Patrick Tambay leads Rene Arnoux, Start, Long Beach, 1983

Why F1’s lost foothold in America was Ecclestone’s “biggest mistake”

F1 history

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A new book detailing the history of the Long Beach Grand Prix reveals why former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone believed losing the race was his “biggest mistake”.

The first world championship race on the California street circuit was held in 1976. F1 held eight races there are at a time when Ecclestone, in his capacity as head of the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association, was striving to popularise the sport in the USA.

However race promoter Chris Pook grew concerned over the steady rise in Ecclestone’s race fees. At a meeting between the two in New York late in 1982, Pook told Ecclestone to reduce his price or they would replace the F1 event with a CART IndyCar race. Ecclestone refused, and Pook agreed terms with CART to take over the race from 1984.

In “Chris Pook and the History of the Long Beach Grand Prix”, a new book written by American motor sport author and journalist Gordon Kirby, Pook reveals how Ecclestone made a last-ditch attempt to extend F1’s stay at Long Beach on the eve of its final race at the track. Ecclestone offered to cut Long Beach’s fee from $2.1 million per year to $1.5 million.

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Ecclestone ‘told Pook to break his deal with CART’
“I said ‘Bernard, I can’t do it. I’ve signed a contract with CART. It’s done.'” Pook recalls in the book. “He said, ‘You can’t do that. Break the contract.’

“I said I wasn’t going to break the contract. I said [CART CEO John] Frasco would sue us big-time. Again he said ‘I don’t want to leave here.’ I said he should have said that when we met in New York.”

The final F1 race at Long Beach was a thriller. John Watson won for McLaren from 22nd on the grid, which remains the lowest starting position anyone has won an F1 race from. Pook recalls many team bosses telling him they were disappointed to be leaving his track.

After F1 left, the Sunday ticket sales for the Long Beach Grand Prix fell significantly to 48,000 in 1984. But those who did attend saw American Mario Andretti, winner of the 1977 Long Beach race in an F1 car, triumph in an IndyCar.

Bobby Rahal, CART IndyCar, Long Beach, 1986
IndyCar replaced F1 at Long Beach in the eighties
Another F1 champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, made his IndyCar debut in an eye-catching pink machine on the same weekend. As CART grew, within two years race-day ticket sales had recovered to 85,000.

Meanwhile F1 struggled to raise its profile in the USA. A venture to Dallas, Texas in 1984 proved a one-off. The Detroit Grand Prix, which started in 1982, was also lost to CART six years later. F1 raced on the streets of Phoenix from 1989 to 1991, after which it did not return to America for almost a decade.

Its lost race at Long Beach became one of IndyCar’s most successful events outside of the Indianapolis 500. According to Pook, “Bernie said a number of times that losing Long Beach was his biggest mistake.”

“Chris Pook and the History of the Long Beach Grand Prix” is published by Racemaker Press. Look out for a full review soon on RaceFans.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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15 comments on “Why F1’s lost foothold in America was Ecclestone’s “biggest mistake””

  1. I wonder whether Ecclestone learned somehting about not always appearing too hard-nosed in negotiations from this – appearances would suggest not, but I of course only see what happened behind the scenes from insight that I get from good F1 journalists like Dieter.

  2. Derek Edwards
    30th April 2020, 8:55

    I think Wattie’s win at Long Beach in ’83 is still the record for the win from the lowest grid position – 22nd.

    1. Should be, a very impressive race for mclaren, both him and lauda made up the whole grid basically.

  3. brin back long beach in f1

  4. Chris Pook seems to be one of the few people in motorsport to have ever truly called Bernie’s bluff. Also, does that mean Mario Andretti is the only man to have won at Long Beach both in F1 and IndyCar ??

    1. Yep. Interestingly, all eight F1 Long Beach Grands Prix were won by different drivers. There were no repeat pole-winners either.

  5. Wheres the pic of Jonesy?

  6. the Williams

    1. …clearly I’m blind as a bat !

  7. While until 2000s almost every Grand Prix took place in a country with rich motorsport heritage I feel the decision to leave Long Beach was the beginning of the era where money started to dictate the calendar. And that has stayed until this day and getting more and more notable during the last decade as German Grand Prix has been on and off the calendar while Abu Dhabi has got mostly the privilege of season finale.

    1. @bleu there have been times when races basically bought their way onto the calendar before that though, such as the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix – that was an early example of a head of state ordering his government to pay for a race to promote his country on the international stage.

      There have certainly been quite a lot of instances where calendars would change fairly frequently in early years as arguments over prize money saw races being kicked off the calendar – for example, the 1957 season saw the Belgian, Spanish and Dutch Grand Prix all being thrown out because they cut their prize money.

      Even in the pre-Bernie days, the sport could be pretty quick to cut races if the prize money wasn’t good enough – a “rich motorsport heritage” could only carry you so far if it wasn’t backed up with riches of a different kind.

  8. I was there in 1981-my first GP race attending-and the crowds on race day were enormous-just unbelievable. It was a real scene.
    “The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach”. Canon cameras had towers above the track with lenses you could hook up to. Wonderful event. Sorry to see F1 go from there.

  9. That was a memorable day, we were at the end of Shoreline near the breaking point, I went with a with a lady who’s dad was Mr Moet/Hennessy… a good time was had by all after the race at what I think was called The Moet Club…

  10. Doh ..delete “a with” ….

  11. Losing one venue? Maybe from the point of view that values extracting the maximum from the golden goose.
    The generalised vampiring of the sport for mine.

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