Rolex/James Moy

YOU MAY may have heard about the Manhole Incident. About eight minutes into the first practice round at the inaugural Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix, around 8:38 PM local time, a loose manhole cover on the track became a piece of shrapnel as driver Carlos Sainz Jr.’s Ferrari zoomed over it. Sainz was unharmed, but his car suffered significant damage. And so did the start to what was supposed to be one of the grandest automotive sporting events in America in recent decades—a showcase for motor sports and global glamor. Practice was suspended for hours while officials assessed the safety of the track.

While waiting for the action on the track to resume, I explored the Paddock Club, a sprawling complex that houses all of the team garages as well as hospitality suites of various companies and teams. I browsed the gift shop, where they sold $90 baseball caps and wondered, “Who buys $90 baseball caps?” and then witnessed someone buy a $90 baseball cap. I later learned that top-tier tickets to the Paddock Club could go for as much as $40,000. With no action on the track, and no desire to play slots at the makeshift, on-site casino or to indulge in any more so-so sushi, I decided it was bedtime and headed back to my room at the Wynn. Practice resumed at 2:30 A.M. I was awoken by F1 cars zipping down Paradise onto the Strip like an unruly neighbor.

If this sounds like a letdown of a first night, it was. Even if you chalked up the Manhole Incident to bad luck—similar problems have happened before on other city tracks like Monaco’s—F1 in Vegas still had a lot going against it, even before the engines were started. Ticket prices plummeted in the days leading up the event, in part due to the fact that Red Bull driver Max Verstappen had already secured the championship, giving the week a bit of an anticlimactic air. (Or maybe there was just a lack of demand for obscenely priced tickets in the first place.)

An aerial image of cars practicing on the Strip at night.
Rolex/James Moy

Another factor that gave the weekend a negative vibe in advance: F1 seemingly did not invest enough effort into building goodwill with the Vegas locals. The discounts they offered residents were barely discounts, traffic was snarled for months in the lead-up, and foot-traffic to casinos went down. It was hard to find a cab driver or hotel employee that spoke highly of F1. The headlines read as though this was going to be some sort of automotive Fyre Festival.

And yet, if you were actually there for the full race weekend, it didn’t feel like a disaster at all. In fact, it was pretty fantastic. The energy around town and at the paddock picked up by Friday. Along with dozens of other fans, I hopped on the back of an eighteen wheeler for a tour of the track. With 17 corners, several bending around the gigantic, illuminated Sphere, this night course felt surreal, futuristic, as if you were driving in a video game. One of the lengthiest straights in F1 will also be one of its most iconic, the 1.2 miles along the Las Vegas strip where cars could easily reach mind-bending speeds of over 200 miles per hour.

The qualifying round on Friday happened at midnight. (The copious supplies of Red Bull and Espresso Martinis were readily available at all of the bars in the Paddock Club for good reason.) Once the actual driving started, so did the true fandom. I was a guest at the Rolex Suite at the Paddock Club, where several Rolex Testimonees (ambassadors to the brand) popped in and out. Olympian skier Lindsay Vonn explained to me her kinship for competition and speed with F1 drivers, and how she was proud to have been an F1 fan long before Netflix’s Drive to Survive series boosted the sport’s popularity in the U.S.

Outside of the Paddock Club.
Rolex/James Moy

Sir Jackie Stewart, one of the greatest racers to ever live, and a kind of de facto mayor of motor sports, gave us a tour of the paddock, explaining the massive logistics it takes for teams to transport all of their equipment and keep them immaculately clean and maintained. It’s remarkable to think that next week, all of this was going to be set up again halfway across the globe, in Abu Dhabi. Stewart thought the whole Vegas event was a bit too mega-sized and lacked intimacy. “But, you know, this is America,” he quipped.

We got a behind-the-scenes look into the broadcast center, a technological marvel, where all of the footage is beamed to England and produced remotely. F1 can’t be fully enjoyed without all of the cameras and elaborate production. But when you witness these drivers and cars up close— the noise, the fumes, the energy—the power and danger of the competition is visceral and palatable.

