LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Formula 1 made its mark in Las Vegas in the early 1980s when it ran races in 1981 and 1982. The Grand Prix Circus raced around the old parking lot at Caesars Palace.
F1 and Las Vegas are both very different now but laid a foundation for this week’s spectacle.
It was 1976 and the question at Caesars Palace was could Las Vegas host Formula 1?
“I said sure, why not?”
With that, Bill Weinberger and the resort raced into the unknown.
“It was chaotic. It was hectic. It was difficult. We didn’t know what we were doing,” Weinberger, the former Caesars Palace marketing director, said.
He was in charge of marketing at Caesars Palace. In the late 70s and early 80s, the resort was known for hosting all the big events.
“Nobody had the guts to compete with us,” he said.
F1 seemed like a natural fit.
“Hoped it would work out financially, promotionally for the casino. Most of the time, it did but it didn’t for the F1 race.”
Weinberger said it took five years to navigate the politics of Grand Prix racing and convince the sport to come to Las Vegas. It wasn’t easy.
“Pushback from the entire racing community. No one wanted Caesars Palace involved in racing,” according to Weinberger. “We had the logistics of building a race track, which we wanted to put on the Strip and run around the hotel. We were turned down flatly.”
However, at a meeting with former F1 leader Bernie Eccelstone in 1980, the two created the Caesars Palace Grand Prix.
“We drew on the back of a place mat, the track,” Weinberger said.
The circuit weaved inside Caesars’ old parking lot and vacant land where the Forum Shops, the Mirage, and Treasure Island now sit. Today’s race paddock is a multi-million dollar complex. In 1981, it was just a tent.
“We were prehistoric. The Stone Age. They are super, ultra-sophisticated.”
While most of Las Vegas was indifferent to the 1981 race, Randy Cannon couldn’t wait.
“My Formula 1 ticket was $50,” he remembers.
Decades later, he would write a definitive history of what it took to get the Caesars Palace Grand Prix on track.
“As a contrast to what’s going on now, the resort corridor did not support the race,” he said.
Still, on Oct. 17, 1981, the green flag dropped.
Weinberger said “chaos” best describes his memories of the event.
The race itself should’ve been dramatic. It was the conclusion of a season-long title race. Instead, championship leader Carlos Reutemann faltered and Nelson Piquet swept in to take the crown. Alan Jones led from start to finish.
Formula 1 came back to Las Vegas in 1982 and then vanished.
“The bar wasn’t set too high. With the kind of gamblers we had at Caesars Palace, if we got a dozen big, new gamblers, they’d have paid for the whole event. It just didn’t happen,” Weinberger said.
The unloved Caesars Palace track disappeared.
“The worldwide publicity that we got, both good and bad, was unparalleled,” Weinberger said.
“For the longest time, it was a footnote in history. But it is the foundation of Formula 1 returning four decades on,” Cannon said.
Weinberger is fond of his brush with racing and looks forward to seeing Formula 1 do another lap on the Strip.
“Eight months of contract trial and effort and phone calls and meetings and I’ve never been so busy in my life,” Weinberger said. “I loved every minute of it.”