Formula One's US power play sees them add Las Vegas to 2023 calendar

3 Apr

Las Vegas has been chosen by the US-based rights owners of Formula One, as the sport competes for fans and sponsors with the hugely-popular NASCAR racing series — and the sleeker, F1-like IndyCar series.

Liberty Media, the US owners of F1, used dramatic strobe lights along the well-known Las Vegas Strip of hotels and casinos to announce a November 2023 race in the desert metropolis that Americans know for its sinful promotional campaign: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

The Las Vegas race will be a Saturday night in November on a temporary 3.8-mile (6.12 km) street course that will feature the iconic Las Vegas Boulevard and will be the third US stop of F1's racing season in 2023.

Next year, US Formula 1 fans will be able to choose from races in Miami, thanks to a 10-year contract that starts this year in Austin, Texas, where the United States Grand Prix has long been the sole F1 race in the states; and, now, in Las Vegas, where F1 tried, and failed with races in the early 1980s that took place in the parking lot of the grand Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino.

Can F1 compete in the US?

In a word, yes, according to Simon Chadwick, who studies the geopolitical economy of sport at the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry in Paris. "What we've seen in the United States is a change in attitudes towards Formula 1. And that really is an outcome of the American ownership of Formula 1," Chadwick told DW.

Liberty Media bought the rights for Formula 1 in 2017 paying over $4 billion (€3.6 billiion), and showing every intention of working to grow the sport in the US. Its profit-making potential has been bolstered most recently by the streaming service, Netflix, whose documentary series Drive to Survive has been a huge hit in the US and around the world.

It didn't hurt interest in the series, or the sport, that last season's driver's championship came down to the controversial final lap of the final race when Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton for the win. "Certainly the environment is different than the 1980s," said Chadwick. "The US market is more receptive to F1. I think US consumers are more engaged."

Still, there are two home-grown heavyweight racing brands already thriving in the United States: NASCAR, the stock car series with tracks holding tens of thousands of loyal, blue-collar spectators mainly in the southern half of the country; and IndyCar's open-wheel racing made famous by the annual Indianapolis 500 race each May.

IndyCar is the American version of F1, but lags significantly behind NASCAR in TV viewership. "Clearly there is a big motorsport fraternity in the United States," said Chadwick. "What F1 offers, this kind of more stylized and glamorized version that Netflix is helping to present right now, it's likely to be more engaging. And it comes without the baggage, without the sociological baggage of NASCAR."

"Formula 1 is more global. It's more cosmopolitan," Chadwick says. "And so rather than cannibalizing other forms of motorsport within the United States, I just think that F1 targets a different demographic in different parts of the country, Las Vegas being one."

Three F1 races in the US?

Bobby Epstein, president of the F1 race's Circuit of the Americas in Austin, believes there's enough interest to sustain three US races. Sure, he could barely draw 100,000 spectators over a three-day weekend five years ago. F1's first race in Miami this May sold out in one day.

"Before we opened, there was very little interest or awareness in America about F1 because they had no presence here," Epstein said. "The first few years, it's hard to know if you have a bright new shiny object or you have something that people really love and come back for and aren't just curious about."

ESPN, the US sports network, said viewership for Sunday's race in Saudi Arabia broke the week-old record for the network and was ESPN's largest F1 audience since 1995.

But adding Las Vegas to the calendar is a bad idea, opines Road and Track writer Fred Smith, because it divides the hype once reserved for a single race in the US, to a second and, next year, a third race. "While a race in Las Vegas would leave the physical markets (Miami, Austin and Las Vegas) spread out enough that the races would still draw healthy local crowds, the appeal of flying into an event from other parts of the country diminishes every time a new event is added.''

Still, according to Greg Maffei, President and CEO of Liberty Media, "The momentum of Formula 1 has been demonstrated over the last several seasons and we've seen that potential turn into a reality as we watch our fan base really grow around the world, but especially here in the US.''

Author Kyle McKinnon     

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