Looking back at F1′s Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - When asked about the dangers of racing, 1978 Formula 1 champion Mario Andretti does not hesitate. “It’s inherent that racing can be a dangerous sport,” he says. “If you dwell on that you should stay home. Become a dentist or something.”
The Italian American was on the grid the first time Formula 1 came to Las Vegas. In 1981, The world’s premiere racing series put together a track in a parking lot along the Strip, cramming less than 2-point-3 miles worth of tight hairpin turns between Caesars Palace and Spring Mountain road. The Result was the Caesars Palace Grand Prix.
It was a race filled with challenges, not just for the drivers, but for the people working to make it a reality. Bill Weinberger was the unlikely man chosen to lead that charge.
It all began when his boss at Caesars World, parent company for Caesars Palace, watched the 1976 edition of the Monaco Grand Prix.
“He said, ‘what do you know about auto racing?’” Weinberger recalls. “I said, ‘nothing.’ He said, ‘what do you know about Formula 1?’ I said, ‘less.’ He said, ‘good, you’re the man.’”
The original goal was to build a course that ran onto the Strip, over to Flamingo, and then onto the I-15 onramp, which would be modified to run back onto Caesars Palace property. That meant working with the Clark County, state and federal governments.
“And they all gave me a resounding no. Unequivocal. You cannot do that. We think it’s a great idea. We want you to do the project. But we can’t help you in any way,” says Weinberger. “We had to build a track that was a much different track that the one we had imagined we would build.”
Today, the land between Caesars Palace and Spring Mountain Road is home to high rise hotels and high-end shops. But in 1981, it was an empty lot. And most importantly, it was all private land. Some of it was owned by Caesars, the rest by a different corporation. Weinberger reached a precarious deal to rent the acreage he needed. The contract was immediately cancellable, in the event the other corporation decided to sell that land.
From there, he sat down with then F1 CEO Bernie Eckelstone to cram in a track long enough to meet the category’s standards.
“Bernie and I sat down at a coffee shop at Caesars Palace and drew the map on the back of a placemat. And literally, I put my hand down and I drew the map around my left hand,” he said.
The result was track loaded with tight turns that put tremendous strain on racecars.
The first race was set for October 17, 1981. It was the final event on the Formula 1 calendar. Mario Andretti took part in that event, and every single Caesars Palace Grand Prix that would follow.
“It was very technical, but it was also very tough on the equipment,” he recalls, while describing a track that left little time to rest.
He estimates that a complete race would have involved 6,000 gear shifts, 2,000 more than anything on the modern Formula 1 schedule. He would know from experience, had he ever completed the race in an F1 car.
“Both years that I drove, whether it was with Alfa Romeo or Ferrari, I had a rear suspension failure just because I was getting so much chatter in the back when the wheels were spinning. And I just destroyed the wishbone in the rear suspension. And it put me out of the race,” he says.
In some ways, the race was a major success.
“It drew 38,000 people the first year, which, at the time, was the largest crowd ever to watch a sporting event in the state of Nevada,” says Weinberger.
And the atmosphere was classic Las Vegas. Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr. and Wayne Newton were all on the celebrity guest list, while actor Paul Newman served as chairman of the race.
The event was also where the F1 world champion was crowned each year, by racking up enough points to eliminate the competition. In 1981, it was Brazil’s Nelson Piquet taking the sport’s top prize. In 1982, it was Finland’s Keke Rosberg.
But in the end, the race failed in the one area Caesars Palace needed it to succeed.
“The whole event was put on to get 12 new high rollers,” says Weinberger. “They didn’t show up.”
He calls the race a financial failure, but not a disaster. The cost to run it was $7 million, just under $23.7 million in today’s dollars.
After 2 years with Formula One, Caesars Palace hosted the U.S. based Indycar series in 1983 and 1984 before scrapping the event for good.
“The fact that it was in a restricted area if you will. You could see it didn’t have much of a life,” says Andretti.
But the race’s legacy lived on for years.
“It was a great story. We’re running this world-class event, world championship event in a parking lot,” says Bill. “We literally filled a room at Caesars Palace with everything that was written and published all around the world.”
As for Mario Andretti, he would go on to win the 1983 Caesars Palace Grand Prix in an Indycar, and place second there in 1984 en route to a championship.
“It was a darn good reason to go to Vegas, I can tell you that,” he says of his time racing in the valley. “My wife loved it for sure.”
Copyright 2023 KVVU. All rights reserved.