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The Las Vegas Strip comes alive every night as the sun sets on the horizon and dazzling lights illuminate the area.

Its casinos draw in tourists while iconic hotels have been featured in well-known movies like Caesars Palace in “The Hangover” and the Bellagio Fountains in Bruno Mars’ “24k Magic” music video. Replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the pyramids are in the surrounding vicinity. The city sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the arid desert. As singer Michael McDonald once said: “Las Vegas is a city built on hopes, dreams, and a little bit of crazy.”

And in the fall of 2019, Emily Prazer and Chloe Targett-Adams came to town. At the time, both worked in race promotion for Formula One. As they walked Las Vegas Boulevard, they wondered:  “How cool would it be to have a race in Las Vegas?”

This wasn’t a new idea — F1 raced around the Caesars Palace parking lot in 1981 and 1982. While other third parties have wanted to bring the race back, F1 never entertained the idea, Prazer told The Athletic. It seemed like a passing thought while F1 focused on getting the new Miami Grand Prix signed.

But that thought came to life during one of the world’s darkest times. As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cities and countries, the Las Vegas Grand Prix — the Monaco of the U.S., as some may say, given the glitz, glam, and casinos — was born and built on the foundation of trust and an eye for opportunity.

“It was a complete pipe dream because so many had tried and failed,” said Prazer, who’s since become the Las Vegas Grand Prix’s Chief Commercial Officer. “But you’re standing outside the Bellagio Fountains, and you’re just thinking, ‘Imagine Formula One cars going past.’ It’s insane.”

No ‘flash in the pan’

The ball for this “pipe dream” began rolling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

F1 managed to scrape together a 17-race season in 2020 while planning for the future. Then-F1 CEO Chase Carey said they should inquire about the possibility of a Las Vegas race.

But there was a problem. It was still 2021, and because the U.S. hadn’t lifted its travel restrictions yet, F1’s personnel couldn’t enter the country. The onus landed on Liberty Media, the Colorado-based mass media company that owns F1, and its Chief Legal Officer and Chief Administrative Officer, Renee Wilm, to connect with Las Vegas officials. That included Clark County (which regulates the Strip), the county commissioners, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). These meetings were critical, Wilm said, because “once things truly started opening up, we would be in a position that we’d be able to hit the ground running on this project.”

In spring 2021, Wilm began making regular trips to Nevada to make those stakeholder connections and show “that we were here.” Wilm added, “This wasn’t just gonna be a flash in the pan event, but that we were committed to being part of the long-term fiber of (Las Vegas).”

Liberty Media’s pitch started with explaining the race vision to the commissioners, letting it sit, and returning a month later to speak with LVCVA, Wilm said. Another month passed before Liberty Media returned. It continued like this as they answered questions and worked through the concerns from Las Vegas officials, such as road improvement and transportation. The city would have to transform, after all. The Strip would become a landlocked island for the race weekend. Prazer compared Las Vegas Boulevard, one of the streets that’ll be part of the circuit, to being on a roller coaster.

What helped the tide turn, Wilm said, was the heavyweight presence of Liberty Media. This experienced partner owns MLB’s Atlanta Braves and hefty stakes in Sirius XM and Live Nation.

“So when we came to town and said, ‘We are backing this race, we are promoting it ourselves.’ I think that is when everyone realized, ‘Oh, this can happen,’” Wilm said. “‘This is for real. And now let’s work through the logistics.’”

The art of selling during a global pandemic

Formula One is as much of an experience as a sport, so having stakeholders attend a race weekend is usually a critical selling tactic.

Prazer said F1 would typically take stakeholders into the garages, show them the cars, and let them see the thousands of fans who showed up for the weekend. But with the U.S. travel restrictions in place and the Miami Grand Prix not set to debut until May 2022, the traditional sales model wasn’t an option until late 2021. A popular docuseries was the closest option F1 had for a marketing tool at the time, Prazer said. Wilm added, “For those who didn’t know Formula One very well, we encouraged them to go watch Netflix, ‘Drive to Survive,’ so they have a little background. And then we did start to bring some of the stakeholders to some of the races.”

The U.S. didn’t lift its travel restrictions until November 2021, when vaccinated travelers could enter airports and cross land borders. But the U.S. Grand Prix took place a month prior — a race that nearly didn’t happen. The sports exemption F1 applied for to bring thousands of its people stateside was the same legal grounds used to get the U.K.-based personnel, including Prazer and current F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, in person for the Las Vegas GP talks.

