las vegas grand prix

‘It was out of control’: How Las Vegas’s F1 gamble in the 1980s came hurtling off the tracks

Ahead of F1’s return to Sin City, Kieran Jackson looks back at two bizarre years of racing round the Caesar Palace parking lot — and Nelson Piquet throwing up in his helmet

Thursday 16 November 2023 16:48 GMT
<p>The Caesars Palace Grand Prix took place in the Las Vegas hotel’s parking lot in 1981 and 1982 </p>

The Caesars Palace Grand Prix took place in the Las Vegas hotel’s parking lot in 1981 and 1982

Las Vegas has always been a playground for grown-ups.” John Watson recalls the stateside years like they were yesterday. A Formula One driver for 11 years in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Northern Irishman speaks with great fondness when it comes to racing in North America. Watkins Glen in upstate New York was the highlight – “there were people riding around on trail bikes, high as a f****** kite” – as well as a brief stint at Long Beach in California.

But the 1981 and 1982 season finales in the Caesars Palace hotel parking lot, under the glaring Nevada sun on a tight, twisty track? Not so much. Bernie Ecclestone’s grand plan to expand F1 in the United States, as well as Las Vegas’ eagerness to expand its entertainment portfolio beyond gambling and boxing, saw the infamous Caesars Palace Grand Prix concocted. It was, in Casino City parlance, a big gamble.

The expectation was that it would bring in the big-hitters; the “high-rollers”, keen to splash the cash amid the ever-growing glitz and glamour that Ecclestone and his savvy bunch of team owners had brought to the sport. Yet, the reality was something quite different: a damp squib.

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