For years, the decision-makers at Formula 1 have looked into growing the sport into emerging markets. While F1 remains wildly popular in Europe and throughout Asia, there are some areas of the world that remain growth opportunities more than anything else.
Chief among them? The United States of America.
So ahead of the United States Grand Prix, we thought it pertinent to look back at the series’s history in the United States, the recent growth of the sport in the US market, and how the Las Vegas Grand Prix fits into the big picture.
F1’s stateside history
F1’s history in the United States remains a bit of a checkered past. F1 and the United States have been linked for over 50 years, with the relationship beginning in 1950 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From 1950 through 1960, the Indianapolis 500 was a featured event on the Formula 1 schedule.
However, few European drivers made the trip to the United States, leaving primarily American drivers to participate.
Indianapolis did not return to the F1 calendar until 2000 when it was placed back on the F1 schedule as the United States Grand Prix. That race continued for eight seasons, until it was discontinued following the 2007 United States Grand Prix after F1, and race organizers, could not agree on a path forward.
In the interim, other circuits in the United States hosted events. One such event was held at the Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Florida in 1959. The race itself was a thrilling affair, as Bruce McLaren won by less than a second to become the youngest driver — at that time — to ever win an F1 race.
However, the location of Sebring did not draw many spectators to the track, and 1959 was the only year it was held.
Next up was the Riverside International Raceway in Moreno Valley, California, which was billed as the successor to the United States Grand Prix in 1960. However, this event failed to draw both racers and spectators, with race officials left to pay drivers out of their own pockets to avoid it becoming a spectacular failure.
It did not return to the calendar.
F1 enjoyed a decent run of success with races at Watkins Glen in New York, as the series held races at that track from 1961 through 1980. This event became the most successful installment of the United States Grand Prix during that period of time, as fans flocked to New York and race promoters were able to offer bigger sums of money to race participants as a result. Over 60,000 fans showed up to the first installment of the USGP at Watkins Glen in 1961, making it an immediate success. What also helped was the race’s place on the calendar, as it was often held at the end of the schedule, which made for some thrilling battles as teams and drivers fought for critical points in the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.
However, that success waned over the years. As the teams and drivers arrived at Watkins Glen for the 1973 United States Grand Prix, the final race of the season, Tyrell driver and three-time Drivers’ Champion Jackie Stewart had already locked up his third Drivers’ title. But the team was locked in a tight contest with Lotus for the Manufacturers’ Cup (now the Constructors’). With the race set to be Stewart’s 100th grand prix, he had made the decision to retire at the end of the year.
During qualifying for the Grand Prix, Stewart’s teammate at Tyrell François Cevert crashed hard into the barrier as qualifying drew to a close, and the horrific shunt killed him instantly. Tyrell decided to withdraw from the race, handing the title to Lotus and leaving Stewart, who considered Cevert a dear friend, on 99 career races.
The next season saw another fatal accident as Helmuth Koinigg, who was driving in only his second F1 grand prix, went head-on into a barrier on Lap 10 of the 1974 United States Grand Prix, and lost his life.
F1 continued racing at Watkins Glen through 1980, but the 1981 installment was canceled, and the grid never returned.
Other tracks held F1 events in the United States, and in 1982 America became the first nation to host three races in a single season, with events at Detroit, Long Beach, and yes Las Vegas. But when the racing at Indianapolis went quiet following 2007, it looked as if F1 would never be back in the United States. Then-F1 President Bernie Ecclestone offered an ominous tone when F1 and race promoters failed to reach an agreement for a 2008 installment. “We didn’t reach an agreement… Let’s see if we miss America,” said Ecclestone at the time.
Apparently, F1 did miss America. Because the sport returned to the United States after a four-year hiatus with the new installment of the United States Grand Prix, at the Circuit of the Americas — or COTA — in Austin, Texas. COTA has become one of the best events on the schedule for drivers and fans alike, thanks to a sprawling complex that offers incredible sightlines for fans, and a track that drivers love to take on.
“Hand on heart, this is probably the date on the calendar I look forward to the most,” said Daniel Ricciardo ahead of the 2014 installment. “I’ve loved every minute of being in Austin. When they picked this place for the US Grand Prix, they absolutely nailed it. The Circuit of the Americas, in my opinion, is the best of the new breed of circuits.”
COTA remained the sole US date on the calendar until 2022, when F1 added the Miami Grand Prix, which takes place around Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. Now with the return of F1 to Las Vegas, the United States again becomes the only nation with three races on the calendar in a single season.
