By John Maher
Updated: 10:50 p.m. Saturday, July 10, 2010
Published: 10:34 p.m. Saturday, July 10, 2010
The last time a Formula One race was held in Texas, Keke Rosberg got the win, but Nigel Mansell provided the defining moment.
When Mansell's Lotus-Renault ran out of gas at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix, he hopped out of his car and tried to push it across the finish line. In the 100-degree heat, he quickly passed out, bonking his head on the right front tire as he slumped to the pavement at Fair Park.
Over the years, F1 racing hasn't fared much better in the U.S. than Mansell did in Dallas. Usually because of financial problems, F1 has fizzled out at a number of stops, none of which turned out to be permanent.
That could be a cautionary tale for Austin, which in 2012 is scheduled to host the first U.S. Grand Prix since 2007, when Indianapolis staged its last F1 race.
"I think we've been in the wrong places, to be honest with you," F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone said in a telephone interview with the American-Statesman. "We've been looking for a good home for quite some time \u2026 (but) in other cities and countries, we don't have the problems we seem to have when we do things in America."
Still, F1's cachet and its affluent, international and large fan base make it a tempting prize for promoters and cities.
"They're truly remarkable," said Long Beach, Calif., businessman Chris Pook, who organized F1 races in several U.S. cities. "The mayor in Long Beach used to say it was like hosting a Super Bowl every year."
Early years of F1
The world's first F1 race was held May 13, 1950, at Silverstone, a circuit about 70 miles north of London that will host the British Grand Prix this weekend. That first year, seven Grand Prix races counted toward the world championship. All were in Europe except the Indianapolis 500.
Even though Indy featured different drivers and different cars, it stayed on the F1 circuit until Watkins Glen, N .Y., staged the U.S. Grand Prix in 1961 after that event had first sputtered at Sebring, Fla., in 1959 and then Riverside, Calif., in 1960. In 1976, a second F1 race, the U.S. Grand Prix West, debuted in Long Beach, a down-at-the-heels industrial port city that was looking to change its image.
"No one knew where Long Beach was, just that it was south of Los Angeles," said Pook. "In the 1960s, and 1970s the downtown was in decline. ... They had bought the Queen Mary (in 1967) as a panacea for the rebirth, but that didn't work."
Pook, a travel agent at the time, pushed for an F1 race through city streets, a la Monaco, as a way to revitalize the downtown. Pook said some of the biggest skeptics were European F1 teams and officials, who didn't think U.S. fans would attend a street race. Despite opposition from environmentalists concerned about crowds and noise, the race went on, and Pook claims it was a success for the city.
"It jump-started the redevelopment. A Hyatt was built in the center of the circuit. The decayed buildings on the waterfront went away," Pook said. Yet the race was not without problems.
"The cost was high in terms of building the circuit," Pook said. "You've got to create (the equivalent of) an entire stadium on a temporary basis with all the creature comforts people expect."
Pook said the budget for staging the annual race, not including the purse, was $8 million. Although the weekend event drew large crowds, approaching 90,000 on race day, that didn't assure financial success.
"You've got to sell tickets in the $300-$400 range to succeed. We were making $100,000 a year. If we had a bad weekend, we could have gone under," Pook said.
Unlike the various U.S. cities that have held street races — as well as Indianapolis, which adapted an existing facility — Austin's Grand Prix would feature a stadium built specifically for the races.
The last F1 Grand Prix in Long Beach was in 1983. Beginning in 1984, Long Beach switched to a Championship Auto Racing Teams, or Champ Car, event, and it now has an IndyCar race that can attract 200,000 fans over a weekend.
As for storied Watkins Glen, the last F1 race there was in 1980. By that time, the Glen no longer matched the F1 profile. It couldn't pay the purse for F1 teams or afford to make needed improvements for safety for the powerful cars.
"It's a beautiful rural circuit, but tickets were $45 and $50. People were camping out, not staying in hotels," Pook said. "Meanwhile, the whole sport was elevating. Everything was getting more expensive."
That didn't discourage other cities from being lured by the glitz of Formula One. In 1981 and '82, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas staged an F1 race in its parking lot. The concept was to lure high rollers from all over the world to the race — and the casino. When the plan for the parking lot circuit was unveiled, Motoring News called it the "Mickeyist Mouse Ever."
Pook said, however, that circuit design was not the problem.
"Caesars didn't reach out," Pook said. "There was not a relationship with the other casinos. It's really, really important that everyone is behind a race."
Detroit also got into the F1 business in 1981. Detroit Renaissance, a nonprofit organization of area business leaders, was looking for ways to revitalize the downtown area, much the way Long Beach had done. A race was held on the streets of Detroit through 1988, but plans to move it to nearby Belle Isle fell through, and Detroit replaced F1 with a CART race.
Marred by mishaps
In 1984, another new city joined the F1 circuit — Dallas.
Buddy Boren was a former drag racer who produced a documentary on that sport, "Wheels of Fire," that remains a cult classic. Boren recalled: "We finished the film and I was editing, and I started thinking about what my next project would be. I thought it would be interesting to do a film about Formula One racing."
Boren went to Long Beach and said: "I remember rolling down the window and hearing the cars; I'd never seen a race like that before. To see them doing that on a street just took my breath away."
Boren decided to bring one of those races to Dallas. He found a pair of partners, Don Walker and Larry Waldrop.
"We had three guys together who had never put on a (Formula One) race before. That was dangerous," Boren said.
Boren said it cost about $6 million to hold the street race, including $2 million for the purse and $1 million to construct the track. He said they held down expenses by using existing roads and buildings in and around Fair Park. An old horse arena, for instance, served as a paddock for race cars.
Boren said he and his partners eventually split over whether to continue to use Pook. He and Pook left the group months before the Grand Prix race, which, for many of the wrong reasons, remains part of F1 lore.
The weather was unseasonably hot, even for July 8 in Dallas. It was 100 degrees in the shade and hotter on the pavement, which crumbled from the heat and the weight of the much heavier Can-Am cars that had raced the circuit the previous day. Road crews had made hasty repairs all night long.
Despite protests by some drivers that the circuit was unsafe, the F1 race began only a few minutes late, with "Dallas" TV star Larry Hagman waving the green flag. Only eight of the 25 cars didn't spin out, crash or break down, with Mansell taking sixth out of the eight finishers.
Hot weather was again an issue when Phoenix replaced Detroit on the F1 calendar in June 1989. An estimated 30,000 fans attended that race, but moving it earlier on the F1 schedule didn't help. The March 1991 race attracted fewer than 20,000 fans. It was the last F1 race for Phoenix and the last for the U.S. until Indianapolis in 2000.
To meet F1's high standards, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway spent about $75 million building the 2.6-mile road course, which incorporated part of the famous oval, and upgrading facilities. Interest was initially strong, with crowds approaching 200,000.
But it waned. The kiss of death came in 2005 when, because of tire problems, only six of 20 teams ran more than a parade lap.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway spokesman Fred Nation said, "At the end of the day, we could not make a business deal that made sense to us."
Indy's last F1 race was in 2007.
Ecclestone called Austin "a nice town."
Whether it can overcome F1's problem-plagued history in the U.S. remains to be seen.