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The View From Over Here - Formula One in the U.S.A.

FEATURE BY JIM CASEY
06/11/2012

With Formula One set to make its return to the U.S.A. for the first time in 5 years, it's time to review Formula One's varied history in my country.

The first race in the U. S. was in 1959, at Sebring, and was supposed to be held early in the season, the day after the 12 Hour Endurance Race, with a huge crowd already on hand. Agreements could not be reached in time, and the race was not held until December, with the championship still in doubt.

Bruce McLaren got his first win in a Cooper, which made him the youngest winner of a Grand Prix race at the time, but the real drama came with Jack Brabham having to push his car across the line to claim his first World Championship. The race was not well-promoted or well-attended, so in 1960 the event was moved west to Riverside Raceway, which had been built just a few years earlier.

Stirling Moss drove brilliantly and won in a privateer Lotus, but again the event was not well-promoted and attendance once again was poor, so Formula One's future in the US looked shaky at best.

Attempts to stage a race at Daytona Speedway failed, but a race was scheduled for the fall of 1961 at Watkins Glen, the lovely track in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

Despite Ferrari's refusal to send their cars over, having already won the Drivers' and Constructors' Championships, and thus denying US fans the opportunity to see freshly-crowned US World Champion Phil Hill, and his American teammate Richie Ginther, race, a large and enthusiastic crowd attended, and the drivers and teams expressed positive feelings about both the track and the local organization.

The U. S. Grand Prix would remain at Watkins Glen until 1980, and was always popular with fans and drivers alike, and was chosen best-organized race of the year three times. It often helped determine the World Champion, coming as it did late in the season. Championships were clinched there by Brabham in 1966, Lotus in 1970 and 1973, and Niki Lauda and Ferrari in 1977.

In 1971 the track was lengthened to its current 3.37 mile layout, making it a truly world class circuit, fast and challenging. Fans who camped there were famous for their rowdiness, developing a tradition of burning a car in "The Bog" annually. The Glen had its share of tragedies as well, most notably the death of Francois Cevert in 1973.

I attended the last race there in 1980, and had a wonderful time. The weather was crisp and pleasant in the early fall, with the race date being October 5. During Fridays afternoon practice, I stationed myself at the top of the Esses, with an excellent view not only of the cars as they came up the hill, but also of Seneca Lake off in the distance.

During the session I witnessed one of the most remarkable feats of driving and car control I've ever seen. Didier Pironi spun his Ligier coming up the hill, and the car went around a full 360 degrees, then started its second spin. Pironi cocked his head to look over his shoulder, and as the car was about to finish its second spin, he dumped the clutch, grabbed a gear, and off he went as if it were nothing unusual.

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