The Tumultous History of the U.S. F1 Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel was awesome in Austin
© Vladimir Rys

A look back at the U.S. Grand Prix and some of its vintage years.

The U.S. still has a second race on the provisional calendar for 2014. Confusingly it’s called the Grand Prix of America, to differentiate it from the U.S. Grand Prix. There’s nothing new in this – F1 in the U.S. has had many names over the last seven decades. Here’s just a few:

The Indy 500 1950-1960
Johnnie Parsons, Lee Wallard, Troy Ruttman, Bill Vukovich, Bob Sweikert, Pat Flaherty, Sam Hanks, Jimmy Bryan, Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann. Not names feted in F1 history, but nevertheless all official race winners. Between 1950-60, the Indianapolis 500 was a round of the Championship, albeit one regular drivers did not attend. Was it a U.S. Grand Prix? No. It’s always referred to as the Indy 500.

James Hunt, Watkins Glen 1977
Niki Lauda may have picked up his second World Championship at Watkins Glen in 1977, but it was James Hunt who won the race for McLaren in filthy conditions. Hunt should have won the race easily, but he took it too easy in the closing laps, allowing Mario Andretti to close up. A crowd of over 100,000 urged Andretti on but Hunt turned up the wick and held him off.

Was it a U.S. Grand Prix? Maybe. Watkins Glen had hosted the U.S. Grand Prix but by 1977 it was frequently referred to as the U.S. Grand Prix East to differentiate it from a second race in the States.

Barrichello in no mood for charity
Barrichello in no mood for charity© GILLES LEVENT/DPPI

John Watson, Long Beach 1983
Sebastian Vettel and his charge from a pitlane start to a podium at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is pretty impressive but it’s shaded by John Watson starting 21st in Long Beach and winning. McLaren had a miserable time on their Michelin qualifying rubber but were mighty in race trim. They had a little help from the front-runners who had an eclectic array of collisions, spins and mechanical trouble. Was this a U.S. Grand Prix? No. It was the U.S. Grand Prix West

Melting Asphalt, Dallas 1984
In 1984, F1 went to Dallas with maximum hulabaloo and minimum preparation. Austin in November is pretty chilly, Dallas in July definitely is not: 66°C track temp. The street circuit disintegrated, rumours of a cancellation were rife but the race was bought forward to a (cooler) 11 a.m. Jacques Laffite turned up for 7:45 morning practice in his pajamas, Larry Hagman waved off the parade lap, Keke Rosberg won and Nigel Mansell collapsed in the heat, attempting to push his Lotus over the line. Was this a U.S. Grand Prix? No. It was the Dallas Grand Prix and followed a race in Detroit referred to either as the U.S. Grand Prix, the U.S. Grand Prix East or simply the Detroit Grand Prix.

Senna and Alesi engaged in a proper scrap
Senna and Alesi engaged in a proper scrap© GILLES LEVENT/DPPI

Alesi vs. Senna, Phoenix 1990
Rain led to a mixed grid in Phoenix. Jean Alesi’s Tyrrell started fourth, but took the lead at the start. Ayrton Senna caught him but Alesi didn’t yield without a proper scrap. Phoenix was his first podium and announced his arrival as a major force in F1. Was this a U.S. Grand Prix? Yes.

Rubens Barrichello, Indianapolis 2002
Just 0.011 separated Rubens and Michael Schumacher in Indy but it was a fake: Schumacher either trying to construct a dead-heat or gift the win to repay his debts from Austria. “Michael suddenly backed off,” recalls Rubens. “I didn’t want a win I haven’t earned, so I backed off… then he backed off again. We might still be there now, I didn’t have much choice so I pushed, and he pushed at the same time. We honestly haven’t talked about it since.” But was this a U.S. Grand Prix? The answer is yes it was.

To watch the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, live, tune into NBC. The race starts this Sunday at 1 p.m. Central.

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