When Caesars Palace took blockbuster sporting events to the outdoors

Caesars Palace executive Harry Wald, center, is seen with movie star Paul Newman of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame, left, and singer Tom Jones at the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in the 1980s.

By Mike Henle

Starting in the 1960s, Caesars Palace ran the gamut of special events. Beginning with the attempted Evel Knievel motorcycle jump of the fountains Jan. 31, 1967, sports writers spent half of their lives on the grounds covering unique and exciting special events.

Caesars capitalized on sporting events that included tennis matches highlighting the Alan King Tennis Classic from 1972-85 along with the Jimmy Connors-Rod Laver challenge match in 1975; not to mention the endless championship boxing matches in the open air of Caesars.

Auto racing thrived on special events that included the Caesars Palace Grand Prix on land owned by Caesars from 1981 through 1984.  When Formula One ran its final lap in Las Vegas in 1981-82, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) replaced F-1 for two more years.

Formula One was intriguing but the Bernie Ecclestone-built events washed out after two years. Part of the Formula One World Championship, the event was destined to attract international spectators.

Ecclestone and Formula One were high-ticket draws running alongside Caesars’ other promotions that included boxing, tennis, and ice hockey.

While the racing was exciting, many foreign drivers complained that the course was nothing but a celebrated go-kart track that was also way too flat.

Nonetheless, the Caesars Grand Prix was colorful. However, the sanctioning body F-1 provided very little public relations material and after events won by Alan Jones in a Williams Ford and Michele Alboreto in his Tyrel Ford; F-1 retreated back to their home grounds to make way for CART.

The Caesars Palace drew its share of entertainers, including singer Diana Ross, who is shown congratulating 1982 Caesars Palace Formula One Grand Prix winner Michele Alboreto.

CART presented two more events at Caesars with events won by former school teacher Tom Sneva and legendary Indy 500 champion Mario Andretti.

When questioned about the loss of the open wheel races, Caesars Palace executive Billy Weinberger pointed out that even with all of the hoop-la-generated by the PR department the race didn’t make any sense monetarily.

“We couldn’t make any money with the races,” Weinberger explained, adding that the event that cost the hotel $3 million.

Weinberger seemed to love the Caesars Palace Grand Prix, but there was no denying that the event simply did not attract the throngs from Europe that hotel executives had expected.

However, while the real estate used for the races didn’t work, the same dirt was gold for retail business not far from the start-finish line of Caesars Palace. 

The New York Times explained what happened to the land formerly used for the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in a feature written by Las Vegas freelance writer Mike Henle.

The 8.4 acres of land was transitioned into a $100 million fantasy known as the Forum Shops at Caesars attracting a long list of high-end tenants including Gianni, Versace, Gucci, Warner Brothers Studio Stores and Ann Taylor, the new retail outlets were the who’s-who of the retail world.

In fact, the fall of the Caesars Palace Grand Prix coupled with the announcement that retail was taking its place was so powerful that the story was bannered on the front page of the June 12, 1992 edition of the New York Times.

The headline for the story was “A Nevada Solution for a Sputtering Track.”

Interestingly, Formula One racing is again snooping around Las Vegas looking for the return of F-1. However, with traffic being what it is in Las Vegas nowadays, it’s not likely that the series could land a race on the streets (remember the headaches of the Vegas Grand Prix which lasted one year?).

That said, F-1 is looking at a road course somewhere in Las Vegas.

When the Caesars Palace Grand Prix folded its tent, the world of retail quickly grabbed land left behind. Henry Gluck, the chairman of Caesars World, couldn’t wait to sell the ground with 240,000 square feet of leasable space.

Developed by the Gordon Company of Los Angeles, the eager new landlords of the old Caesars Palace Grand Prix layout couldn’t wait to get started on the land Billy Weinberger couldn’t wait to sell.

Little Al Unser was among the drivers that ran the CART open-wheel races for two years on the grounds of Caesars Palace.

So after all of these years of special events, Caesars has changed its marketing efforts not to include the endless promotions from the 1970s-1990s.  In fact, boxing, tennis, auto racing and ice hockey are nowhere to find on the grounds of the hotel.

Sheldon Gordon was so convinced he was on the accelerator of a high horse powered gold mine when he said, “I remember that we stood on the roof and I said to Henry, “This is one of the few communities in the world that doesn’t have a cadre of upscale tenants. Every city has a Rodeo Drive or Madison Avenue, but not Las Vegas. I think this is the best thing that I’ve ever done.”

Gluck teaming with Gordon was the ideal partnership. However, the big-time athletic events that graced Caesars for many years are non-existent.

In the meantime, what happened to the special events that took Caesars to another level?

It’s kind of like opening the gates for a full-field of horses in the Kentucky Derby; only to have someone halt the race at the half-way mark.

The masterminds of Caesars had a long line of potential events from the time they opened their door until long after hanging the “closed” sign on the door. Those fans who loved boxing in the outdoor arenas were huge draws and NHL hockey produced big crowds.

What made the people of Caesars so interesting was their fearless nature although getting rid of the outdoor promotions seemed odd. Special events and the outdoors went together like a ball in a glove.

Personable Danny Sullivan competed in the CART-sanctioned series at Caesars Palace. (Jeff Scheid photography).

 Simply put, Caesars Palace had everything including live entertainment. If you worked for the hotel, you were dealing with the hottest hotel casino in the city and maybe the nation.

In the meantime, top-notch entertainers established residency including Elton John, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart, among others.

The outdoor sporting events of the 1960-80s rocked. They were unique.  The superstars of the events seemed never ending. 

Those of us who used to spend endless hours at Caesars covering special events all wonder what happened to the good old days when the hotel could have taught classes on creating excellent PR.

Hail Caesars from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Editor’s Note: Mike Henle is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer. He writes about various topics including auto racing, human interest, real estate and the automobile industry.

Next: We look at the sports of tennis and boxing that were big hits at Caesars.

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