Why a Formula One race in Las Vegas may be a better idea that you think

Location and scheduling will be critical, but it just might work. Or not.

Why a Formula One race in Las Vegas may be a better idea that you think
(L to R): Dmitry Kozak, Russian Deputy Prime Minister with Bernie Ecclestone, on the grid
Las Vegas GP Start
Robert Doornbos
Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal with Bernie Ecclestone, and Dmitry Kozak, Russian Deputy Prime Minister
Race action
Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan Minister of Youth and Sport, Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One CEO
Katherine Legge
Bruno Junqueira takes the checkered flag
Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal with Bernie Ecclestone, on the grid
Sébastien Bourdais
Bernie Ecclestone
HRH Prince Harry, on the grid with Bernie Ecclestone (GBR)
Pole winner Will Power celebrates
(L to R): Marco Mattiacci, Ferrari Team Principal on the grid with Bernie Ecclestone (GBR)

Like every single online journalist I know, I have a genuine love-hate relationship with the “comments” section at the end of my stories. But like every single online journalist I know, I recognize that these comments are invaluable instant-feedback data on what we have just written.

When I’d write for Car and Driver or Road & Track or Automobile or Motor Trend, it was literally months from the time I’d press “send” on the computer, to hearing what actual readers thought. At Autoweek, a little less time would pass. At newspapers, less still, but typically I’d be off to something else before I began getting phone calls or emails.

At Motorsport.com, it took about five minutes for the first comment to pop up on my “Formula One may go back to Las Vegas” story. And since Motorport.com has a genuine around-the-world reach, I got comments all night, from everywhere. In the print world, we used to dream about this kind of market research. Of course, when the consensus is that “your story sucks,” it’s less invigorating, but just as useful.

Interesting to see, then, what your comments and personal emails are saying about a Las Vegas race. Let me address a few of them:

From Dan: “How many races does North America need?” Dan is referring, of course, to Montreal, Austin, and Mexico City next year. The New Jersey race is lying in a grave, but I hesitate to throw dirt in on top of it – F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone wants a race in the New York City area, and he usually gets what he wants. As for how many races does North America need? I’d respond with, ‘How many races does Europe need?” Canada, the U.S. and Mexico cover a lot of real estate.

From Tim: “Keep scheduling more races and mandating cars with vacuum-cleaner motors and see where it gets you, Ecclestone.” (Cough, cough.) Let’s move on…

From Matthew: “The previous (Las Vegas) GP had possibly the worst circuit in F1 history.” No argument, Matthew, but that was in 1981 and 1982, when the track was carved out of the Caesar’s Palace parking lot into a weird series of side-by-side paper clips. The Champ Car race in 2007, held at the north end of the Strip in the Fremont area – that was the last street race there – was pretty darn good, in terms of raciness, passing, viewing, and not impeding traffic too much.

That last point is difficult to emphasize too much. The big casinos down on the unincorporated part of the Strip have one goal for their facilities: Get people into the casino, and keep them there. People out watching races – be it on the street or at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – are not inside spending money. Anything that gets them out of the casino, or at least ties up traffic to make it difficult to get to the casino, is a tough sell. The only way a race on the lawer part of the Strip could be universally endorsed is in periods when business is so dead that the idea of attracting fans to town, who may then end up in a casino, overcomes the usual complaints.

From Gregg: “Yeah. Just like it was coming to New Jersey. Don't the media dorks get this is all about Bernie press?” Sure, I got that when I wrote that Formula One was coming to Austin, Texas. I got that in spades. Probably from you, Gregg.

Don't forget, too, that 2016 should see the debut of Gene Haas' Formula One team, hopefully with at least one American driver. That is bound to shine a spotlight in F1 in America. I just hope it's a bight one.

From Guillermo: "Mr. Ecclestone is becoming older and more stupid." Well, he is getting older, Guillermo, but more stupid? Here’s how Formula One under Bernie Ecclestone works. Ecclestone has a product, races, and he sells them to the highest bidder. If Las Vegas pays him enough, it will get a race.

Check doesn't clear, race doesn't happen. The post-Tavo Hellmund executives at Circuit of the Americas tried to call his bluff. Bernie doesn't bluff.

So how is that stupid? It reminds me of automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin. He created the Bricklin sports car, imported the Yugo, and was the last Fiat distributor. All, you would say, huge failures. But Malcolm told me once he made money, a lot of money, off all three. Failures? Not to him. He only lost money dealing with the Chinese when he tried to bring Chery cars to the U.S., but that’s the Chinese, masters at making monkeys out of financial geniuses like Malcom Bricklin.

So if Vegas gets a race, and nobody comes, so what? That’s on the promoters. Ecclestone gets his fee, plus the broadcast rights – he doesn’t care if anyone shows up. A Las Vegas race would be a hit on global TV. Stupid? No.

Finally, hate him if you want, but before Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One was not nearly the powerhouse it is now. There is a blue-collar parallel to Ted Johnson, who in 1978 took a bunch of rag-tag sprint car drivers, aimlessly wandering from track to track for $500-to-win races, and turned them into the World Of Outlaws, which a set schedule, rules, big purses, lots of advertising and public relations and eventually a TV deal. Three decades earlier “Big” Bill France did the same with stock car drivers. France and Johnson made a lot of people, including themselves, rich. Bernie Ecclestone made a lot of people, including himself, very, very rich. 

The last word from Becca: “They should make the guy that waves the chequered flag dress up as Elvis.” I think that's a given, isn't it?

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