With the United States Grand Prix now firmly established in Austin and arguably more popular now than it has ever been, Formula One has its most entrenched home in the US since the heyday of Watkins Glen.

The history of Formula One in the US is a patchwork tapestry though; a legacy of tentative footholds tainted by circumstance (Watkins Glen, Indianapolis) and half-baked follies around concrete jungles (Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix).

Perhaps Formula One's most bizarre foray in the US came in the early 80s, with a Grand Prix in Las Vegas run around a makeshift circuit in the car park of the Caesars Palace casino. Given recent statements by Bernie Ecclestone linking Formula One with a return to Vegas, the ringmaster would do well to heed the lessons from the sport's last sortie to Sin City.

Nelson Piquet won the 1981 world title at the Las Vegas finale... but few were there to appreciate it

Formula One's perennially awkward relationship with the United States was in bloom in the late 1970s. Watkins Glen provided an autumnal end of season garden party among the fall foliage of upstate New York, and a street race in Long Beach offered a glamorous early-season counter-point as the 'Monaco of the US' in sunny Southern California.

However, by the end of the decade the Glen was tarnished by enduring safety concerns, outdated facilities and rowdy fans, and amid mounting debts the race was cancelled ahead of the 1981 season. The loss of the Glen after 22 years was an opportunity for Formula One to expand its offering in the States to new frontiers, and Vegas, which had been a non-starter in 1980, was confirmed as a second west coast race to close the 1981 season.

The Vegas of the early 1980s was far from the self-styled Entertainment Capital of the World we know it as today though. Stuck somewhere between the 50s glamour of the Rat Pack era and the mega-casino reinvention of the 90s, Las Vegas was a mostly tired collection of faded glories and crumbling facades. Caesars Palace was the largest and most prominent casino hotel on The Strip, and had infamously played host to failed motorcycle stunts by Evil Knievel and Gary Wells. In spite of this dubious motorsport heritage the resort happily stumped up the race fee, and the vast desert of concrete and sand that made up the Caesars Palace car park was transformed into a Grand Prix circuit.

Vegas may be known for its glitz and glamour... but a repetitive layout in a car park didn't represent it in the sligtest

Constrained by the tight confines of the Caesars Palace perimeter, the circuit was a bizarre-looking sequence of three repeating 'fingers', a short, flat point and squirt 2.2 mile anti-clockwise sequence of 14 turns winding around a crooked 'M' shape.

Although the track surface was relatively smooth, the circuit's anti-clockwise configuration caused significant problems for the drivers - leading to a common complaint of 'Las Vegas neck'. Combined with the dry desert heat, the Caesars Palace circuit became an ultimate endurance test for a generation of drivers whose notions of diet and fitness were far removed from the standards taken for granted today.

John Watson memorably described the circuit as "a racetrack made up of canyons of concrete", and the high average speed of over 100 mph failed to alleviate the boredom for drivers as the course repeatedly doubled back on itself to make the best use of the available space. 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.


Of course, the notion of a 'parking lot' F1 race was striking in its vision if not its execution, but its cause wasn't helped by having a lofty reputation to uphold. Watkins Glen may have deservedly lost its place on the schedule for the aforementioned reasons, but even the criticisms were intertwined with a heritage that has arguably been missing from any American F1 race since.

For renowned F1 journalist Dan Knutson, the inaugural Caesars Palace Grand Prix hadn't established its significance in a city used to seeing high-profile events hosting more popular curios, from boxing bouts to death-defying stunts. Indeed, while Watkins Glen was the American home for motorsport, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix was for many an oddity they had stumbled across.

"There really was not much buzz because it was just another 'event' in a town that has many events," he said. "The 1981 race certainly wasn't a sell-out as I was able to buy a grandstand ticket just by walking up to a ticket booth.

