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Look back: The first F1 race in Las Vegas

It was 1981. Ronald Reagan was president. The space shuttle Columbia took flight for the first time. Inflation was high. And Las Vegas saw its first Formula One race.

In October, the city welcomed the Caesars Palace Grand Prix. Instead of cars racing down the Strip, they raced on a 2.2-mile, 14-turn course through the resort’s parking lot.

“Las Vegas thought it had seen it all. It hadn’t, however, ever thought an industrious group of hotelmen would bring the premier motor sports event to Southern Nevada,” Review-Journal reporter Mike Henle wrote in 1981.

The Oct. 17 grand prix was televised in 31 countries (including the United States) and attracted 83 million viewers, according to a 1982 R-J report.

“The Caesars Palace Grand Prix is proof that nothing is impossible in Las Vegas,” Henle wrote. “Don’t ever count out an event in a town which has built its reputation around taking chances.”

But, much like the upcoming Las Vegas Grand Prix, businessmen didn’t know how the race would impact the area — especially when construction on the course began three months before the event.

Caesars Palace executive Bill Weinberger told the R-J before the event that he didn’t think the three-month window between the event’s announcement and commencement was enough time for international tourists to plan a trip to Sin City.

“The people who are really comfortable (those who have the money and time to travel) with traveling will be here,” Bill Weinberger told the R-J. “But I don’t know about the others.”

The Las Vegas Convention Center and Visitors Authority said the four-day event gave the Las Vegas economy a $47,791,200 boost — higher than projected.

About 94,450 people came to the area for those three days, with 38,000 people attending the Grand Prix. Guests filled up hotels and motels with a 98.6 percent occupancy rate for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the race, according to the LVCVA.

Australian Alan Jones took first place. Racers complained of hangovers and high concrete walls that caused blind spots on the track, but were overall satisfied with the event, the R-J reported.

Caesars Palace held three additional grand prix races, with the final event held in 1984. The event wasn’t renewed after Caesars Palace decided to build a new entrance and sportsbook, which would have impacted a stretch of the racing course.

“The course could have been re-done, but neither side wanted to spend the money,” Jan Schaeffer, publicity director for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), told the R-J in a 1984 interview.

Contact Taylor Lane at Tlane@reviewjournal.com.

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