From Sin City to America’s sports capital

Las Vegas is transforming itself again. What do the glitz of Formula One and the Super Bowl mean for the city’s future – and for the workers building it it?

Temporary grandstands and luxury suites are being constructed as the city prepares for The Las Vegas Grand Prix Formula One. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

LAS VEGAS — Steve Hill was once the best concrete man in the Valley, and years after he climbed out of a cement silo for the last time, his skin burning and hair caked with powder and sweat, he still finds something almost spiritual about the smell of diesel fuel at sunrise.

It’s late August, sweltering even at 6 a.m. This used to be when the city was winding down. Daybreak meant shift change, bars closing just long enough to clean up, tourists cashing out or cutting losses.

But now it’s coming alive.

There’s a mixer truck whirring a few blocks from the Strip, construction workers chattering as they step off the 119 bus. This is the morning crew, clocking in for a 10-hour shift, building the largest paddock on the Formula One calendar and elevating Las Vegas, of all places, into the sports capital of the world.

Not long ago, none of this seemed possible. In 2015, Tony Romo tried to hold his fantasy football convention here, but the NFL shut it down. Now the Raiders play here, the NFL has branded slot machines, and two stadiums have sportsbooks inside. Two decades after the league spiked a Super Bowl commercial for Las Vegas, the Super Bowl itself will be played here in February, the Oakland Athletics are slated to move here, and the city is on the short list of places where the NBA may one day expand.

“All of this happened kind of at once, felt like overnight,” says Hill, who doesn’t pour concrete anymore. Now he’s chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “We went: ‘Eh, NFL’s not going to say yes to this. It’s going to embarrass us.’ There was a lot of skepticism. We’ve had to change what we sell.”

When Hill got here in 1987, his first big job was for a 3,000-room hotel with a tiger enclosure, a fake (but working!) volcano and a $630 million price tag. Who would stay at such a monstrosity?

The project wound up being the Mirage, whose success kicked off the mega-resort era, turned the Strip into something you can see from space and ushered in a construction and hospitality gold rush. Before long, Vegas was the fastest-growing city in America.

Then something almost unimaginable happened: Vegas went broke. The Great Recession paused expansion, drove up unemployment, made the city ground zero of the housing crisis. A decade later, the pandemic fired a possible kill shot. Casinos were shuttered, and Las Vegas did the one thing it could not do: close the Strip.

But this is a place with both a relatively brief lifespan and yet many past lives, and its actual specialty isn’t gambling, debauchery or opulence. It’s survival. The city just keeps reinventing, adapting, keeping you curious enough to come back, again and again, to see what’s new.

“Vegas has always looked for our next thing,” Hill says. “We look for a way.”

With first light glowing over Sunrise Peak, workers step through a gate, past fencing with “FUTURE HOME OF F1” printed on the screens. Dump trucks fire up. The teeth of an excavator bucket thunder into a concrete slab. Mixer trucks start turning.

It’s construction noise, but it’s also the latest last gasp of a city that always says yes, the sound of Las Vegas, after a century of wagers, going all-in on perhaps its biggest gamble ever.

HE’S BOOKING IT DOWN Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip’s main drag and soon to be the straightaway of the Las Vegas Grand Prix. When F1 cars hit this newly paved road, they will blur past Caesars Palace and the Bellagio at 220 mph. So many celebrities and multimillionaires are expected to attend that the city’s airports are worried about running out of space for private jets.

F1 is the “billionaire boys’ club,” and the global elite will assemble to watch Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso pilot their four-wheeled rockets. Tickets are listed somewhere between $500 for standing-room only and Caesars’ $5 million “Emperor Package.”

The captain of this Ford Escape is Christopher Shive, and after nearly two decades as a Vegas taxi driver, he knows the fastest way anywhere. “Hold on to your teeth,” he says, whipping the vehicle to the left, past where the old Sands Hotel and Casino used to be, then a right. “We’re going down Paradise.”

This is the back way to the airport. But unlike the roads whose resurfacing were financed by F1, Paradise isn’t part of the track. It hasn’t been repaved in 40 years, Shive estimates, and it’s littered with potholes.

