F1 in America: A brief history of the US Grand Prix

Posted on 20 October, 2022

The United States Grand Prix has moved home more than any other race since F1 ‘officially’ launched as a world championship 72 years ago. With Austin celebrating its 10th year, here’s a look back at the other venues to have hosted this historic race.

Despite having formidable competition from the more US-focused championships like IndyCar and NASCAR, the United States Grand Prix has remained a regular presence on the Formula 1 calendar throughout its 70-year existence and ranks 10th on the all-time list of grands prix held.

Now preparing for a 10th race at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas in 2022, the United States Grand Prix moved around for many years before eventually finding its new home in the capital city of Texas.

Including a brief period in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the United States Grand Prix was split in two (US Grand Prix East and US Grand Prix West), plus additional races named after their locations - Detroit, Caesars Palace, and more recently, Miami - no fewer than 10 different venues have staged a Formula 1 race on American soil, by far the most of any nation to have staged a round of the Formula 1 World Championship.

2021 United States Grand Prix

Where it all began: F1 and the Indianapolis 500

Believe it or not, but the famous Indy 500 - now a mainstay on the IndyCar calendar - was once a regular fixture on the Formula 1 calendar, and it's where F1’s relationship with America began.

Starting with F1’s maiden season in 1950, ‘the 500’ was an official round of the F1 world championship for a whole decade; although it was never referred to as the ‘United States Grand Prix’ it was for many years the only American round on the calendar.

Back then, the race ran to different regulations than the others on the F1 calendar, meaning the teams would need to design and build a new car in order to participate. As a result, the only European driver to compete in the event while it was considered an official round of the F1 championship was the great Alberto Ascari. He finished 31st in the 1952 event, which also marked Ferrari’s one and only participation in the iconic 500-mile race.

The United States Grand Prix moved briefly to Sebring in 1959 and then onto the Riverside Raceway in California a year later. Nether proved popular as an F1 venue, but from 1960, Formula 1 was able to find a new and more permanent home for the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

A new home for Formula 1 at Watkins Glen

Taking place in upstate New York, the race at Watkins Glen proved instantly more popular than the two venues that preceded it, drawing huge crowds from the very first year and becoming a permanent fixture for close to two decades.

After 15 years hosting the United States Grand Prix, the race at Watkins Glen took on a new name for 1976 - the USA Grand Prix East - which it used until its final race in 1980. This subtle naming tweak was brought in as a second US race was added on the streets of Long Beach, California, which took on the title of the USA Grand Prix West.

Long Beach was an instant hit, with its challenging street circuit seen by some as America’s answer to the Monaco Grand Prix. The race in Long Beach remained on the calendar for eight years, but perhaps its most memorable moment came at its final staging in 1983. John Watson won an entertaining race from 23rd on the grid, and this remains the lowest starting position from which a driver has ever won a Formula 1 race.

Throughout the ‘80s, the United States Grand Prix continued to move around the country, with races taking place at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas (1981-82), plus a one-off race in Dallas in 1984.

In 1982, the United States became the first country ever to host three rounds of the Formula 1 World Championship in one season, with a street circuit in Detroit added alongside established races in Long Beach (USA Grand Prix West) and Las Vegas (Caesars Palace Grand Prix). It will equal that record next year with a new race in Las Vegas.

The Detroit Grand Prix remained until 1988, garnering a reputation as one of the most physically demanding on the calendar due to its bumpy surface and hot, humid weather. In fact, conditions were usually so hot and gruelling that it was seen as an achievement to simply finish the race, with it not uncommon to see half the field failing to reach the chequered flag.

Detroit’s time hosting F1 came to an end following the 1988 race, with FISA (Formula 1’s governing body at the time) deeming the facilities no longer to be of F1 standard.

The ‘United States Grand Prix’ returns to the calendar

After almost a decade running the USA East and USA West grands prix, as well as the short-lived Detroit and Caesars Palace rounds, a race in Phoenix was introduced for 1989 which officially returned the United States Grand Prix title to the calendar for the first time since 1980.

With the Phoenix track designed to navigate the city centre’s grid system, the race proved unpopular with the drivers and was not greeted enthusiastically by fans. The first race in 1989 was disappointingly not a sell-out, and attendances did not improve much in the following two years either.

Phoenix’s most notable contribution to Formula 1 history was probably the emergence of a young Jean Alesi during the 1990 race as he fought Ayrton Senna for the win en route to securing his first career podium in F1.

After failing to agree on a renewal, Phoenix slipped off the calendar and Formula 1 did not visit the United States again for the remainder of the ‘90s.

2003 United States Grand Prix

For Formula 1’s first season of the new millennium, and for the first time since 1960, a race was confirmed to take place in Indianapolis - home of the iconic Indy 500. Although this time, the famous oval race remained part of the IndyCar calendar as a new course was used instead for F1.

Using the infield layout and around one mile of the oval (in the opposite direction to how the 500 is run), the inaugural United States Grand Prix to be staged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway proved popular with over 200,000 fans in attendance - at the time, one of the largest crowds in F1 history.

Formula 1’s decision to stage a race in Indianapolis was seen as the perfect opportunity to return grand prix racing to a passionate and enthusiastic crowd and boost its reputation once again, especially given America’s long absence from the F1 calendar.

Formula 1’s darkest day in America

The 2005 race, however, did untold damage to F1’s reputation there and undid much of the work of the previous four years.

With Michelin experiencing a series of tyre failures in practice ahead of the 2005 United States Grand Prix, seven of the 10 teams withdrew on the formation lap leaving just six cars to take the start and a furious home crowd demanding refunds.

The controversy was seen as a major black mark for F1, and it was even rumoured that the following year’s race might be cancelled as a result. The race remained on the calendar for a further two years, but with attendances falling and Indianapolis seemingly unable to detach itself from the 2005 fiasco, the race fell off the calendar in 2008.

With Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone vowing "never to return" to Indianapolis, the future of grand prix racing in America seemed bleak. In 2010, however, the city of Austin was awarded a 10-year contract to stage the United States Grand Prix once again, with a new purpose-built facility pencilled in for its debut two years later.

Circuit of The Americas: F1 arrives in the ‘Lone Star State’

On November 18th 2012, Formula 1 raced at Circuit of The Americas for the first time with Lewis Hamilton, a popular figure in the US, emerging victorious. With the passionate Texan crowd flocking to attend the event each year since, the United States Grand Prix has rebuilt its reputation as one of the most entertaining and well-attended races on the F1 calendar.

Today, ‘COTA’ contributes around $1 billion to the state of Texas each year through its impact on tourism and commerce, and the circuit itself has proved a hit with the drivers for its mix of high-speed flowing corners and challenging elevation changes.

2021 United States Grand Prix

Following the cancellation of the 2020 race, Austin returned to the calendar in 2021 and set a new record for the largest three-day F1 event with over 400,000 people in attendance.

This year, Austin celebrates 10 years on the Formula 1 calendar, and despite the addition of Miami and Las Vegas to the calendar, the Austinites can rightfully still claim theirs to be the only official ‘United States Grand Prix’.

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