Saturday Night Drive

It turned out to be a fairly great night on the Las Vegas Strip for the growing global cult that adores Formula 1 racing.   For only the third time in its storied history, a championship event was staged on American soil (well, blacktop) and it produced a storyline that was more than apropos for a city that monetizes dreams and fantasies as well as any on this planet.  Per the WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Joshua Robinson:

In the 48 hours leading up to Saturday night’s Las Vegas Grand Prix, Formula One’s $600 million project here had begun to look like it was skidding off the road.

The sport’s world champion left no doubt that he hated it from the moment he landed. A $10 million Ferrari was torn up by a loose drain cover on Thursday’s opening night. And a group representing 35,000 fans was so incensed by the organizers’ decision to send them home during a delay in practice that they filed a lawsuit against Formula One.

But like a Vegas magic act, this one pulled a rabbit out of a hat when it mattered most. The race itself not only went off without a hitch—it delivered the most exciting contest of the season. Even the snarky world champion, the Netherlands’ Max Verstappen, could find nothing to complain about. He won his 18th race of the season, ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez.

And as The Associated Press’ Jenna Fryer elaborated:

Verstappen passed Charles Leclerc at the start then overcame a penalty to pass Leclerc once more with 13 laps remaining to continue his season-long dominance. Verstappen, Leclerc and Sergio Perez were driven in a limousine to a stage located near the Bellagio — “we go straight to the nightclub,” Verstappen told his fellow podium finishers — but they were instead treated to the casino’s famed fountain show.

The Bellagio fountains had been turned off all week and restarted as part of the victory celebration.

And much like even the most prudish or reserved tourist that ever ventured into Sin City for a convention or a bachelorette party, Verstappen turned into a Chamber of Commerce representative by evening’s end:

Standing in front of the Bellagio fountains, Verstappen proclaimed the race a success, changing his tune from earlier in the week when he said that the whole event was “99% show and 1% sporting event.”

“It was a lot of fun out there,” he said. “I hope everyone enjoyed it—we definitely did. We’re already excited to come back next year.”

And by next year, Las Vegas will have cemented itself as even more of a global destination for sports fans.  Next month, it will host the championship game and semifinals of the NBA In-Season Tournament, with rampant rumors of Netflix or Amazon becoming the eventual sponsor and exclusive carrier that will funnel hundreds of millions of dollars and a global platform into the league’s ambitiously aggressive new media rights deal.  It will host Super Bowl 58 this coming February.  It may very well be the site as it was this past summer for both the Stanley Cup and WNBA finals with the Knights and Aces currently reigning as those respective leagues’ champions. And it will be finalizing plans for the move of the Oakland Athletics to the city, a long-anticipated announcement finally approved by major league baseball officials earlier this week.  Who knows, the team may have actually won a few dozen games in their lame-duck year in Oakland.  Though it’s unlikely any such wins will be seen even collectively by the number of fans, let alone the quality of the clientele and their spend, that Fryer reported witnessed the F1 spectacle:

The stars in attendance included Brad Pitt, Rihanna, Usain Bolt and Shaquille O’Neal as F1 said it drew more than 315,000 spectators over the weekend and estimated an economic impact of $1.2 billion to Las Vegas.

And as Robinson concluded, there was more than merely an impact on the sports world and the city that this race and the events prior and upcoming that was in evidence:

By choosing to rapidly expand its offering now, Vegas has also unwittingly found itself in a race with another desert oasis with a taste for fast cars, high-rollers, and luxury shopping: Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has spent the past few years and several billion dollars using international sports to remake its image in the world, co-opting soccer stars, motor racing, tennis, and boxing to diversify its economy.

The same week that F1 landed in Nevada, for instance, Saudi Arabia announced that next February’s heavyweight prize fight between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk to crown the undisputed champion of the world would take place in Riyadh. Not so long ago, that kind of bill would have been nearly unimaginable outside Vegas.

Vegas hit back with its own land grab. Formula One already has a deal in place to return here for up to nine more years, making it one of the longest engagements in the sport.

So not only is Vegas growing its array of options beyond buffets, blackjack and the Bunny Ranch, it’s actually serving as a most desirable weapon against the uncomfortable spectre of sportswashing that has already conquered soccer (as exemplified last year’s World Cup in Qatar, and this month’s announcement that Saudi Arabia will host the 2034 event), golf (LIV) and even a portion of the NBA’s Washington Wizards’ ownership.

But I would like to admonish the F1 executives and their consultants, many of whom have pedigrees from FOX and FOX Sports, that they might want to rethink the timing of this event going forward.  While the 10 PM PT start time was defendable because it mirrored the morning/afternoon windows that F1’s European and Asian fan bases have grown accustomed to, it avoided a head-to-head competition in 80% of the U.S. with Jason Momoa hosting a certain live variety show and on a Vegas Saturday night 10 PM is considered a window for the Early Bird special, a November evening with the temperature dropping below 50 degrees was inexcusable.  An event of this magnitude and spectacle deserves to be seen in the light of day regardless of time zone.  Monaco and Miami shouldn’t have the advantage in eye candy.

American F1 fans have awoken before dawn to see these events for years.  There’s an awful lot more of them now thanks to the likes of Netflix documentaries, Helio Castroneves’ dancing prowess and unbridled passionistas such as The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo evangelizing about it.   Let others around the world lose a little sleep for once.

Las Vegas is racing into prominence as a global destination for sports lovers.  You understand why I’m chomping at the bit to relocate?


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