Road conditions and gridlock don’t qualify as catastrophes, but they nonetheless represent the city’s long-simmering class struggle.

“It’s painful,” Shive says of today’s traffic. Ten-minute taxi rides can take three times as long, he says, as lanes are narrowed or blocked. “Drivers out here, they just want to go bang, bang, bang, but you can’t avoid it.”

Shive came here from Colorado in 2006, the apex of the boom. It was the new American Dream: a pleasure paradise with sunny skies, low cost of living, cash flowing in. He had logged a million miles in a refrigerated truck, seeing the northern lights in Washington and a bull moose in New Hampshire. But he had seen nothing like the Strip.

There aren’t many cities where the taxi community has held more power. Shive had a network of locals by 2007, many of them construction workers heading to one of the job sites building 13.2 million more square feet of casino and event space. He met his future wife, Leilani, during a poker tournament, and they married that year on July 7, the most Vegas date ever: 07-07-07.

Then, one morning in late 2007, one of Shive’s regulars called. He was a crane operator at the massive Fontainebleau, which had broken ground earlier that year, and he was staying home.

“Not feeling well?” Shive asked.

“Company ran out of money,” the guy said.

The recession slammed everybody, but Vegas got kicked in the teeth. Construction stalled — after 16 years, the Fontainebleau still isn’t open — and unemployment neared 14 percent. With millions of Americans struggling to pay their bills, the bachelor party and convention scenes dried up. It took years for the economy to recover, and while it did, rideshare companies moved in, crippling Shive’s business. Here and elsewhere, the middle class crumbled, and the gulf between the wealthy and working class widened. Unable to bridge the gap between high rollers and the tens of thousands of service workers who make it go, some midsized resorts went under. Others rebranded.

One that keeps surviving is Ellis Island, a family-run, budget property that sits in the shadow of the Strip’s behemoths and caters to hospitality workers and lower-wage tourists. But among the many businesses the Great Recession killed was a place called Ice Bar, across from Ellis Island, which sat abandoned for most of the past 15 years. A year ago, F1 bought it and broke ground on its new paddock, giving Ellis Island a high-class neighbor.

As always, Ellis Island vice president Christina Ellis says, her family has opted to stay the course, offering $5 table minimums and the $6.99 steak-and-eggs.

“It’s a really big priority of ours,” she says, “to not alienate our loyal, existing customers.”

Months before the Grand Prix, those in the service economy were already wondering what it would mean for them. Nevada’s largest labor union, consisting mostly of culinary workers and bartenders, went seven months without a contract with Caesars and MGM, the city’s two largest employers. It took threatening to have 35,000 walk off the job the Friday before the race to get a new deal.

Still, a bartender at one trackside hotel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her employment status, had no idea how she would get work during race week. The hotel, she said, prohibited staff from requesting time off, no matter that it was the weekend before Thanksgiving. An Uber driver was planning to leave town because, with road closures planned in Vegas, how could she work?

Shive, promoted recently to road supervisor, knows the city expects to bring in $1.25 billion during race week. But how many of those dollars will reach guys like him?

“Great that it’s coming,” he says, turning onto Harmon Avenue, reduced to one lane. “But I can’t afford to go.”

A flagger waves him forward.

“There’s a lot of wait-and-see,” Shive says. “The people that can afford to go, are they really going to take taxis?”

IT WAS JUNE 2020 WHEN the Bellagio’s fountains finally started booming again. Wayne Newton greeted visitors at Caesars. MGM flipped on its emerald and yellow lights. And once the cash started flowing following a mandated three-month closure, Hill’s phone rang. He and representatives from F1 had met in 2019 to discuss a grand, if potentially unrealistic, idea.

Then, with the pandemic shuttering many sports, Americans became increasingly curious about a largely international race series they had watched on Netflix. “Drive to Survive,” a docuseries that follows F1 drivers and teams, was a smash. Liberty Media, which owns F1, wanted to capitalize by scheduling more races in the United States.

“The level of hospitality, the glamor, the glitz of Las Vegas,” says Renee Wilm, the Las Vegas Grand Prix’s chief executive. “It’s just a perfect marriage for a Formula One race.”

