Las Vegas Strip transforms into high-speed racetrack for Formula One

The famous fountains at the Bellagio won’t be very visible this week amid the roar of Formula One racing on the Las Vegas Strip, and gondoliers won’t be serenading tourists at the Venetian resort.

“Fountains have been shut off, canals drained, streets closed or harder to navigate,” Michael Green, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas history professor, said after six months of road work and temporary grandstand construction for some of the most monied spectators in sports. “What are they calling it? Stripmageddon? It is clearly causing a lot of uproar.”

“But this is a different kind of big event,” said Green, who remembers two Grand Prix races held 42 years ago at Caesars Palace. “We’re talking about billionaires from around the world. They’re going to bring in a ton of money. They’re not necessarily the usual tourist.”

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Organizers, local officials and hotel operators believe the discomfort will be forgotten after racing ends late Saturday. They hope Las Vegas will join Monaco on the leader board of host cities for Grand Prix events around the world.

But predictions of sold-out seats and peak demand for the most expensive grand prix on the F1 calendar may have been overly optimistic. Tickets were still available this week and some hotels have slashed room rates.

Post-race, officials say the Venetian gondola canal will be refilled and casino operator MGM Resorts International has promised to replace Bellagio sidewalk shade trees removed to frame the fountains with thousands of grandstand seats and skybox suites. One worker died during construction.

“I know a lot of people love the fountains,” Joshua Guray, a visitor from Long Beach, California, said. “So it’s definitely a bummer, I’d say.”

For now, many familiar Strip sights are blocked by track barriers, fencing, pedestrian walkway screens, scaffolding and advertising erected around the nighttime race on streets usually choked with taxis, buses and rental cars and lined by pedestrians posing for selfies.

“It’s all barricades and things blocking traffic,” said Charles Flexer, a tourist from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, who tried to decide how to cross Las Vegas Boulevard with his mother using an electric mobility scooter. “It’s very disruptive.”

When the inaugural Formula One Las Vegas grand prix was added to a 24-race worldwide F1 schedule a year ago, tickets and hotel packages costing tens of thousands of dollars per person went on sale. Organizers won a 10-year permit for the race.

After road work began in April, race organizers asked Clark County to contribute half of an estimated $80 million in repaving costs. Jim Gibson, chairman of the elected body with jurisdiction over the Las Vegas Strip, said last week that talks about who pays what will continue after the race.

“Formula One is in a class all its own” Gibson said. “By any standards, it’s been a very heavy lift for our community to take the steps necessary to have a successful event. Everyone who lives here, who works in the resort corridor in particular, has had to sacrifice because of the significant roadwork and construction.”

Officials now also acknowledge that parking spots will be scarce for race fans and hotel workers alike.

“If guests don’t have a ticket or a designated destination, it might not be the best place to come on the weekend,” Vanessa Anthes, vice president of event operations for the race organization, told reporters.

Police are “planning for this like it’s New Year’s Eve,” Clark County Undersheriff Andrew Walsh said as he listed restrictions on pedestrian access and the size of backpacks and purses. Las Vegas police have exercised Strip closures for New Year’s Eve fireworks every year since the last night of 2000. Officials say it now draws more than 300,000 people annually. “We’re no stranger to handling large-scale events,” Walsh said.

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The department also has managed nighttime Strip marathons, and recent championship parades and rallies for the NHL Vegas Golden Knights and WNBA Las Vegas Aces. The city hosts overnight outdoor music festivals — one covering several downtown blocks — and NASCAR races at the 80,000-seat Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Next February, it will host the NFL Super Bowl at Allegiant Stadium.

The city also bears painful memories of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. A gunman opened fire in October 2017 from windows in a high-rise hotel into an outdoor concert crowd of 20,000 people, killing 58 and himself before police reached him. At least two people died later from their wounds.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix is expected to draw more than 100,000 fans for practice, qualifying and featured races — 50 laps with the world’s elite drivers racing open-cockpit vehicles on a 3.8-mile (6.1-kilometer) road course.

Racers will start at a newly constructed permanent grandstand-and-pit facility and snake past the recently opened Sphere before hitting a 1.18-mile (1.89-kilometer) straightaway down the Strip at speeds expected to top 200 mph (124 kph).

The world’s most sophisticated sports cars will blur past properties including Wynn, Harrah’s, Flamingo, Horseshoe, Paris Las Vegas, Planet Hollywood and Cosmopolitan. More than a dozen high-rise hotels along the race route offer a combined 40,000-plus guest rooms. In addition to the Sphere, the interior track area includes Caesars Entertainment’s High Roller observation wheel.

In years to come, the fire-spewing volcano at the track-side Mirage resort is slated to be replaced by a huge guitar-shaped hotel tower built by the new owner of the property, Hard Rock International and the Florida-based Seminole Tribe.

Racing starts at 10 p.m. local time. Officials project the event will draw more than $1 billion to a local economy that aims to fill 152,000 hotel rooms. Rates in September averaged $201.50 per night. Earlier, amid race-week premiums, Caesars Palace offered a five-night stay overlooking the course from its Nobu Sky Villa at $5 million.

“If you were a Grand Prix devotee and you came here for the event in the early 80s, and this is the next time you visited, you’re in for a shock,” said Green, who was a young newspaper reporter when Caesars Palace hosted two years of F1 racing. That course included the casino parking lot near where Evel Knievel spectacularly crashed in 1967 while trying to jump his motorcycle over the hotel fountain.

Green remembered Las Vegas Boulevard casino-hotels including the Dunes, Barbary Coast, Frontier, Silver Slipper, Sands, Desert Inn and Stardust.

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All are now gone, replaced by destination resorts boasting celebrity chef restaurants, shopping, headline nightclubs and periodic resident entertainers. Huge properties new to the resort corridor include Resorts World, which opened in 2021, and Fontainebleu Las Vegas, due to open next month.

Alan Feldman, a longtime casino executive and now a distinguished fellow at the International Gaming Institute at UNLV, attended the 1982 grand prix as a Los Angeles-based publicist. He said Las Vegas is entering a generation of what Bo Bernhard, UNLV vice president of economic development and director of the institute, has dubbed the “fun economy.”

Bernhard points to a World Travel and Tourism Council finding in 2019 that 10% of spending worldwide — from dollars and pesos to euros and yen — goes toward tourism, entertainment and sports.

“I think what what is happening is Las Vegas is becoming the epicenter of the ‘fun economy,'” Feldman said. “And we’re driving right down the middle of that to our future.”