United States Grand Prix: Ranking American F1 Venues from Sebring to Austin
The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas is the 10th different venue to host a Formula One race in the United States.
There have been street races, purpose-built facilities and...a parking lot in Las Vegas. The tracks are also spread from the Pacific coast to the Midwest to upstate New York to Florida. Some have been popular with drivers and fans and some have been ignored, disparaged and nearly forgotten.
To refresh your memory ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix next weekend, we have ranked all 10 circuits so you are not caught off guard when someone mentions the Dallas Grand Prix (yes, that was a thing).
Each of the circuits will be ranked according to three different criteria:
- Location: More points for a large, easily accessible city.
- Atmosphere: More fans and more passion equals more points.
- Circuit Quality: This takes into account the layout, as well as intangibles (e.g. if track surface starts crumbling in the heat, you lose points, Dallas).
Each is worth 10 points and the total score out of 30 determines the final ranking.
The Dallas Grand Prix lasted just one year, 1984. It was held on the grounds of the Texas State Fair in early July and the temperature, according to The Old Farmer's Almanac, reached 38 degrees Celsius.
According to the Red Bull website, "The street circuit disintegrated, rumours of a cancellation were rife but the race was bought forward to a (cooler) 11 a.m." In the oppressive heat, only eight cars were classified, with just two finishing on the lead lap.
Circuit Quality: 1/10
F1 lasted only three years in Phoenix, in the Arizona desert. The following quote, from Sports Illustrated (via Matthew Hendley of the Phoenix New Times), sums up the Phoenix race: "It was outdrawn—handily—by bird races at the nearby Chandler Ostrich Festival."
The final race in Phoenix, in 1991, was the last F1 grand prix in the U.S. until the series went to Indianapolis in 2000.
Circuit Quality: 4/10
By most accounts the 1959 U.S. Grand Prix was not a great success, except, perhaps, on the track. In his book Cars at Speed, Robert Daley wrote, "Only 7,000 (the 'official' estimate) or fewer came to watch," the race.
The city of Sebring has only 10,000 residents and the airport in Tampa—the closest large city—is a two-hour drive away. Is it any wonder the F1 circus never returned to Florida after that one race?
Still, the track itself is not terrible. Built on a former airfield, like Silverstone, it provided a thrilling race in 1959. Bruce McLaren won by 0.6 seconds from Maurice Trintignant and Jack Brabham pushed his car across the line to finish fourth and win his first world championship.
Today, the circuit continues to host the 12 Hours of Sebring, a sports car endurance race.
Circuit Quality: 6/10
After the one-off at Sebring, the U.S. Grand Prix moved across the country for the 1960 race, to the desert to the east of Los Angeles.
However, Riverside failed to produce the same type of exciting race that Sebring had. Part of the reason was beyond the circuit's control, the world championship having already been clinched by Brabham by the time the F1 cars rolled into town. But Stirling Moss won the race by 38 seconds and only three cars finished on the lead lap.
There were attendance problems again, with Daley writing in Cars at Speed that, "this race, too, was a financial flop; crowd estimates ranged from 7,000 to a rather wistful 25,000."
The next year, F1 decamped for its first "permanent" home, in upstate New York.
Circuit Quality: 4/10
6. Las Vegas
Recently, there have been rumours of a new F1 race on the Las Vegas Strip. What some people might not remember is that Vegas already had a grand prix, which was run in the parking lot of the Caesars Palace casino in 1981 and 1982.
The crowds were small, according to grandprix.com, despite Nelson Piquet clinching the world championship at the 1981 race.
According to Will Saunders of Crash.net, "The circuit was as uninspiring for spectators and television viewers as it was for the drivers, with the barren backdrop of dust, sand and highways failing to convey any of the associated glamour of Vegas."
Circuit Quality: 3/10
Detroit, home of the American car industry, hosted a street race from 1982 to 1988 (the video above shows the start of the 1986 race). Ayrton Senna won the last three races in Motor City, but, "most drivers were unimpressed, complaining that the track was dull, bumpy and very slippery," according to grandprix.com.
In 1982, the United States hosted three races: Detroit, Las Vegas and Long Beach. Eventually, though, F1 left Detroit when the circuit failed to meet minimum standards to host a race.
Circuit Quality: 4/10
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has hosted the Indy 500 since 1911. In 2000, a road circuit was constructed in the infield, using the start-finish straight and part of the banked oval. This layout would host the U.S. Grand Prix from 2000 to 2007.
According to ESPN.com's Terry Blount, attendance at the first race topped 200,000. By 2007, though, it had been cut in half. The biggest culprit in the decline was the 2005 race, when only six Bridgestone-shod cars took the start, as the cars using Michelin tyres withdrew over safety concerns.
The circuit itself was interesting, particularly with the use of the banked turn, although it was also dangerous, as Ralf Schumacher discovered when he crashed heavily and missed the next six races with a fractured spine in the same year.
Circuit Quality: 8/10
3. Long Beach
Long Beach, California hosted the U.S. Grand Prix West from 1976 to 1983. Located to the south of Los Angeles—and closer than Riverside—the circuit was quite popular. In fact, there was even talk earlier this year, per Bob Keisser of the Orange County Register, of F1 returning to Long Beach in the future.
According to grandprix.com, when the race organisers and F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone could not reach an agreement to keep the race going in 1984, "Long Beach was on its way to becoming the Monaco of the West."
Circuit Quality: 7/10
2. Watkins Glen
The Glen, in upstate New York, was a popular race track that regularly drew large, passionate crowds. It was, however, over an hour from any city of a reasonable size, and a four-hour drive from New York City.
By the 1970s, Watkins Glen proved to be a dangerous track, killing Francois Cevert and Helmuth Koinigg in back-to-back years. By 1980, the year of the last race, "There were no hotels and the drunken mobs of fans in the infamous Bog—who set fire to cars and rioted—was not the kind of image F1 wanted," per grandprix.com. "The teams packed up and never returned."
Still, the Glen was the longest-lived of all the U.S. Grand Prix venues, hosting races from 1961 to 1980. Today, it still hosts NASCAR races, among other series.
Circuit Quality: 9/10
Austin hosted its first grand prix at the purpose-built Circuit of the Americas in 2012. The event was an immediate success. The circuit's website claims "Race-day attendance for the  F1 USGP was 113,162 making it the third-highest attended F1 race of the year with a Sunday total that was higher than the race-day attendance of the Monaco, German and Bahrain Grands Prix combined!"
"Arguably the coolest city in America, Austin is an inspiringly diverse mixture," per the official F1 website. "One part small-town retro and another part Silicon Valley-lite, the Texan capital is tough to pin down; a picture-perfect common ground for 1960s hipsters, rodeo riders and internet entrepreneurs alike."
The circuit itself is well-designed, with an interesting mix of corners, including a spectacular Turn 1, which has an apex at the top of a hill, with the track falling away steeply at the exit. Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo said, "The Circuit of The Americas, in my opinion, is the best of the new breed of circuits," according to the official F1 site.
Circuit Quality: 8/10
Let us know your favourite American grand prix venue in the comments. Should Watkins Glen be ranked ahead of Austin, despite being in the middle of nowhere? Also, follow me on Twitter for updates when I publish a new article and for other (mostly) F1-related news and banter: