25 Years Ago, Phoenix Hosted Formula One's U.S. Grand Prix

Categories: History Lessons
senna-phoenix-gp.jpg
Stuart Seeger
Ayrton Senna in the 1991 U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix.


Twenty-five years ago today, Phoenix hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix.

Phoenix's F1 race didn't last long.

What could possibly go wrong with hosting a street circuit on the streets of downtown Phoenix in June? Did anyone think it might be a little warm that day?

Attendance was relatively low, and for a variety of reasons -- mostly mechanical failures -- only six drivers finished the race.

The late, great Ayrton Senna, then driving for McLaren-Honda, had won three races going in to the 1989 U.S. Grand Prix, and qualified first, ahead of teammate Alain Prost. (Senna and Prost won 10 of the 16 races that year.)

Senna's car failed during the race, and Prost easily won the race. Coincidentally, third place went to Eddie Cheever, the only American in the race, who was actually born in Phoenix.

The City of Phoenix had coughed up several million dollars to host this race, and it probably didn't get the return it was hoping for. The U.S. Grand Prix only returned to Phoenix twice more, in 1990 and 1991, both of which were won by Senna.

How bad was the attendance? Here's how Sports Illustrated put it:
It was outdrawn--handily--by bird races at the nearby Chandler Ostrich Festival.
F1 didn't return to the United States until 2000, when it was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The annual United States Grand Prix has been held in Austin, Texas, since 2012.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can watch the entire 1989 U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix below:



Unfortunately, if you'd like to take a lap around the original Phoenix street circuit for old time's sake, it's not exactly possible.

phx-grand-prix-1989.jpg
Will Pittenger
The course used in 1989 and 1990.
The series of left turns at the west end of the track would be blocked by an office building, across the street from the Phoenix Police Department. Also, turn two would require driving through the U.S. Airways Center property. (Ground wasn't broken on America West Arena until after the 1990 race, and the 1991 course was different from the original.)

However, if you drive around those two obstacles, you can re-live history, and drive around the course. In the most sacrilegious lap around an F1 track in modern history, I was able to complete a lap in 10 minutes and 59.36 seconds using a four-cylinder engine and CVT transmission, just shy of Senna's best qualifying time in the V10 Honda, at one minute and 30.10 seconds.

phx-grand-prix-1991.jpg
Will Pittenger
The track used in 1991.


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27 comments
Nedim Hadžić
Nedim Hadžić

As for june 4th 1989, promoters were lucky, Phoenix experienced bellow the average temperatures that weekend with peak at 97 Fahrenheit.

Bryan Stanley
Bryan Stanley

For those of you pissing and moaning about our streets, you really need to visit other states. And the City of Phx completely reconstructed all of the streets downtown that the race was going to be run on. During this reconstruction, they uncovered some of the old trolley tracks that had been buried years ago. The finished course surface was actually as good, or better than Long Beach or Montreal. The layout sucked for any spectator viewing other than televised. The Old Eloy GP was a lot more fun, and better viewing. But, Eloy was a completely different type of road race.

James Patrick Harris
James Patrick Harris

Yeah, I've seen the video before. Love it. Eau Rouge is the perfect corner to illustrate it too. Casual observers see F1 as just 'racin'; they've no idea the level of engineering prowess, ingenuity & black magic it takes to compete. Literally technological warfare by the greatest engineering/aerodynamicist/computational fluid dynamics minds on earth. It takes a towering effort to compete. The FIA has forced cost reductions, but at the peak just a few years ago, Ferrari & McLaren were spending 1/2 BILLION dollars each PER YEAR to race 2 cars each in the World Championship. By comparison, respective top tiers of American motorsport like indy car & nascar can field a competitive team for $20-$30 million per year.

NoFestRequired
NoFestRequired

Ha! Great story Matthew. I too drove the "track" at one time. I also had a photo/press pass and worked for Reuters as a stringer at the second race. There is no way possible to express the sound, smell and ground feel of F1, though I like this specific video as a comparison of GT racing to F1 racing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2cNqaPSHv0

Sean Kyte
Sean Kyte

How I wish it would come back

Lucia Perry
Lucia Perry

I have some info and movies from that event.

james8394
james8394

Engineers liked it because the heat allowed them to test motors like no where else on the circuit. There was also the place where the civic plaza had a walkway and the street, 3rd I think, maybe 5th, dipped down and up. It looked cool on TV.  

James Patrick Harris
James Patrick Harris

100% Senna's car. #1 + the yellow/Brasilian flag colors are unmistakable.

James Patrick Harris
James Patrick Harris

As for the race, seeing Senna & Prost so closely was incredible. Zero run off, so that put all of us spectators relatively close to the action. The track layout was absolutely terrible though. Oh well, at least we had it right in our front yard for a few years with some of the greatest drivers of all. Oh, and the 2 Jordan 191s from 1991 were the sexiest modern Grand Prix cars of all.

Steve Weiss
Steve Weiss

I guess I could talk y'all through how epic it was and why it technically worked, but didn't resonate, but first I'll read the article. I think that's Senna's car btw.

James Patrick Harris
James Patrick Harris

Sorry Petey Ptoi- if only I had a dollar for every person I know that's visited from out of state and has commented on Arizona's excellent roads. You guys clearly haven't traveled in California or Pennsylvania or on the East Coast. Now those roads SUCK. Ours are like glass in comparison.

James Patrick Harris
James Patrick Harris

I drive all over the valley every day for work and have been to all 50 states. My opinion stands. I seriously question your standards of 'horrible'. By the way, I drive a VW GTI riding on an H&R cup kit. I'm well versed w/ lowered cars & tight suspension. Perhaps you've gone for stance rather than performance w/ your suspension. If that's the case, /anywhere/ is going to suck because your car is the problem.

Greg Klein
Greg Klein

A group of us rented a suite in a hotel that was along the course. We had two windows that overlooked two streets and a hairpin turn, plus we had a couple of televisions to watch the coverage. It was the perfect way to watch the race, rather than being out in the 110 degree weather.

Gary DeWitt
Gary DeWitt

I agree with James, if you think our roads are bad you haven't been out of state much.

Cris Cross
Cris Cross

If this is what you consider sublime. Try driving it in a low profile car with tight suspension. Its like driving through the desert with no suspension at all. Especially anywhere that the asphalt meets concrete. They are like speed bumps. And just because other places are worse does not make it acceptable.

MaryAnn Holtz
MaryAnn Holtz

Didn't go to race. But we did go for practice and to check out the track. It was very cool! Too bad it wasn't in March

Steve Weiss
Steve Weiss

I photographed it the second year for Reuters News Agency! Watched it the first year from the free seats. It was incredible.

Cris Cross
Cris Cross

Ours street are too crappy anyway. They would get beat to death by potholes.

Lauren Fraijo
Lauren Fraijo

Adrian Nicholas Fraijo this is cool, did you know this?

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