He hopes that when F1 returns, it will leave a more positive impression than during previous trips to Las Vegas.
Prior to the 1981 season, Formula One held two races in the United States: an early-season event in Long Beach, California, and a season finale in Watkins Glen, New York
The latter began organizing F1 races in 1961, but 20 years later, with race organizers struggling financially, then Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone raced at a more glamorous American venue.
Ecclestone planned to replace the race at Watkins Glen with a race in Las Vegas in 1980, but the latter track was not approved in time. The switch became official in the summer of 1981, after Watkins Glen ejected from the F1 calendar due to financial problems. The Upstate New York track filed for bankruptcy and closed later that year.
Caesars Palace won the race, and casino executive Bill Weinberger was tasked with planning the 1981 race, despite knowing little about Formula 1. He spoke about the experience at an October event at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.
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“I had no idea what a maze of problems existed in the world of car racing,” Weinberger he said. “Political problems, ego problems, people taking power here and there. Jealousy here, jealousy there. It was an absolute nightmare.”
Weinberger initially hoped to run the track through a section of Las Vegas Boulevard, but by June 1981 the site was still intact due to local, state and federal obstacles. Instead, Formula One raced on the Caesars Palace grounds – about 75 acres in total, including the parking lot and adjacent grounds – and Weinberger met with Eccleston at a Las Vegas café to plan the basic design of the track.
“He and I were sitting in the café at Caesars Palace trying to close this deal, and he asked, ‘How the hell are we going to fit a 2.5-mile track in the space you have?’ – Weinberger said. “I put my hand on the pad and said, ‘What about this?’ I literally ran my hand across the mat. I asked, “Do you think we have enough room this way?” He said, “That’s an awful lot of curves – maybe just a few fingers.” “
The original track was built between the Las Vegas Strip and Interstate 15 in just 45 days — and it did resemble three crooked fingers. The original was adjacent to the location of this year’s course.
“It was widely maligned as a parking lot Grand Prix,” Weinberger said. “Yes, he was racing through the parking lot. But it was a deeply cut, built-up and purpose-built stretch of asphalt worthy of Formula 1.”
This design and other specifications allowed organizers to overcome the physical limitations of the facility, but there were other concerns.
A departure from the flashy charm of Las Vegas Boulevard, the 1981 event took place on a track that F1 journalist Nick Garton described to a motoring magazine Road and track as “just bare concrete around the dust pan. It looked just like Bahrain did when they built it.
There were complaints about too many left turns, potential heat exhaustion, and the race direction being counterclockwise. Some drivers – such as Frenchman Jacques Laffite in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport – denigrated the track as a glorified go-kart track. Others, such as McLaren’s John Watson, argued that the flat, featureless track made driving difficult and difficult. Brazilian star Nelson Piquet became disoriented during the race, vomiting into his helmet after finishing fifth.
“You had completely flat terrain and concrete barriers three feet high, so you had very little sense of reference points,” Watson said CNN in 2019. “A driver needs reference points on the race track, such as a building or a tree, to help him find the rhythm of the track. It was probably the least attractive Grand Prix track I have raced on.”
“There was just no flow,” said American Mario Andretti Car week. “It was too tight for the capabilities of these cars. Caesars Palace was in town. There wasn’t much space. You could imagine it was something like Mickey Mouse. Like I said – perfect for a go-kart event.
Australian driver Alan Jones of Williams won the 1981 race, although Piquet’s performances in his Brabham were enough to win that year’s drivers’ title by one point. The following year, Williams’ Keke Rosberg secured the drivers’ title by finishing fifth in Las Vegas, although the race for Tyrrell was won by Italian Michele Alboreto.
The Caesars Palace Grand Prix lacked the infrastructure, fan support and profits for F1 to return in 1983. Weinberger said organizers overestimated how much money the event would raise.
“We thought there was an untapped market for Formula 1 fans in Europe, Asia and the Middle East,” he said. “We said: ‘Look at what is happening in Monaco. All these fancy people walking the streets and spending money like it was water. We figured they’d probably like to play at Caesars Palace. They didn’t do it.
Still, Andretti appreciates the event for its significance at the time.
“For us, just taking part in the race in the United States was positive,” he said. “At that time in the US, F1 was like a gypsy. There was Watkins Glen and Long Beach, then Dallas and Phoenix. Things looked like they were disposable. At least in Las Vegas we had two events with Caesars.