Formula 1 in the United States: One of the Great Mysteries

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Formula 1 in the United States: One of the Great Mysteries
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In the sport of Formula 1, mysteries will always exist. What was the point of the Andrea Moda team, who is the greatest driver of all time and why can't the new tracks be more interesting and promote overtaking and close racing?

One mystery in particular, despite many efforts, has remained: Why has Formula 1 never gotten a strong and secure foothold in the United States of America?

Over the many years many attempts have been made to get Formula 1 as big as other sports in the USA. Many different venues over many years have been tried to make Formula 1 one of the main marquee sports.

Yet despite all of the efforts, Formula 1 has never managed to get a secure home in America. In 2012 the new circuit in Austin will be added to the calendar, and hopefully that will end the years of trying to establish the sport in the states.

In the years since 1950 there have been races at Watkins Glen, Indianapolis (twice in different configurations), Phoenix, Riverside, Caesars Palace, Dallas and Long Beach.

Originally the Indy 500 was counted as a championship race, and from 1950 to 1960 that was considered to be the United States Grand Prix by some, albeit it was never called so officially.

The fact that most people who competed in the Indy 500 didn't compete in other races led to some odd statistics. For example, Bill Vukovich and Lee Wallard are tied for fifth in terms of wins to entries ratio with 33 percent. Johnnie Parsons is one of only three drivers to win their first race in Formula 1.

The Legend Bill Vukovich

The races in the 1953 and 1954 were dominated by the legendary Bill Vukovich, who would have almost certainly in 1955 if he didn't have the crash that took his life. Vuky was the only man to win the Indy 500 more than once during this decade.

The first official United States Grand Prix was in 1959 at the Sebring International Raceway. The race was dominated by the Cooper team, with Bruce McLaren winning, Maurice Trintignant second and Jack Brabham in fourth all driving Coopers, with Tony Brooks finishing in between them in third for Ferrari.

For the 1960 season the race was at the Riverside International Raceway and was won by Stirling Moss ahead of Innes Ireland and Bruce McLaren.

Then from 1961 to 1980 was a period of stability for the United States Grand Prix with it being held at the Watkins Glen track every year. The race was popular with the teams and the drivers with the track being challenging and the race weekend always well organised. The race at Watkins Glen was always popular with the fans.

Graham Hill was one of the most successful drivers at Watkins Glen, winning in '63, '64 and '65. Jim Clark also was a three-time winner, winning in '62, '66 and '67. Watkins Glen did produce some good racing with the track being one from the old school with little room for error.

The main problem that Watkins Glen had was its inability to keep up with the pace of development. The cars kept getting quicker, and the track began to struggle. In 1973 Francois Cevert made a small mistake at the esses section, which was amplified due to the bumps at that corner. He was sent spinning and eventually speared into the wall. Cevert was killed instantly.

A few years previously those bumps wouldn't have been much trouble. But with the more rigid setups of the cars the bumps were becoming a serious issue.  

They didn't help themselves with the crash of Helmuth Koinigg in 1974. They failed to secure armco properly, and it cost young Koinigg his life. The suspension failed on Koinigg's car, and it sent Koinigg off the road. Helmuth hit the armco at a fairly low speed, but because of the ill-fitted armco it was enough. The bottom of the armco gave way, whereas the top didn't move. Koinigg was decapitated.

By 1980 it was clear it was impossible for Watkins Glen to hold Formula 1 races safely, and it was removed from the calendar with the 1980 race being the last at the track.

From 1976 to 1980 the name of the race at Watkins Glen was raced under the name of the United States Grand Prix East. This was to ensure no confusion with a race that was now taking part in Long Beach. The race at Long Beach was called the United States Grand Prix West.

The race at Long Beach in 1983 (the final running of the race) was quite incredible, as Ulsterman John Watson, driving for McLaren, came from 22nd on the grid to win and with Niki Lauda in the other McLaren coming from 23rd to finish second.

While this was going at Long Beach, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix was held in the car park of the Caesars Palace Casino in Las Vegas. The track, despite being well set up for a temporary circuit, wasn't the best and was counterclockwise, which was incredibly painful for drivers' necks. The desert heat meant that the drivers struggled with dehydration as well. The races at Caesars Palace were not popular with fans either.

In 1982 the Detroit Grand Prix was added to the calendar, so in 1982 there was races in Long Beach, Caesars Palace and Detroit. The Detroit circuit was rough and caused constant tyre problems. The Detroit race continued until 1988 with Ayrton Senna winning the final three races at the track. 

In 1984 we saw the one-time race held in Dallas. At Dallas, Keke Rosberg was the only man who seemed impervious to heat. The 100-degrees-plus conditions were making driving the car horrific, and the only person seemed not to be bothered by it was Rosberg. Not even the track could survive the heat with it melting and breaking up in various places. The race was won by Rosberg and led to the infamous incident of Nigel Mansell pushing his car and then collapsing.

It looked like in 1989 there would be no race in the United States, but the Phoenix Grand Prix suddenly appeared. Sadly the race wasn't popular with anyone, the drivers, teams or the fans, with only a few thousand attending the final race in 1991.

There was no race in the United States until 2000 at the Indianapolis circuit. Michael Schumacher was the king at Indianapolis the second time, winning the race five times out of the eight times it was ran. Schumacher won in 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. 

Sadly, one of the races will be remembered as possibly the most pathetic race ever. The 2005 race saw just six cars taking part: the two Ferraris, two Jordans and two Minardis. After Ralf Schumacher had a tyre failure in Friday practice, the Michelin runners were told to not take part, as they couldn't ensure the drivers were safe.

The grid isn't quite full

The race was pointless and damaged the sport's reputation massively. The race happened again at Indy with good crowds in 2006, so the sport wasn't damaged too heavily. Sadly that was there was only to be one more running of the event after 2006 due to the organisers and Bernie Ecclestone being unable to reach an agreement over money.

In 2012 the United States should get a race once more at the Austin track currently under construction.

Let's hope this lasts as long as the race at Watkins Glen.

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