Indeed, whilst the inaugural event had the fillip of being the final round of the 1981 season - a three-way title showdown between Carlos Reutemann, Nelson Piquet and Jacques Laffite at that -, Dan admits it was a 'thrilling' premise lost on many in the stands.

"As with all F1 races in the U.S. there were hardcore, very knowledgeable fans in the grandstands. But there were also people sitting in the stands with me who had no idea what F1 was about, and just happened to happen on the event.

"Those hardcore fans knew about the championship fight between Nelson Piquet and Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite, and therefore were able to keep track of what was happening with the points because, as I recall, the PA system worked quite well in the grandstand.

"It was, of course, a very silly track in a parking lot, but as I had only been to a couple F1 races in the previous 10 years I was happy just to see and hear F1 cars going by."

The race itself was won by Alan Jones, with Brabham's Piquet defying exhaustion in the closing stages to clinch the crown with a run to fifth place, while Reutemann - who had started from pole - saw his hopes fade as he slid down the order to eighth and out of the points.

Despite the lukewarm response to the inaugural race, Las Vegas was again honoured with hosting duties for the 1982 finale, once more a title showdown between Keke Rosberg and John Watson, albeit with the former just needing a points' finish to ensure the title went his way.

Watching from the stands in 1981 to being a fully accredited journalist in 1982, Dan Knutson - today part of the exclusive '500 club' for journalists accredited for a mammoth 500 grands prix - returned to Las Vegas to watch from a 'marvellous' viewpoint in what he says was still a 'ridiculous' setting.

"In 1982 I had a full access media credential. In those days the media was allowed in pit lane for all practice and qualifying sessions, and you could stand on the inner pit wall during the race. I was absolutely thrilled to be in the pits, right next to the drivers, cars and team bosses like Colin Chapman. So again, while the setting was ridiculous I had a marvellous time.

"I remember going to a McLaren press conference, and seeing Niki Lauda and John Watson joking around. And getting to go into the building where the mechanics worked on the cars, and seeing the cars close up as they were taken apart."

Rosberg went on to take the title with ease, with Michele Alboreto doing more than just securing a race win for his Tyrrell team...

"A journalist friend of mine introduced me to some of the Tyrrell mechanics, and they told the story of how they and team owner Ken Tyrrell made a bundle on betting their driver Michele Alboreto would win the race. He was a long shot, so the odds were high, but he won."

Renault lead the way at the start of the second and final Caesars Palace Grand Prix

Rosberg's coronation was to prove the final act at Caesars Palace. The 1982 season had seen three street races in the US, at Long Beach, Detroit and Vegas, and many within the sport felt that this was a saturation point - especially given the fact that none of these races had proven as well attended or as popular as Watkins Glen. After hosting two title deciders that were enthralling in spite of the setting rather than because of it, the race was pulled ahead of the 1983 season.

F1 withdrew from Vegas almost as quickly as it had arrived, but the Caesars Palace circuit lived on as an Indycar destination for 1983 and 1984. Tweaking the layout to circumvent the infield loops, the track was reborn as a flat, narrow 1.125 mile angular oval. The Indycar race lasted no longer than the Grand Prix though, and after two years the Caesars Palace circuit was closed for good to make way for more profitable urban development.

Watching the footage of the Caesars Palace Grand Prix, it's startling how little visual iconography is on show, and how little of Las Vegas was utilised to create the circuit.

With Singapore having demonstrated in the past few years what is possible to achieve by setting up a Grand Prix circuit to showcase a spectacular urban backdrop, perhaps the time is ripe for Formula One to again look to Sin City. A circuit based along The Strip, taking in the entire city rather than one casino back lot, could prove both striking and spectacular.

The history of Formula One in Las Vegas is all too short and not particularly sweet - but both entities have come a long way since the early 1980s, especially from a commercial perspective. They say the house always wins in Vegas, but who would bet against Bernie Ecclestone finding a way to turn the odds in his favour...

Will SaundersAdditional reporting by Ollie Barstow and Dan Knutson