With Formula One’s announcement that Las Vegas will be joining the F1 calendar in 2023 came the realization that there will, for the first time since 1982, be three rounds of the sport that take place in America. And while naysayers have argued that this race trifecta will fail just like it did in 1982, I’d argue that this is the perfect time for three events in the U.S.
Let’s take a trip back in time. In 1982, F1 competed at Long Beach in April, Detroit in June, and Las Vegas as the September season finale. It was a tumultuous time for the sport in America, with F1 understanding there was a potential to be tapped in the U.S. but with no idea how to achieve it. Instead of forming a long-term success plan, though, the series slapped together a series of ill-planned street circuits that were anything but a hit.
(The politics of the sport’s evolution in America are fascinating, and I really teased it apart in an as-yet-unannounced but soon-to-be-released edition of The RACEWKND that you’ll be able to nab if you’re a subscriber to the publication.)
In 2023, too, we’ll see two street circuits — Miami and Las Vegas — paired with Austin, TX’s purpose-built road course, Circuit of the Americas. That whole strategy hasn’t been popular with many of the sport’s longtime European fans, many of whom are asking the big question: If three F1 races failed in America before, why won’t that happen again?
Let’s start with the history. The biggest problem F1 ran into in America when helmed by Bernie Ecclestone was the fact that he — and anyone else in his advisory board — simply had no idea how to mobilize the American audience, and it seemed like there was very little effort poured into F1's attempts to latch on. It was like a marketing board said, “America is an untapped market,” and F1 responded, “Alright, let’s throw a race together and see what happens.”
I mean, that’s the vibe you get from a series that decided it would be a great idea to host street races in notoriously hot cities like Dallas, TX and Phoenix, AZ in the middle of summer, or who decided to rush a race together in Las Vegas so rapidly that there was no time to secure access to anything but a parking lot. It was something of a “build it and they shall come” mentality... except no one came, because there was no established American base that wanted to come.
Now, America is one of the fastest-growing F1 fanbases in the world thanks in large part to the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, accessible races on ESPN, and a compelling 2021 championship battle. It’s no stretch to say that there are more F1 fans in America than ever before, and many of them are eager to get to the race track — as COTA’s record crowd in 2021 showed.
But perhaps the biggest difference between 2023 and 1982 is the fact that F1 has also leveraged its exclusivity and desirability to appeal to different subsets of the F1 audience that exist within America. We obviously don’t have ticket prices available for Las Vegas yet, but between Miami and COTA, we have two distinct events catering to two distinct audiences:
- COTA tickets are cheaper, and the traditional road course is of a great appeal to a large set of fans from tons of different socioeconomic backgrounds who want to sit in the grass and watch some racing; it’s also still a great “fuck it, let’s see what this F1 stuff is all about” event for locals or anyone who might want to just pop in for a day
- Miami tickets are expensive, but everything about Miami has indicated that this is going to be an experience for those that attend. It’s like America’s Monaco — that one race you aspire to attend but that the average fan will have to strive for. It’s also going to be a great promotional playground thanks to celebrity and influencer presence.
I could easily see Vegas slotting in anywhere on the “average Joe to celebrity attendee” spectrum — but we’re not going to know until tickets go on sale.
But the fact of the matter is, there are enough high rollers out there who will splurge on an expensive ticket at a destination race in America. Miami sold out within hours of preorders opening, and Las Vegas will do the same — and that’s because both races are located in destinations that people will want to visit anyway. It’s a lot easier to convince someone to come to Vegas for a night event than it ever was to convince people to visit Phoenix in the blazing midday heat of summer.