Motorsport: American beauty
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US Grand Prix this weekend
Formula 1 and the US have a long history together but it has always been a tenuous one. The sport has been to more venues in the US than in any other country with some great tracks mixed with some complete disasters.
Early races at Riverside (1957) and Sebring (1959) served to introduce F1 folk to American ways but perhaps the best and most stable era was the double-header with the US GP West held at Long Beach, just outside Los Angeles, towards the beginning of the season and the US GP East raced at the wonderful Watkins Glen track in upstate New York at the end of the season.
It seemed there was time for the teams to enjoy the surroundings in the 1960s and 70s and what was originally a rundown port area of Long Beach provided plenty of opportunity to be the tourist both day and night.
Nico Rosberg leads at the start of last year's United States Grand Prix, near Austin, Texas. Picture/BEST IMAGE.
The Seneca Lakes area around Watkins Glen was the very opposite: it was very much in the country with accommodation in small hotels and hunting lodges. Seneca Lodge, full of timber, hunting trophies, beer served by the gallon and gin and tonics served by the pint, thankfully has walls that listened but cannot talk.
Later Las Vegas provided the Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino carpark as an F1 racetrack. Teams got used to having breakfast while filling in Keno cards with eggs over easy and got more enthusiastic about that when one of our number won US$2000.However the track was a disaster and after two years went the way of many a gambler in Vegas — it went back to its day job with the promoters being a few million dollars out of pocket.
Detroit was city in decline, as it remains to this day, when F1 was parachuted in to add some glamour to a Motown that was crumbling and a car industry in similar straits.
Next was Dallas. Predictably we all went to the Southfork set of the TV show. It was a very real, very small ranch house and the cast became firm friends for the weekend.
The race was a one-off held in 40C heat, in July, in Texas. It didn’t take long for the track to break up. The morning warmup was brought forward to 7.45am to try to avoid the heat. French driver Jacques Laffite turned up in his pyjamas!
The next hot spot for the US GP was the desert — Phoenix in June 1989. Again the event was intended to glamourise a city where people went to retire but the crowds never eventuated. Nor did the glamour.
Despite a five-year agreement the Phoenix GP lasted only three years.
With four failed venues in 11 years, the sport’s image in the US was severely damaged. F1 turned its back on the country until 2000 when the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway — rather pompously self-proclaimed ‘Racing Capital Of The World’ — hosted the event on a purpose-built track within the 2 1/2-mile oval.
One of the biggest crowds ever to watch an F1 race turned up and it looked like the sport was back in the US — big time.
We were setting up for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September 2001 when TVs began showing the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. In our own little world of the F1 paddock we knew we were supposed to be leaving for the Indy GP in the next week.
Some drivers did not want to go; some in the paddock feared further attacks on a major event. We were that major event, happening just two weeks later.
We raced. Security was understandably heavy but the fact that F1 turned up was well appreciated.
Four years later in 2005, F1 contrived to shoot itself in the foot with a farce in which only six cars competed due to a disagreement over tyres. Just two years later the 2007 event was the last on the speedway.
Over the next five years there was no US GP, although Bernie Ecclestone threw wild cards into the ring — suggesting events in New York City, New Jersey, West New York.
But all the while a new track was being planned in Texas. In 2012 F1 returned to the US, to its present home at the Circuit Of The Americas, outside Austin. Let’s hope that, with a track seen as a future classic, an enthusiastic audience and enthusiasm from big players, a city that is happy to host a cosmopolitan small town of travelling people, the sport has found a home where even Bernie Ecclestone can feel the love.