F1: Flashback to Vegas’ original F1 track: 1981 at Caesars parking lot


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The news came in two parts back in the early 1980s.

First, there is going to be a Formula 1 race in Las Vegas. Terrific.

Second, it is going to be held in a casino parking lot. Wait, what?

My, how intriguing. Let’s go.

The race was to be held in 1981. For many racing fans, this was the golden age of the world’s most import and popular motor sport. It was a time when there was little doubt that the drivers in Formula 1 were the best and the cars were the most exciting and technically advanced.

The field was loaded with world driving champions. Alan Jones of Australia, Nelson Piquet of Brazil, Alain Prost of France, Nigel Mansell of Great Britain, Keke Rosberg of Sweden and of course, American Mario Andretti to name a few.

And the cars. Man. The historic marquees were all there: Alfa Romeo, Renault, Cosworth, Lotus, Renault, Williams and, of course, Ferrari. With big sidepods and with Lotus’ Colin Chapman ushering in ground effects a couple years earlier, the cars were just plain bad and beautiful.

All among the crowded, electric smoky casinos of one of the naughtiest cities in the world.

What could go wrong?

The walk through Caesars Palace en route to the track, which was carved out of the parking lot behind the casino did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of we F1 lovers who’d made the trip in from Colorado. Bells were ringing on the slots, the sounds of clay poker chips hitting velvet, flashing lights everywhere.

But then, there it was. The circuit. Flat, ugly, pre fabricated and confusing for drivers as the race was conducted in a counter clockwise direction. It’s odd “three-finger” shape was reportedly the result of the track being designed when constructor traced his hand on a piece of paper.

The baron paddocks made beautiful automobiles look orphaned.

It was all set against the backdrop of the beautiful desert mountain-scape that surrounds Las Vegas and that only contributed to the oddness of the scene.

F1 fans in those days grew up watching, and most loving, races on natural terrain road courses like Silverstone in Britain, Spa in Belgium, the Nurburgring in Germany and Watkins Glen in New York.

The guys that made the trip from Colorado to Vegas that weekend were all veterans of attending sports car racing at perhaps the best road circuit in America – the beautiful Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Monza, the parking lot not. Even with the glitzy casinos as a backdrop, Monaco it was not.

Oh well. There was Mario, “Watty”, the blood red Ferraris and the whine of high-revving engines. It was odd but it was F1 racing.

The Caesar’s Palace Grand Prix F1 race had a two-year run in Las Vegas. Crowds were small both years. The racing was far from spectacular.

The casinos discovered that far from attracting gamblers to Las Vegas, the race may have actually scared them away. They were more interested in cards than cars.

Jones won the first year in a Williams and Italy’s Michele Alboreto won in ’82 driving a Tyrrell.

And then the race was gone.

But now its back.

On Saturday, new drivers, new cars, new spectator amenities, new concert performances by top musical acts and new excitement about Formula 1 racing in America post the “Drive to Survive” documentary will likely produce the kind of glitzy result that F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone had so hoped for back in the early ‘80s.

The track is 3.8 miles and incorporates 17 turns. Gone is the dusty parking lot. Arrived? A circuit that features a long straight that sits on the famous Las Vegas Strip lined with decks of temporarily elevated stadium bleacher seating.

The cars are expected to exceed 210 mph on the long straight on Saturday night. The hype for the event has already exceeded the sound barrier.

Yet there are some inconvenient bad vibes around the event.

The mime troupe wearing the latex masks are not the only people in Vegas who are blue in Vegas. People who live and work in the southern Nevada city are angry about the disruptions the massive construction projects associated with the race have caused. For them, the dream event has turned life for many Las Vegans into a nightmare.

Media outlets are reporting that demand for tickets and hotel rooms for the event, lava hot in the months and weeks leading up to race weekend, cooled at an alarming rate.

Las Vegas will be the third U.S. city to host a race this season.

The Circuit of the Americas hosted a race that was more about racing than glitz. The Miami race had an opposite vibe — the kind Vegas is attempting to foster. Are three U.S. grand prix’s turning out to be too many, especially with the costs to attend?

Also, the 2023 world championship has already been decided. Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and his Red Bull team clinched it over a month ago.

But whatever happens this weekend, it is a guarantee that fans notice this at the very least — 2023 is not 1981 in Las Vegas.

–By Jim Pedley, Field Level Media


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