Why I look forward to... the US Grand Prix
JUNE 26, 2006
BY MIKE DOODSON
Most of us who live in the first world now take international travel for granted. Millions can afford to fly regularly, and those who are involved in the business of F1 racing do so several times each month. We tend to forget what a miraculous process it is to be able to cross continents in speed and comfort, so I'm always astonished when colleagues whinge about the queues at check-in, etc. Personally, I regard jet travel as a privilege, and I whoop a little cry of triumph every time I step aboard.
The Grand Prix of the United States in 1970 was the first time I crossed the Atlantic, and I can still remember the excitement of going to America. When my parents had made the trip about six years earlier, they had gone by boat, and it had taken more than five days. The British Caledonian Boeing 707 which carried me took less than nine hours!
Our destination was Watkins Glen, where a magnificent welcome awaited. Since 1961 the remote circuit in upper New York State had been the permanent home of F1 in America, famous for the huge prize fund: the winner copped a cheque for an awesome $50,000. Furthermore, circuit boss Cameron Argetsinger harboured the splendidly bizarre notion that having enticed the teams with cash, his next priority was to coddle the members of the international press with the finest in hospitality. He firmly believed that any kind words published about his race would help to pack the grandstands in later years. Who were we to challenge such an enlightened attitude?
Accordingly, we were given the run of something that Argetsinger called the Paddock Club. No sponsors and their fat wives here, oh no, this was exclusively for the press. The comfortable sofas and round-the-clock availability of hot food and cold beer were a journalist's dream, although some of us found ourselves slightly befuddled when the time came to get the all-important words down on paper.
Alas, Watkins Glen was seriously deficient in terms of safety, as two grisly fatalities demonstrated in 1973 (Francois Cevert) and 1974 (Helmut Koinigg). It hung on as a GP venue until 1982 - the year when the USA was blessed with no fewer than three F1 championship races - and it still hosts major domestic events.
Today, Bernie Ecclestone claims that the US Grand Prix is nothing but hassle. He evidently had an entirely different view of going racing in America throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, when he still believed that there was a fortune to made in the land of the free. As a result, he sent the F1 circus traipsing around a variety of unsuitable (and sometimes unsympathetic) cities to attend races on poor quality street circuits.
The one important exception was Long Beach, a run-down coastal town south of Los Angeles which was looking to improve its image with the help of a British travel agent named Chris Pook. In 1976, when the first US Grand Prix West was staged there, the city was a mass of grotty rooming houses, tattoo parlours and porno movie houses. But the circuit itself was superb, with a real flow to it that so many of the other American stop-go street circuits lacked. Even better, the ethnically diverse population of southern California had a real appreciation of what F1 racing was all about. Not only were the crowds colourful, noisy and appreciative, but the circuit was eventually a hit. After Pook had almost lost his shirt, Long Beach sprouted office buildings, hotels and convention centres. Its Grand Prix gentrified the place and must have made millionaires of the local property barons.
The city of Detroit, which first staged its street-race GP in 1982, did its best to get the locals interested and involved, but they didn't have the same multi-national background that Long Beach enjoyed. And Detroit certainly didn't have anything like the enthusiastic couple whose naked tryst on a balcony was transmitted - unknown to them - into the press room by the local TV station during first practice for the 1977 Long Beach GP.
Perhaps it's best to gloss over not just that writhing twosome but also several of the other places F1 visited in the USA. Our sport was virtually ignored at Las Vegas in 1981 and 1982, when two infamous GPs were run in the car park of Caesars Palace hotel. On reflection, though, I realise that I made a serious mistake in not consulting a lawyer after the Las Vegas police clapped me in irons for trying to take photos during practice for the first year's event. As an embarrassed local police chief had to admit later, I was entirely within my rights: no doubt I could have tapped his department for a few thousand dollars for false arrest and the anxious couple of hours I spent in custody. As it was, FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre informed a hastily convened press conference that unless I was released immediately, the World Championship status of the race would be withdrawn forever. Result!
Subsequently, until the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stepped up in 2000, the World Championship had to do without America altogether for a few years. I went to the first three editions of the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, humbled by the history which oozes out of the place. The welcome from the locals, as always in America, was genuinely overwhelming. Unfortunately, the same delightful attitude is not always forthcoming from the mixed bag of humanity who have been recruited into the immigration service, issued with uniforms (and guns), then put on duty at the airports, all as part of America's war on terror. One of these characters, smothered in tattoos and cheap jewellery, interviewed me at some length at Charlotte International in June 2003. His attitude to this journalist was less than genial, so after more than 40 transatlantic trips in 34 years I resolved to leave the US Grand Prix off my schedule until people like him learn - or are taught - the sort of manners for which Americans used to be revered.
I shall therefore be viewing this weekend's race on TV. Nevertheless, I still look forward to the day when I can return to the US to cover its Grand Prix round. Although F1 did a pretty shoddy job of presenting itself at Indy 12 months ago, I believe that there is still more than enough interest there to support the race. The event must stay on the calendar, and I urge any race fan who hasn't yet visited the country to make the trip.