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Tenth time lucky

Maurice Hamilton November 14, 2012
Watkins Glen hosted 20 grands prix but fell behind in terms of safety © Sutton Images
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Austin will be the tenth different venue for the United States Grand Prix; fitting, I suppose, for such a vast country but, in truth, a sign of how Formula 1 has never been truly accepted in the U.S.

That said, there was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was THE race on the F1 calendar. Largely because it paid the most money (and, typically, liked to let you know exactly how much). But also because it was a superb circuit in the Finger Lake region of New York State, an area that looked at its magnificent best in the Fall. Sadly, the track (a mix between Brands Hatch and Dijon) could not keep up with the necessary safety demands. And neither could it cope with the advancing requirements of F1's hierarchy who did not take kindly to the effect of the mud and rain that signed off the Watkins Glen era in 1980.

Despite this, F1 was about to enjoy its highest profile ever in North America when the 1982 calendar carried races in Long Beach, Detroit, Montreal and Las Vegas; quite extraordinary when you think about it now. It worked - well, more or less - because the U. S. geographic spread allowed Long Beach and Detroit to draw large crowds on opposite sides of the country while Las Vegas was never going to persuade anyone to leave the air-conditioned casinos and sit in blazing heat by a temporary track laid out in a hotel parking lot.

Long Beach used a tough and reasonably quick street circuit which was good enough to regularly pull 80,000 spectators, mainly from nearby Los Angeles. The weather in April was usually perfect; the crowd good humoured - particularly when, during a lull before the start in 1980, a well-endowed woman in tight shorts stepped onto the track at Queens Hairpin and pulled up her tee-shirt for the benefit of an appreciative grandstand fuelled by Budweiser and overheated by the sun.

Detroit, not everyone's cup of tea but a favourite of mine, boasted an even greater party atmosphere because of the adventurous down town location with hotels and office blocks providing vantage points and even better hospitality. It's the only Grand Prix I've ever attended where there seemed to be permanent parties in the lifts serving the Renaissance Centre's 70 plus floors, one of which housed the media centre. It was not unknown for journalists to be, er, diverted while attempting to meet a deadline.

Long Beach was a success in the late seventies and early eighties © Sutton Images
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Sadly, the extremely temporary nature of Detroit meant its days were numbered. Long Beach, on the other hand, was always a serious venture thanks to the ministrations of Chris Pook but the ex-pat Englishman was one of the few to stand up to Bernie Ecclestone's financial demands in 1984. Long Beach has continued and, despite the vagaries of CART/Indycar over the years and changes to the original uphill/downhill layout, you have to say that F1 is the loser.

In 1984, F1 visited Dallas; an extraordinary weekend in more ways than one. The heat in July was overpowering but the biggest victim was the track, a temporary but extremely challenging affair fringed by the usual concrete blocks and surfaced with a material that could not cope with high temperatures and the torque of F1 engines. The timetable was such that the warm-up (a standard feature of race day) was held at 7am and prompted Jacques Laffite to arrive dressed in pyjamas as he made his way down the pit lane on a golf buggy.

The novelty value of the weekend stretched to a barbecue at South Fork and characters from 'Dallas' turning up at the race. As the TV stars sat in their air-conditioned boxes, they must have thought F1 people mad as they went racing in 100 deg F. But there was to be drama aplenty with the brave Nigel Mansell collapsed in a heap while trying to push his stricken Lotus across the finishing line. The final act starred the promoter when he made off with the cash box and was never seen again. And neither was the race.

The streets of Phoenix hosted the US GP for three years, which was two years too many for most given the bland nature of the track and disinterest from locals who turned up in greater numbers at an ostrich race nearby. When the Grand Prix moved to Indianapolis in 2000, F1 finally seemed to have a permanent home in imposing surroundings with motor sport history. F1 even managed to survive the disgraceful six-car race for Bridgestone runners in 2005 but, somehow, Grand Prix racing and the Speedway made uncomfortable bed-fellows, not helped by a pathetic sequence of slow corners on the infield section of the F1 track.

From what we can see, such an accusation is unlikely to be laid at the door of Circuit of Americas. The ground work has been done in every sense. The question is how many will turn up and, more important, will they be tempted back? The history of the U.S. Grand Prix suggests it's possible. Let's hope so if we are to avoid venue number 11.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live