Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
The USA has always been an integral part of Formula One. When F1 announced the return of the US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in 2012, it marked the tenth different location at which the sport has raced in the United States. Formula One's ever-expanding network in the States grew even further with the announcement of the Miami Grand Prix held from the 2022 season onwards.
With the US Grand Prix weekend on the horizon, let us rewind the clock to look at some of the iconic locations in the States where F1 has raced in the past. Part I looks at the tracks during the early years of Formula One.
The Indianapolis 500 used to be a part of the F1 World Championship. The race was run as a championship event, although under the American AAA regulations, from the inaugural season in 1950 to 1960. Ferrari made a rare appearance at the 1952 running of the event with Alberto Ascari. Juan Manuel Fangio took part in the Indy 500 in 1958, although he failed to qualify for the race. Despite the event counting towards the F1 World Championship, it failed to attract attention from F1 drivers of the time.
Sebring International Raceway (1959)
The efforts to stage a Formula One Grand Prix at the Sebring International Raceway came mostly from Russian-born Alec Ulmann. He had successfully staged the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1952 on a track formed from service roads and runways of the Sebring Airport. The race was expected to be held on 22 March but was postponed to 12 December, becoming the season finale. Three drivers entered the event with a chance to become World Champion - Jack Brabham led the way with 31 points, Stirling Moss second with 25.5 points, and Tony Brooks third with 23 points, although his chances of winning the title were remote.
The trio was initially on the front row of the grid, Moss getting pole position ahead of Brabham and Brooks, although Brooks was pushed down after Harry Schell set a lap for third on the grid. On race day, Brooks was rammed by his teammate Wolfgang von Trips and had to pit for repairs. He made a sterling recovery to third but it wasn't enough to win the title. Moss initially led the race but was out after only five laps due to a gearbox issue. This left Brabham with a free run to the title, in the race lead, and he slowed his pace. Entering the final lap, he ran out of fuel and was passed by Bruce McLaren, Maurice Trintignant, and Brooks. Brabham managed to finish fourth, pushing his Cooper over the finish line. He was the World Champion of 1959. McLaren became the youngest winner of a Grand Prix at the time. Despite the race being exciting towards the end, Ulmann only just broke even. He would try again next season on the opposite end of the coast, at Riverside.
Riverside International Raceway (1960)
The Riverside International Raceway opened in 1957 in Riverside, California around 80 km (50 mi) from Los Angeles. The 5.271 km (3.275 mi) long track was set in a desert and the distinguishing trait of the track was an uphill esses section just after the finish line.
The first and only time Riverside hosted an F1 championship race was in 1960. Local hero Dan Gurney, driving for BRM, was the crowd favourite. He qualified third but retired from the race due to a blown core plug. Moss started the race from the pole position and took the lead when Jack Brabham experienced trouble with the fuel in his car and never looked back. He put on a show for the spartan crowd present at the track with a sterling drive going on to win the 75-lap race by a whopping 38-second margin to his teammate Innes Ireland, both driving for Lotus, with McLaren rounding out the podium in his Cooper-Climax. The event wasn't successful due to the lack of promotion, though, and the US Grand Prix was set to have a new home at the other end of the country from next season.
Watkins Glen (1961-1980)
From 1961, the US Grand Prix was moved to upstate New York to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Race Course. The track soon became known as the "Mecca" of American road racing. Watkins Glen shared characteristics with the famous Brands Hatch circuit in England having many fast and banked corners apart from being surrounded by greenery. The track was 3.782 km (2.35 mi) long. The events held at the track came with handsome rewards too - the prize money for the event was as much as $275,000 in 1972, with winners Tyrrell taking home $100,000 themselves. This racetrack also saw Austrian driver Jochen Rindt, Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi, and French driver François Cevert take their first victories in the sport in 1969, 1970, and 1971 respectively.
