LAS VEGAS — It’s been 40 years since Formula 1 last ventured into Sin City for back-to-back Las Vegas races in the parking lot of the Caesars Palace hotel.
The European-headquartered series raced in Las Vegas in 1981 and 1982, after which there was little reason to return. Then came new ownership, slick marketing, a Netflix documentary series and a historic battle for the championship that all helped F1 explode in popularity in the United States.
The US will be the only country on the 2023 calendar to host three F1 races in one season after Wednesday’s announcement of a Saturday night race along the famed Las Vegas Strip. F1 has been racing at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas since 2012, and will make its debut in Miami in May.
Barring any surprises, existing races in Mexico City and Montreal will bring F1 to North America five times next season.
Is it too much for one market?
COTA president Bobby Epstein believes there is enough interest to support three American races. Five years ago, he could barely draw 100,000 spectators in a three-day weekend; COTA had over 300,000 last year and is already sold out for the October race.
F1’s first race in Miami in May was sold out in one day.
“Before we opened, there was very little interest or familiarity with Formula 1 in America because they weren’t here,” Epstein told The Associated Press. “The first few years it’s hard to know if you have a bright new shiny object or you have something that people really love and come back to and not just curious about.
“What you can’t buy is history and you can’t buy tradition. You have to make it and earn it. The crowds here have told us we’re definitely doing something right.”
NASCAR is America’s top class, already racing 13 miles away from The Strip on the oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR made its second appearance on COTA last week.
IndyCar is the American version of F1 and the most diverse series in the world with its mix of road and street courses, as well as ovals. But the open-wheel series has never challenged F1, even though European drivers are now migrating to IndyCar.
F1 didn’t focus much on the US until Liberty Media Corp. bought the rights to the series in 2017. The American company has since been aiming for expansion in the US and received a huge boost from the Netflix documentary series ‘Drive To Survive’.
Season four fell before the F1 season opener this month, and Netflix said the view behind the velvet rope in the series ranked #1 in 33 countries on its opening weekend. ESPN, meanwhile, said the viewership for Sunday’s race in Saudi Arabia broke the network’s one-week record and was ESPN’s largest F1 audience since 1995.
“Formula 1’s momentum has been demonstrated over the past few seasons and we’ve seen that potential materialize as we see our fan base really grow around the world, but especially here in the US,” Greg Maffei, President and CEO of Liberty Media , told The Associated Press.
F1 will promote the event alongside Liberty, who will take on the additional role because of its belief in the market. F1 signed an initial three-year contract for the race, but the exact race date was not disclosed. It will be a Saturday night in November on a temporary 3.8-mile street course that will use the iconic Las Vegas Boulevard.
“This is something different for us as we play a bigger role because of our belief in the possibility and our belief in Las Vegas,” Maffei said.
Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of F1 added: “The best races in the world will take place in the entertainment capital of the world. Formula 1 has tremendous momentum and we are growing all over the world and the United States is a huge focus for us, there is no doubt about it.”
No other country hosts more than two races per season. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak said the city is expecting 170,000 visitors over the race weekend, providing 400,000 hotel rooms and an estimated economic impact of half a billion dollars.
But as F1 chases the US dollar, it does so with very little US representation.
Michael Andretti, son of 1978 F1 champion Mario Andretti, is desperate for a two-car team and a $420 million takeover of the existing Sauber team collapsed late last year. Andretti has since applied for expansion to the 10-team grid.
He is eager to meet F1 driver Colton Herta, the Californian who turned 22 on Wednesday and is an IndyCar title contender. Herta has signed a test contract with McLaren and will be evaluated by that team later this year.
Maffei was quick to point out that F1 already has an American team; Haas F1 is owned by American businessman Gene Haas, who operates part of the organization in addition to the NASCAR operation in North Carolina.
But Haas was the worst team in F1 last year and Andretti has publicly called on Haas to sell the F1 team to him. Haas has refused to sell and appears to be a much improved team through the first two races.
Gene Haas was forced to drop both his Russian driver and the sponsorship Nikita Mazepin brought from his father’s fertilizer company after the Russian invasion of Ukraine two weeks before the season started. The team has somehow come out stronger, scoring points in the first two races of the season.
F1 and Liberty agree that the series needs more American representation – teams, drivers, sponsors, everything – but Domenicali said it cannot be an artificial effort. F1 doesn’t allow a team owner just to further its growth in the US
“It’s important, but it has to be real,” Domenicali told AP. “People make the difference, they are the protaganist. But it has to be real, (the driver) has to be fast, otherwise it wouldn’t work. It is a journey that is not easy to accomplish. It will take time, but it is definitely in our focus.
“From a commercial point of view, from the point of view of the organizer or promoter who wants to develop the business in the US, an American female or male driver would be very good.”