I walked the pit lane and got a tour of the Alpine garage along with Alex Honnold, another Rolex Testimonee, the climber who’s achievement in scaling El Capitan was captured in the film Free Solo. Watching the intensity of the pit crew up close is inspirational. Honald and I talked about how, even at the elite level of sports, there’s a vast difference mentally between the middle of the pack and the true greats like Lewis Hamilton, the great Mercedes driver. Honald, who lives in Las Vegas for its easy airport access and proximity to epic places to climb, did say he was disappointed by the lack of access to the race for the average local or tourist.

We took another tour of the track a few hours before the race started on Saturday. The official viewing areas were noticeably more filled. Some folks circumvented the controversial screens put up to obscure the view of the race for those that didn’t have a ticket. In one parking lot, I saw people sitting on the roofs of their SUVs. Some folks had set up camp on the balcony of Denny’s on the strip. Others had simply cut a hole in the mesh-like material to get a view. “That’s what I want to see! Sticking it to the man!” Honnold joked.

Racing down the Las Vegas strip.
Rolex/James Moy

Back at the Rolex Suite I got to chat with Jamie Chadwick, one of the few female drivers in the sport. We talked about what F1 means in America, especially now that it’s the country with the most F1 races. “I raced in Austin a few years ago, and that was the best race I’d ever driven as far as fan support,” she said. And as far as what she thought of Vegas? “In Miami it was cool to be situated around the Hard Rock stadium, but they effectively made a track from the car park. A night race in Vegas–there’s something pretty spectacular about it.”

While F1 has always been celebrity-filled, the wattage seemed to shine a bit brighter on Saturday evening thanks to the race’s proximity to L.A. You could see Shaq from a mile away. My Esquire colleague Daniel Dumas spotted A$AP Rocky with Rihanna and a plate of lobster–stars, they’re just like us! A few tables away from me, Patrick Dempsey—recently named People’s Sexiest Man Alive—was sitting with Top Gun 2 director Joseph Kosinsky and Jerry Bruckheimer. All heads turned when Brad Pitt arrived.

But what really saved the Las Vegas Grand Prix was the Las Vegas Grand Prix. The race was dramatic and action-packed—even if Verstappen triumphed in the end, as he always seems to do these days. We saw Hamilton climb from P10 to P4 before falling back. Lance Stroll climbed all the way from P19 to P5. Charles Leclerc sped into second place on the very last lap of the race. Verstappen was penalized five seconds for forcing another driver wide but overcame it. The course seemed prime for overtaking, with several roars from the grandstand during key moments, and from the rooftop of the Paddock, where the giant F1 Logo lit up the night.

According to F1, the event brought in 315,000 spectators over the weekend and estimated an economic impact of $1.2 billion to Las Vegas. Taking down the track could take another six weeks according to some reports, meaning F1 will have to do a lot more to keep the locals happy and not, as Hamilton noted, be a “circus that shows up that’s all glitz and glamor and people are affected negatively by it.” The contract for F1 in Vegas runs for another decade.

Cars exiting pit lane.
Rolex/James Moy

After visiting Vegas at least once a year for twenty consecutive years, I’ve learned that, if you don’t give in to the rhythms of the city, if you think you are somehow above the spectacle, and if you don’t also acknowledge that there’s a community here and it’s not just a tourist playground, you will have a miserable time. You have to go Full Vegas to enjoy Vegas.

At the end of the race night, even Verstappen, who’d been critical during every single media appearance since arriving in town, did a 180 on his hot takes and declared his love of the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world. “Viva Las Vegas!” he sang into the radio on the cool down lap after winning the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix. I’m sure it helped that he had just won his eighteenth race of the season.

Fireworks went off soon afterwards. Magnums of sparkling wine were sprayed on the elevated podium stage. And by morning, traffic began to move smoothly down the Strip.

This story originally appeared on Esquire US.


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