Could the United States even add a fourth? There has been some speculation on that front. Speaking ahead of the United States Grand Prix this year, McLaren CEO Zak Brown addressed that idea in a pre-race press conference.
“I think the US could but I don’t think the Formula 1 calendar can or you wouldn’t want to add a fourth race to the detriment of another part of the world. I still would love to see us in India, in South Africa and another race in Asia etc so I don’t think we need a fourth race here,” said Brown. “And that would, I think, compromise some other territory where Formula 1 can continue to grow. So I think if we look at Americas – Canada, Mexico, Brazil, here – I think we’re in great shape.”
Recent growth of F1 in the United States
Of course, the addition of two additional races — Miami and Las Vegas — coincides with the bigger overall growth of the sport here in the United States.
There are a number of factors behind the rise of F1 in the United States. Chief among them is the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, which took viewers behind the scenes starting with the 2018 season. The series, which premiered in 2019, spent its first season focused in large part on Ricciardo, and his decision to ultimately leave Red Bull for Renault.
That helped turn Ricciardo into a fan favorite in the United States, as well as a household name. But as the series rolled on, viewers were turned into fans thanks to both drivers and team principals alike, including Guenther Steiner, the Team Principal of Haas.
Then there is the presence of Haas themselves, as the sole team on the grid with American ties. The team is owned by Gene Haas, who has a huge presence in NASCAR as well and has an operation based out of their factory in North Carolina.
This season also saw the first full-time American driver on the grid since 2015. Sargeant carried the hopes of the sport and its American fanbase on his shoulders this season, and just two weeks ago he became the first American driver to score points in an F1 race since Michael Andretti back in 1993.
Then there is Andretti himself. Now a driving force at Andretti Autosport, the team announced a partnership with General Motors back in January with eyes on becoming the next team in F1. That bid was approved by the sport’s governing body recently, and now the Andretti-Cadillac partnership is in talks with F1’s management group regarding commercial rights, and a spot on the grid.
While some teams — such as Ferrari, Williams, and Mercedes — have expressed reservations about adding another team, the proposed Andretti-Cadillac team would be a full American operation, something Andretti predicted would be the “the biggest story of the year.”
Add it all up, and you have big attendance — and viewership — numbers in the States. Consider this from before the 2023 season began:
This year, the calendar will feature three races in the U.S. — more than any other country — including the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which last year smashed the all-time attendance record for a race with 440,000 fans. It includes the Miami race that debuted on ABC in May and attracted the highest-ever 2.58 million viewers in the U.S. And this year’s calendar will add a much-hyped nighttime race with a straight spanning the glitzy Las Vegas Strip.
Soaring viewership means the sport is also reaching new audiences. The 2021 season, which featured one of the most thrilling championship battles in history, averaged 949,000 U.S. viewers, according to ESPN. The 2022 season beat that by 28%, topping 1 million viewers on average per race for the first time. The network reported more female and younger viewers than ever last year.
“Viewership has increased every year since F1 returned to ESPN and ABC in 2018,” ESPN spokesman Andy Hall said in an email, adding that the pandemic-delayed and compressed 2020 season “held mostly steady from the year before,” unlike other sports.
F1 continues to gain traction in the American market, but the Las Vegas Grand Prix might be their boldest move yet.
How Las Vegas completes the puzzle
How does the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix complete the puzzle?
There are multiple factors that could make the Las Vegas Grand Prix the crown jewel in F1’s expansion into the United States. First? Speed. As we outlined here, the Las Vegas Grand Prix is expected to be one of the fastest races on the grid, set against the backdrop of the Las Vegas Strip. Seeing F1 cars rocket down the Strip under the lights at some of the fastest speeds of the season is going to be an assault on the senses, perfect for Vegas.
Second? Consider its place on the schedule. The Las Vegas Grand Prix is the penultimate race of the season this year, and is the third-to-last race on the calendar next year. While this season has seen both Max Verstappen and Red Bull clinch the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships well in advance of the race, if we do get a proper title fight down the stretch next year, Las Vegas could be a deciding factor.
Imagine the spectacle offered when a driver, or a team, clinches a title in Las Vegas?
Finally, there is Las Vegas itself. It is not hard to imagine that F1 — and race promoters as well — want to see the Las Vegas Grand Prix become an event on par with the Monaco Grand Prix. The vision is to turn the Las Vegas Grand Prix into an event, a bucket-list destination for fans around the world offering the glitz and glamour of celebrities, and Las Vegas itself.
Should this race deliver as expected, it could complete F1’s vision of establishing that foothold in the United States.