On June 4, 2022, it would have been 33-years to the day since Phoenix, Arizona, hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix. However, Formula One arrival in the scorching hot desert didn’t survive the test of time.
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It’s amusing to reflect on the F1 circuit decision-makers of the 1980s. Did they completely neglect the negative impact of what a street circuit on the streets of downtown Phoenix could present in the middle of summer?
Did the arrival of Formula 1 to Phoenix, Arizona, in the middle of summer bear witness to a sell-out crowd? Of course, it didn’t, and I don’t believe there’s an explanation why. Did the drivers compete on this day in June 1989 and complete the race? Of course, they didn’t, mainly due to mechanical failures. Embarrassingly, only six drivers managed to cross the finish line.
The F1 legend that is Ayrton Senna – God rest his soul – was racing for McLaren-Honda, and he was riding a three-race winning streak heading into the 1989 U.S. GP, qualifying in the first place, slightly ahead of his teammate Alain Prost. Between Senna and Prost, they’d claimed ten of the sixteen races during that season. Even the most authoritative pro driver of 1989 couldn’t finish the race as Senna’s car failed. However, it wasn’t a complete loss for McLaren-Honda, as Prost’s car hung on, and he took pole position.
It wasn’t all bad for Arizonian race fans; hometown boy Eddie Cheever took the third-placed pole position as the only American-born driver in the race. The city of Phoenix spent a staggering $7 million, and although I cannot seem to find any specific financial report, I can guarantee they didn’t receive half of the money spent, in revenue. The race returned in 1990 and 1991, and Senna sought his revenge as he won both races. And then, it was time for the Formula 1 schedule to accept that the Phoenix circuit wasn’t a viable addition to the race calendar.
It took eight years before F1 returned to the United States (2000), where it was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Formula 1 in America Since the Phoenix Failure
Modern-day Formula 1 has taken significant strides in supplementing the North American fan base. The Grand Prix hasn’t returned to Phoenix, but Caesars Arizona will be receiving the highest number of F1 wagers since its prompt online legalization of sports betting in 2021.
Outside of the rare F1 appearances in the U.S., placing a wager on the motorsport has pretty much been the closest that Americans could get to the track. However, the landscape is changing, but how did we get here?
Following the Phoenix failure of 1989-1991, stateside circuits were absent from most of the nighties, and then in 2000, the Indianapolis circuit returned to the F1 schedule.
As a partnership between America’s premier motorsport venue and the world’s most-watched motorsport began, it was seemingly a match made in heaven as 250,000 attended the first Grand Prix in Indianapolis. It’s almost like North America just wasn’t destined to receive a piece of the F1 pie, and what is known as the ‘saddest day in Formula One history’ altered the trajectory and the U.S. relationship with F1.
During the 2005 United States Grand Prix, just six cars lined up for the race. A dispute involving a circuit resurfacing and tyre failures caused fourteen drivers to withdraw. Two years later, the F1 left Indianapolis – and America.
The 2010s saw a slow build between F1 and its U.S. relations, and in 2010 it was Austin, Texas, that was awarded a ten-year contract to host the Grand Prix – starting in 2012. The Texas circuit was a huge success, but the game-changing moment came in 2017 when U.S. media extraordinaire Liberty Media assisted in evolving the sports entertainment value.
Since then, Liberty Media has revolutionized Formula One from a digital perspective, including a hit documentary ‘Drive to Survive’ which was carefully constructed to appease the American audience. And of course, Liberty Media achieved its goal, and F1 viewing numbers in the United States have since skyrocketed.
Sell-out crowds in Texas have been met with the introduction of the Miami Grand Prix, and the Florida location has presented a semi-permanent track circling the Hard Rock Stadium.
And if a second location isn’t enough evidence to know F1 is booming in North America, you should know that in 2023 a third American track will be added to the F1 season schedule as the asphalts arrive in Las Vegas.
All that remains for Formula One and its success in the states to truly blossom is glaringly obvious, an American-born driver.