GLOBETROTTER

The wonders of the world

There was no hanging about for the Formula 1 circus after the Japanese Grand Prix. It has been a short but highly concentrated season of races, crammed into seven months. If you sit down and work it out there have been 16 races in 31 weeks and when you take into account the travelling involved and the time spent away from home you suddenly begin to feel quite tired.

The adrenaline junkies in F1 never stop, of course, and so they were off back to Europe to build cars for next year. The more sensible folk headed off for holidays. When the season used to end in Australia everyone was able to stick around in the Spring sunshine "Down Under" but ending the year in autumnal Japan was a different feeling entirely. A lot of F1 people - no doubt feeling nostalgic - went back the fancy resorts of Queensland's Gold Coast. Others tripped off to newer, lesser-known, resorts in Asia. The screaming liberals - of which there are only a handful in F1 - went back-packing in Vietnam. The aim was to leave F1 behind for a few days and have some rest and relaxation.

I went to California, where Formula 1 simply does not exist and you can forget all about the sport. It is hard to explain just how unimportant Grand Prix racing now is in the United States. Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill could indulge in a public punch-up here and no-one would even notice. A newspaper report would read: "Two tourists refought World War II Tuesday on Hollywood Boulevard. Michael Schumacher (27) from Hurth-Hermuhlheim, Germany and Damon Hill (36) from Hampstead, England, who both gave their profession as race car driver, were arrested by officers after a disturbance. Both refused to comment about their dispute and were released without charges."

Funnily enough, earlier this year when Schumacher wanted a break from the pressures of F1 he flew down from Montreal to Las Vegas and, I have no doubt, had a very peaceful time. After a few days in San Francisco we decided to take off to see the Grand Canyon, by way of Las Vegas.

Going to Las Vegas had its disadvantages, of course, because as I wandered about I could not help but wonder if it was a good idea to hold a race on the streets of the world's gambling capital.

Regular readers will know that there is a proposal for the United States Grand Prix to be held in Las Vegas in October 1998. The circuit would be laid out on the world-renowned stretch of road called "The Strip", where the famous Las Vegas casinos stand side by side.

Formula 1 visited Las Vegas in 1980-81-82 to race in a car-parking lot behind the Caesar's Palace hotel/casino. It was not a popular event at the time and the F1 world - a much smaller show in those days - was miffed that no-one cared and no-one came.

But the idea was a good one. Las Vegas wanted to spread the word that it was the "the entertainment capital of the world" and Grand Prix racing would beam that message out to the world so that people would come visiting and leave their money behind with the casino owners.

Since those days both Las Vegas and Grand Prix racing have boomed, but they have done so separately. The city is currently in the middle of an extraordinary period of building, with the aim of attracting more people and therefore more money. Quite why they need more money is another matter. There are currently 30 million a year to Las Vegas and, on average, each spends $500 on gambling, $200 on accommodation, $100 on food and another $100 on shopping and going to see the spectacular shows put on by the casinos. This means that around $27 billion is left behind by the visitors each year. In addition the locals - and there are a million people in and around Las Vegas - seem to give most of their money to the casino owners as well.

Like all good businessmen the casino owners are looking at ways to increase these revenues. With nearly 100,000 hotel rooms in the city and an occupancy rate of 92% - an astounding figure - they need to build bigger and better facilities. And that is exactly what they are doing. The aim is to create hotels and casinos which are not just big but are attractions in their own right. The recently-opened Stratosphere Tower is the tallest structure west of the Mississippi and features two very startling attractions. A roller-coaster in the open air 75 storeys above the ground and something terrifying called The Big Shot Ride on the top which catapults one vertically up a tower into the sky and then lets you free-fall backwards. Stefan Johansson was an early visitor to this device and says that he screamed so much from fear that he was hoarse.

Money is not an issue. Steve Wynn's Mirage Corporation is spending $1.3 billion to build a new 3000-room hotel/casino called Bellagio, which will be a recreation of the Italian village of that name. This involves the creation of a 20-acre lake around the hotel. It is due to open in 1998.

Another $1.5 billion is being sunk into the creation of a new 6000-room Sands casino/hotel. Hilton Hotels is planning to spend a vast sum building a 3000-room casino/hotel called Paris, which will have a 50 storey replica of the Eifel Tower.

By the end of this year Circus Circus Enterprises will have created 6000 rooms on The Strip in just one year, the 3000-room Monte Carlo plus extensions to its Luxor and its flagship Circus Circus. The company is planning two additional casino resorts which will each have 4,000 rooms on the site of the current Hacienda casino. These will open in the second half of 1998.

All around town there is construction. The impressive 3000-room New York New York casino/hotel - which features a replica of the New York skyline - opens shortly; the Rio is adding 1000 suites this year and planning for 2000 more next year; the Orleans, the Palace Station and others.

And if a company cannot be bothered to build it can always buy out its rivals. In the last two years there have been a series of buyouts and mergers, notably a $1.7bn deal in which the Sheraton\ITT Corporation bought Caesars Palace and the $2bn sale of Bally's to Hilton.

People come to the desert in the hope of going home as millionaires and it happens occasionally. Bally's advertises that it pays out $2 million a day but even this is small potatoes when you consider that in August a man won over $11 million dollars on a slot machine at the new Monte Carlo...

In addition to building new and more exotic facilities, casino owners are trying to broaden their client base. At the moment 92% of the visitors come from America and Canada. Six percent come from Europe and a pathetic two percent from the rest of the world.

The idea to hold a Grand Prix on the streets of Las Vegas is designed to increase these figures around the world and, in an effort to ensure that casinos agree the plan being discussed is for anyone who takes a hotel room in Las Vegas to be given a free ticket to the race. This would guarantee a large crowd but would also bring in a lot of visitors from around the world.

Having walked around the city and seen the casinos, I am amazed that there is anyone opposed to the idea. It makes perfect sense. F1 cars - the epitome of European glamour and excitement - hurtling past these spectacular hotels would make for great "photo opportunities". The pictures of Las Vegas beamed around the world could only enhance its image. When you consider that all this is in the middle of a desert you have to accept that it is, perhaps, "the eighth wonder of the world" but the fact is that beneath the outrageous decor of the different themed hotels, they are all much the same. Vast gaming rooms where hopes and silver dollars are poured into endless rows of noisy, neon-splashed slot machines and swallowed up.

I went to Vegas with a system which virtually guaranteed that I would win at roulette but in the end I couldn't be bothered to play the tables. It would have taken too long. Slot machines are easier and more exciting. I won a little and wasted my winnings and then - in a flash of genius - I realized that there is only one sure-fire way of winning in Las Vegas. You buy shares in the casino companies...

We did finally get to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas was put firmly into perspective. As you drive the endless miles to get to the canyon you wonder if it is really worth all the effort and then you stand on the South Rim of the canyon and stare out - awe-struck - across what really is one of the wonders of the world. All around you people stand open-mouthed. You feel very small, very insignificant and are reminded that the games we play in life have no importance in the grand scheme of things - whatever that may be. The nitty-gritty problems of bank managers, mortgages, marriages, whatever, pale into insignificance. Grand Prix racing's quibbles between drivers and the politics of the sport become nothing.

You can forget the beaches of Queensland and the highways of Hanoi, the Grand Canyon is the perfect holiday destination to relax the mind.

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