The interest was already there from Wilm and Liberty Media’s work, and “the momentum increased” when F1 landed, Wilm said. They hit the ground running, meeting with different casinos and traveling back and forth between Las Vegas and the Middle East as the 2021 calendar began wrapping up.

Creating a startup

As Wilm stood on the pool deck of the Cosmopolitan in March 2022, the Las Vegas Grand Prix became very real.

Dusk settled around Las Vegas, and the Strip glowed with the LVGP logo. It had been a six-month sprint from when F1 touched down in the U.S. in September to that March evening, a rare, compressed timeline in the sport’s world. “When you think about how long (new) races typically take, from an idea to announcement, it’s usually one to two years, just timing-wise,” Wilm said.

Las Vegas is an unprecedented project in another way, as F1 is looking after race management for the first time. Historically, F1 identifies a location and connects with a local race promoter, who takes it from there — selling sponsorships and tickets, building and/or handling the track, etc. F1 then arrives and collects its fee. But in Las Vegas, F1 is building and running a race. Combined with a pandemic, “there is no playbook,” Prazer said.

As Wilm, now the CEO of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, stood on that pool deck, her mind was going “a million miles an hour.” She had no office, race operations team, or event operations crew. Commercial, legal, marketing, and finance were just a few of the corporate departments that needed to be staffed. The Las Vegas GP is a startup.

It began with a handful of employees working out of a Wynn Golf suite and 39 acres of land purchased by Liberty Media a few months after the announcement. Now the Las Vegas Grand Prix, Inc. has a mixture of 90-plus full-time and temporary employees and will add “2,000 more temporary workers around the event,” Wilm said.

But there have been “speed bumps,” she added.

For example, Live Nation was initially supposed to be a partner for the Las Vegas Grand Prix. But throughout last year, “we realized it just didn’t make a ton of sense,” Wilm said. The company is widely known for entertainment, specifically music and festivals — not sporting events. The relationship since has been restructured – Live Nation will focus on the race weekend festival portion, which will be the watch party concert series.

The lengthy repaving project that began in April has created traffic delays as crews dig up several inches of the existing road and add a 1.75-inch racing layer. At this time, Las Vegas Grand Prix, Inc. is funding it.

While F1 has invested half a billion dollars into the project, race officials are asking Clark County to pay $40 million of the expected $80 million re-paving project, according to numerous reports after the recent Clark County Commission meeting. When The Athletic contacted Las Vegas Grand Prix, Inc. for a comment regarding the pavement project, it said, “Clark County is considering dedicating funds to assist in bringing the Grand Prix to Las Vegas.” The company said Tuesday’s passed proposal is “the next step in the process regarding a proposed public-private partnership.” It’s expected the project will finish by mid-September.

‘We want everybody to feel like a VIP’

The final round of tickets went on sale on Friday, which included three hospitality experiences: Heineken House ($8,000 plus fees), Club SI ($7,000 plus fees), and Club Paris ($5,500 plus fees). General admission tickets are sold out but reportedly cost around $500 (around the same price for three-day GA tickets at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin). Grandstand prices varied, with the $1,500 options sold out. And the hotel packages enter the five-digit range. Bellagio Fountain Club, for example, is $11,247 for three days but with plenty of hospitality perks.

“We think Formula One is kind of a different animal,” Caesars Entertainment CEO Tom Reeg said in a late 2022 earnings call. “The demand for that particular event is well beyond what we were expecting, and you saw as we rolled out rates … the pricing reflects that.”

Applied Analysis estimated in early 2023 that the entire race weekend will bring in more than a billion in spending, doubling the Super Bowl’s projected impact.

It’s worth noting that, according to Salesforce, less than 1% of F1’s fans will be able to attend a race in their lifetime. This is an expensive event, something LVGP Inc. recognizes. When asked about the fan profile for this race, Prazer jumped to say, “We can’t get away from how expensive it is to come on vacation to Las Vegas. So I think we understand that, but where we’re trying to add value to our guests is by, for example, even our (general admission) tickets include food and drink. And so we appreciate that it is more expensive than other races, but I don’t think anyone else on the Formula One calendar does that.

“We want everybody to feel like a VIP because that is what Vegas is all about, everywhere you go.”

Top photo: Alex Bierens de Haan/Formula 1 via Getty Images



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