Long Beach (1976-1983)
With the popularity of Watkins Glen declining, F1 did make a return to the west coast of the US on the tight and twisty streets of Long Beach, California. The track was referred to as "America's Monaco'' due to the twisty streets and Monaco's climate coupled with the sunny California weather. The track hosted the "United States Grand Prix West" for eight seasons with the distinctive feature being the long run along Shoreline Drive up to Queen's Hairpin. This track was a test for the car and the driver and was known to be hard on the brakes, suspension, and transmissions. Plenty of changes took place over the seasons, which included the start-finish line shifted onto Shoreline Avenue and the first part of the circuit. The final year saw Ocean Boulevard being excluded and a parallel street, Seaside Way, being used along with tighter turns leading up to it.
The track didn't have a single repeat winner, although Ferrari triumphed thrice at "America's Monaco" through Clay Regazzoni in 1976, Carlos Reutemann in 1978, and Gilles Villeneuve in 1979. Nelson Piquet took his first win in Formula One in 1980. In 1983, John Watson and Niki Lauda finished 1-2 for McLaren having started 22nd and 23rd on the grid, taking advantage of the frontrunners retiring and a clash between Patrick Tambay and Keke Rosberg. The race was removed from the calendar since, having been viewed as financially unreasonable due to low short-term returns and costly shipping fees for the equipment. The track surface also began to break up in prior events due to the intense heat.
Caesar’s Palace (1981 and 1982)
After Watkins Glen went off the calendar, the push for a Grand Prix at Las Vegas was intensified with Bernie Ecclestone, then CEO of the Formula One Group, putting in efforts to make sure the race went ahead. However, this could be described as possibly the worst track Formula One has raced on.
The track was a temporary one, laid out in the parking lot of the Caesar's Palace hotel. It was flat and repetitive in nature, with its counter-clockwise layout putting enormous strain on the drivers' necks. The track surface was as smooth as glass and had sand run-offs. Adding to this was the intense desert heat in Las Vegas. The race was also the season finale. The weekend would prove to be a test for the drivers' endurance. When Nelson Piquet won his first championship in 1981, it took him 15 minutes to recover from the exhaustion caused by the heat. Alan Jones took his final race win in this race. Michele Alboreto won for Tyrrell in 1982 but this was the end of the road for F1 in Las Vegas. The race drew only a frugal crowd causing losses for the hotel itself.
Formula One is set to return to Las Vegas from the 2023 season. A section of the circuit is the famous Las Vegas Strip.
A one-off Dallas Grand Prix was held at Fair Park, Dallas in 1984. This track was plagued with problems relating to the intense heat too, as it was held in July. Temperatures soared to 104°F (40°C). This was evident from the qualifying session with Goodyear recording their highest-ever track temperature at 150°F (66°C).
The intense heat saw asphalt on parts of the track break apart and a prior Can-Am race held on Saturday damaged the track surface, requiring urgent repairs to allow the race to take place. Nigel Mansell started the race from the pole position for Lotus and led for almost half of the race. He then lost the lead to Keke Rosberg and lost more places as his tyres faded. Rosberg held on to win the race of high attrition for Williams. This race also saw the famous shot of Mansell collapsing from the intense heat as he tried to push his Lotus over the finish line after it suffered a gearbox failure. He took the final point on offer with a sixth-place finish.
Watch Mansell pushing his car at the end of the race:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drMfOV1M2H4 - credit: Raymond C. Johnson
From this article, the main takeaway is the fact that most of the races in the USA were held during the American summer when temperatures soared past 100°F (38°C) on regular occasions. It was even more of a challenge to finish the races, and drivers were often dehydrated. During the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, Keke Rosberg wore a special water-cooled skull cap underneath his helmet in order to stay cool during the race. Another instance of the searing heat was when Osella’s Piercarlo Ghinzani had to be revived by his team by throwing a bucket of water during his pit stop. This highlighted the sheer endurance of the drivers during the 70s and 80s.
Furthermore, the races were held on street circuits with the exception of Watkins Glen, which explains the high rate of attrition and unpredictability. The second part of this article looks at the tracks that were raced from the 1980s till the present day, with the return of the “US Grand Prix” title a few years down the line.