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

Ayrton Senna in the 1991 U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix.
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.

The course used in 1989 and 1990.
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.

The track used in 1991.
The track used in 1991.

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX.
Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.


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