.

Watkins Glen is a little village in the Finger Lakes region of west-central New York that is home to about 2300 permanent residents. During the summer months, the population swells as vacationers arrive to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Many sail or motor boat on Lake Seneca, a 50 mile long glacial lake that is 650 feet deep, one of the deepest lakes in the USA. Others enjoy camping at the State Park where they hike several miles of trails that pass 19 waterfalls, including the beautiful Cavern Cascade. Some prefer wine tasting at the numerous vineyards that surround the lake, followed by a quiet meal “al fresco” at one of the fine local restaurants. For the most part, Watkins Glen is an idyllic place that offers a quiet and relaxing escape from the day-in and day-out pace of life in the city. 

In contrast to the quiet village setting, Watkins Glen is also home to Watkins Glen International Raceway, an 11 turn, 3.4 mile road racing circuit built in 1950. Although the premier event today is a NASCAR cup race, for 20 years (1961-1980), the Glen was the permanent home of the United States Grand Prix.

Even though far from population centers, and lacking hotels and other facilities, the 1961 Grand prix was a great success. Fan attendance was strong for many, many years, and the drivers and teams enjoyed the event. The Glen was the permanent home of the USGP for two decades.

 The Circuit of the Americas will be the first purpose built race track to host F1 since 1980, and the circuit has a beautiful topography that will provide an excellent racing experience for the drivers, teams, and race fans. 

Formula 1 continued to advance technologically and commercially throughout the sixties and seventies, but The Glen failed to do so. Facilities in 1980 were pretty much the same as they had been in 1961. The track surface was in poor condition in the seventies, and the safety features were inadequate for race cars that were much faster in the seventies than in 1961. The deaths of Francois Cevert in 1973 and Helmuth Koinigg in 1974 were due in some part to the poorly secured Armco barriers that lined the circuit. Efforts to finance upgrades to the circuit mostly failed, and the future of the USGP was increasingly uncertain.

Meanwhile, in 1976, a second US Formula 1 race was hosted in Long Beach, California. The USGP West was run on the streets of Long Beach and modeled itself after Monaco. The course was bumpy, crowded by concrete barriers, surrounded by buildings on one side, and the ocean on the other. Long Beach shared very little in common with the Glen other than the teams, cars, and drivers. But, the F1 circus liked the event, its urban setting, and the California modernity that was then very seventies “hip.”

The handwriting was on the wall, and Watkins Glen hosted its last F1 event in 1980. F1 outpaced the Glen’s usefulness, and Long Beach provided a transitional opportunity for the sport.

In the following years, F1 races in the US were common, but none were ever conducted on permanent race circuits. Long Beach, Detroit, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Phoenix hosted F1 races a combined 15 times between 1981 and 1991, all on temporary circuits. Most were on street circuits (Long Beach, Detroit, and Phoenix), Las Vegas was in the Caesar’s Palace parking lot, and an especially embarrassing event was conducted on freshly laid asphalt at the Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas in 1984.

To say the least, the United States failed miserably at trying to host Formula 1 in a proper race setting in the eighties. As a result, after the 1991 race in Phoenix, the US would not host another F1 event until the 2000 USGP at Indianapolis, and in my opinion, Indy was not a proper F1 racing facility.

I went to the first F1 race at Indy in 2000. It was interesting, but once again the US offered a compromise facility. Indy has a great history and is an excellent low banked, squared-cornered oval. But, it is not a very good F1 circuit. One third of the lap was on the home straight with a little run-up in Indy turns 2 and 1 (F1 ran clockwise). The infield was a bit Mickey Mouse, just wiggling around the infield golf course with no real challenges, and the whole event never survived the Michelin tire fiasco that had only six cars contest the 2005 event. Indy’s last race was in 2007, and in many ways was yet another American F1 embarrassment.

That brings us to Austin in 2012 and the future of the USGP. In many ways, Austin has the same characteristics as Watkins Glen in 1960. Austin is a very attractive locale and many people visit for the hip urban influences and the beautiful natural surroundings. Austin will be well liked by the international crowd that attends F1 races as Austin is very cool, very weird, and very interesting.

The Circuit of the Americas will be the first purpose built race track to host F1 since 1980, and the circuit has a beautiful topography that will provide an excellent racing experience for the drivers, teams, and race fans. F1 can work quite well in Austin without threatening the ecology, the economy, the hipness, or the serious nature of Austin’s grand dream.

For F1 fans, Austin can provide a permanent place for high tech racing for many years to come.