Vegas being the global epicenter of the shotgun marriage, Hill was, of course, in.

By 2021, F1 engineers were heading to Vegas to get ideas for a circuit. They envisioned a street race with hairpin turns not unlike the famous Monaco Grand Prix. An 8,000-seat Paddock Club, similar to the race in Singapore. A weeklong event that gives an international audience a big helping of America, baby, like Austin. But Monaco is tiny, Singapore just shuts down for the week, and Austin isn’t really Austin. It’s 15 miles south of town, repurposed pastureland.

For a Grand Prix to work in Vegas, they would have to … close the Strip. On a weekend. For nine hours each day.

“Your first response is, ‘This is incredibly exciting’ ” says Sean McBurney, regional president of Caesars, “quickly followed up by: ‘How in the hell are we going to do this?’ ”

And not just economically but logistically. Caesars alone has 5,000 employees, McBurney says, usually coming and going while the track would be hot. About 27,000 hotel rooms would be enclosed within the 3.8-mile circuit, and the casino business model is built on keeping customers on the property.

No, it couldn’t be done. Not here.

F1 offered to have streets resurfaced and widened. With the Sphere, Resorts World and Allegiant Stadium finished, the first major buildings completed in a dozen years, the construction economy needed its next job. The proposal for the Grand Prix would call for 30,000-seat grandstands, a 17-by-55-foot LED screen, the 300,000-square foot paddock.

Perhaps more convincing was that, following the pandemic, many American businesses were looking for ways to rebrand. This felt particularly urgent in Vegas. “A reset point,” Wilm says.

A sharp contrast to two decades earlier, only 10 percent of visitors now come here to gamble, Hill says. Starting in 2016, the NHL and WNBA had established footholds. The NBA moved its summer league here, the NFL finally stopped posturing, and this year the NCAA men’s basketball tournament held its first regional here as a trial run for the 2028 men’s Final Four.

“A transformative moment,” says Lawrence Epstein, who, as a longtime UFC executive, has watched the landscape change. “The big sports leagues were saying: ‘We’re okay with sports and gambling together.’ The result was these sports organizations saying: ‘We’ve got to be in Vegas.’”

F1 proposed its race be scheduled days before Thanksgiving, traditionally the slowest weekend on the Vegas calendar, a $1.25 billion jolt into the local economy.

“I don’t know if that was part of their thinking in terms of moving towards a sports-oriented city,” Wilm says. “But certainly when I arrived, that was foremost on their minds.”

SAM JOFFRAY MOVED HERE in 2022, the wedding planner of a long-forbidden marriage. “A Shakespearean drama,” he says. Just in case this one was a tragedy, his wife stayed home in New Orleans.

Joffray is president of Vegas’s Super Bowl host committee, the organizer of an event that, though now just a few months from kickoff, seemed far-fetched even six years ago, when 30 NFL players were disciplined for appearing at the MGM Grand for a charity arm-wrestling tournament. Back then, just stepping foot onto a casino floor, even in a promotional capacity, violated the league’s gambling policy.

Some of the league’s power brokers saw the shift coming: As early as 2015, the NFL’s two most powerful owners, Dallas’s Jerry Jones and New England’s Robert Kraft, owned equity stakes in DraftKings. But they insisted that the company, which was then still in the “daily fantasy sports” business, was an operator of games based on skill, not chance.

“We oppose legalized sports gambling,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters that year. “We haven’t changed our position on that, and I don’t anticipate us changing that.”

Then, in 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the federal law that prohibited sports gambling outside Nevada, allowing other states to open sports books. Three years later, the NFL — never one to sit out a gold rush — agreed to a $1 billion deal with three bookmakers.

“They had to adapt,” Joffray says of the NFL. When the Raiders moved from Oakland in 2020 (albeit with no fans attending games at Allegiant Stadium because of the pandemic), Joffray knew the next step. “Vegas is fair game now. They’re going to get a Super Bowl; it’s just a matter of when.”

His phone rang in February 2021. It was an executive from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The city had been invited to bid on hosting a Super Bowl, and Hill knew that Joffray helped New Orleans land three of them.

