A relationship that is as long as it has been difficult, the various editions of grand prix racing in America, from Indianapolis through Watkins Glen to Circuit of the Americas and everything in-between, has always occupied a exclusive place in Formula 1 history.
Home to its own unique motorsport ecosystem, F1 races stateside have long struggled to find a place, or relevance, or both. On the eve of the sixth United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, this is the story of the sport’s legacy in that country.
It may be hard to believe nowadays, but not only was the US part of F1’s first season in 1950, but the race that bore that mantle was the Indy 500. However, as Roger Smith details in his book Formula 1: All the Races this was “purely an expedient to bring international status to the new ‘world’ championship, which was otherwise held on European circuits in its formative years.”
Further to this point, the 500 didn’t run to F1 regulations, and rarely attracted regular F1 drivers, with only Nino Farina and Franco Rol entering in the first year (neither actually raced), and Ferrari being the only regular constructor to ever compete, which they did with Alberto Ascari in 1952. The 500 was removed from the calendar after the 1960 season.
At the same time the relationship with Indy was winding down, a new one was starting with promoter Alec Ulmann and the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS). Starting in 1959, a USGP was held every year until 1981, the first and second editions taking place at Sebring and Riverside respectively, before finding a long-term home at Watkins Glen.
Located in upstate New York, Watkins Glen finally gave Ulmann and the ACCUS the venue they needed to enhance F1’s appeal in the US. The first race in 1961 served as the season finale, with Innes Ireland taking the spoils in a Lotus-Climax, although already-crowned constructor’s champions Ferrari didn’t compete, leaving driver’s champion Phil Hill to watch from the sidelines at his home race.
For the next 20 years, the Glen would act as either the ultimate or penultimate race on the F1 calendar, although it only saw the title decided on two occasions – 1970 and 1974.
More importantly, it quickly gained a reputation with drivers and fans for its unique qualities among F1 circuits, contrasting a sleepy rural locale with a festival-like atmosphere – the infamous ‘Bog’ becoming a popular spot for fans to congregate, drink a little too much, and even torch cars.
Unfortunately for all the good times enjoyed there, perhaps the two most enduring moments are some of F1’s darkest ones.
Across consecutive years, the circuit saw two of the more gruesome fatalities in the sport’s history, with Francois Cervert killed instantly after hitting the barriers during qualifying for the 1973 race, and Helmuth Koinigg decapitated by the improperly-fitted Armco in 1974.
Starting in 1976 the race at the Glen was renamed the ‘US GP East’, as a new American entry made its way onto the calendar in Long Beach, California.
Taking place round a two-mile street circuit near the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, it was a radically different circuit than its eastern counterpart, and quickly took on the greater prominence of the two tracks, owing both to its March-April spot in the calendar and the reality that the Glen had started to show its age.
By 1980 the situation had worsened considerably for Watkins Glen’s promoters, financial woes causing them to default on $800,000 worth of prizemoney, causing them to be removed from the 1981 F1 calendar, never to return. Long Beach followed suit in 1984, switching from hosting F1 to CART races.
One established home gone, the other on the way out, the 1980’s saw no less than an additional four venues trialed during the decade (for context, the UK has only seen four in 67 years) in an attempt to keep F1 stateside.
From 1981 to ’82 there was the Caesars Palace Grand Prix (on a track in the casino’s parking lot), from ’82-’88 the Detroit Grand Prix, ’84 saw a one-off Dallas GP, and from ’89 to 1991 a brief return of the US GP moniker with race on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona.
None of them stuck, which that meant the 1992 season was the first in the sport’s history to have no race in the United States
Return to Indy
Nine years later – and forty since it had last hosted – the year 2000 saw F1 return to the US and Indy on a road circuit within the confines of the Brickyard. Nearing a quarter-million attendees, the first race back at the circuit was the largest-attended in F1 history, but the good times wouldn’t last.
Lasting just eight years, the exorbitant hosting fees commanded by Bernie Ecclestone quickly became unsustainable for event organisers, a situation not helped by two incidents that were widely regarded as making a mockery of the sport.
In 2002, Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello ended a dominant race by trying to stage a dead-heat (although they were unsuccessful, and Barrichello won), which was topped by the circumstances of the 2005 race, where tyre-safety concerns saw the fourteen Michelin-supplied cars refuse to start the race, meaning only six Bridgestone-shod cars six competed.
The return to Indy a spectacular failure, 2008 saw F1 devoid once more of a race stateside. Not until 2010 would the spark of interest reignite when Austin, Texas native Tavo Hellmund announced plans for a purpose-built F1 circuit in nearby Travis County.
The following two years saw several difficulties for the ‘Circuit of the America’s’ – particularly with Hellmund falling afoul of both Ecclestone and his local backers – but finally the track was officially opened on October 21, 2012, with the first race taking place four weeks later on 18 November, won by McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.
Once again a regular fixture on the F1 calendar, the US GP has enjoyed a generally positive return to the sport, although one not without bumps along the way. After strong attendance in its inaugural edition, a combination of poor weather, tax problems, and the return of the Mexican GP saw numbers decline before rebounding to new highs in 2016.
Hopefully this marks the start of a new trend, and the expectation is that with F1’s new American owners Liberty Media on board, special attention will be given to ensure COTA remains a success.
No, the US GP might still be a ways away from capturing the general American public’s imagination in the way the ‘500’ or ‘Daytona’ does, but at the very least, you can’t fault its resilience. Nine venues have come and gone, CoTA being the tenth, and arguably the best chance of sticking yet.
Who knows, perhaps there is even room for expansion? After all, 67 years of trying has shown us that while F1 doesn’t need the United States, it certainly considers itself the better for it.