Almost immediately, Joffray started work on a 186-page document that was essentially a formal pitch to the NFL that Vegas could handle it. With 150,000 hotel rooms in and around the Strip, selling the city’s infrastructure was easy. Fundraising and logistics were not. It would cost about $55 million to prepare the city for a Super Bowl, Joffray says, half of which usually comes from private funding.

In Vegas, though, gaming companies are the overwhelming driver of the local and state economy. Because of the NFL’s exclusive deal with Caesars, the other giants were off-limits.

“You’d think all the money in Vegas, we could go collect millions of dollars anytime,” Joffray says. “We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just drive up and down the Strip and get every casino to become a sponsor.’ Not the case.”

With private funding unlikely to reach its goal, Joffray says, the convention and visitors authority committed to underwrite the rest. After all, sports are “the next generation of what Las Vegas is going to be,” Hill says, adding that the city would have put up to $40 million into getting the Super Bowl. If that wasn’t enough, Hill says, he would just ask the board for more.

Growing pains seem inevitable; Joffray says there’s always drama at a Super Bowl, albeit usually behind the scenes. In 2013, he had just stepped outside the Superdome for a halftime cigarette when the power went out, halting play for 34 minutes. A decade later, he says, he suffers from “a little bit of PTSD.”

Which is why, this weekend, Joffray plans to attend all three days of the race. He will pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, which could indirectly determine whether his wife moves next year. To him, the Grand Prix isn’t a major sporting event. It’s a stress test for Feb. 11.

“I’m very glad they’re going first,” Joffray says. “We’ll be talking to groups and saying: ‘Are you dying for F1 to come back here? If not, what were your pain points? What can we learn?’

“Then we’ve got three months.”

MOST EVERYONE HERE IS from someplace else, and when Hill left Ohio in 1987 and started driving west, he was lured by the same thing as everyone. The dream was more nebulous then.

“Do you want the job or not?” he remembers the people running the Mirage project asking. “I didn’t even know if it was real.”

He said yes, fitting in immediately, and Hill and a few others got to work at a hastily assembled mixing facility a few weeks later. Concrete is a chemical bond, and Hill says the formula is as easy to mess up as it is to get right. Add too much water, and over time it will weaken. Add too little, and it will be too dense. Mix it too long or add too much gravel or not enough or don’t account for changing wet or dry cycles or …

“We probably had 600 different mixes,” he says, “and we’d have to create a new one for that specific type of application. You put the wrong kind of load on it, it’ll fail.”

The same may be true for a city that, just since the Mirage’s volcano started erupting in 1989, has proved both stronger and more brittle than once thought. As Vegas begins its newest phase, how will sports factor into the formula? In the early 1990s, the city tried going family-friendly; the MGM Grand constructed a $100 million amusement park and still glows emerald and yellow because its original theme was the Wizard of Oz. That idea bombed.

Considering the activities that built the city, that made it unique and fun and weird, is the pivot to sports too much of a departure? In Vegas, is there even such a thing as too much?

“You pop up an event the week before Thanksgiving. Are the people going to come?” Caesars executive McBurney says. “They’re coming,” he concludes, even if ticket sales have reportedly been sluggish, and he credits Vegas’s trademark ability to adapt. “Think about how long this would take any other town. The speed at which we were able to bring a Formula One race to Las Vegas and execute it at the highest level, it’s not easy. This is a town that’s really good at figuring these things out.”

Then again, nobody ever makes a big bet thinking it will lose.

On this steamy August afternoon, the sun dips toward the Spring Mountains as workers cut concrete pavers and tuck wires into the paddock’s ceiling. This is what reinvention looks and sounds like, and it seems never-ending here. In a few months, Hill’s first project, the Mirage, will close. Hard Rock bought it for more than $1 billion, and the iconic volcano will be torn down, replaced by a massive guitar-shaped tower.

The workers park their excavators and dump trucks and climb down from scaffolding. This isn’t exactly a place known for restful nights, so a new crew will be back hours from now.

“You just keep going,” Hill says. “We’ll pull it off. We know how to do this stuff.”


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