Dolphins turn inaugural Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix into 'Disneyland for racecars'

Safid Deen
USA TODAY Sports+

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Max Verstappen enjoyed the atmosphere. Lewis Hamilton admired the diversity in attendance. Charles Leclerc loved seeing U.S. interest piqued. And Carlos Sainz Jr. can’t wait to come back next year.

The inaugural Formula One Miami Grand Prix was mostly a success at Hard Rock Stadium, home to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. And all parties involved are quickly looking to improve the event for the future.

“The atmosphere was incredible,” said Leclerc, F1’s points leader this season.  “It’s great to see how much interest the sport has got in the last few years.”

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Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa waved the checkered flag.

Pro Football Hall of Fame legend Dan Marino, at the podium behind his statue, presented the winner's trophy and a signed Dolphins helmet to Verstappen.

“It’s not easy to put on an event like this but they did an amazing job, and I had a lot of fun,” Verstappen said.

Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing is presented with an NFL helmet by Dan Marino on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Miami at the Miami International Autodrome on May 08, 2022 in Miami, Florida.

'Disneyland for racecars'

I grew up near this stadium. I baked in the heat, hid from the rain and drank more than I should during baseball, soccer and college football games. I saw Jay-Z perform with Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé here. I wrote some of my first stories as a sportswriter here, covered the Dolphins for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and my first Super Bowl in 2020.

And I’m still impressed with how the Dolphins turned an F1 race into a spectacle — and their football stadium campus into a theme park for all ages.

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“I think it’s a masterpiece in terms of a build-out and looking at a scenery that you only see from a scope of a television,” said Winston Lee, a Miami native who celebrated Mother’s Day with his wife and two kids at the track. “I’m leaning more into becoming a full-fledged fan. I know I’ll be back in the future. It’s like Disneyland for racecars.”

The Miami Grand Prix was a who’s-who event for celebrities, just as it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for diehard racing fans and an introduction to F1 for others.

Among the stars were Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, David Beckham, Venus and Serena Williams, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union, Paris Hilton, Spike Lee and Bad Bunny.

Spice Girl Geri Horner talks with Serena Williams in the paddock prior to Sunday's Formula One Miami Grand Prix.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama watched qualifying from the Mercedes garage Saturday, while TV host James Corden hung out with McLaren all week — shooting bits for “The Late Late Show” with drivers Daniel Riccardo and Lando Norris.

“It’s special. It’s very rewarding,” said Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel, the orchestrator behind Miami’s F1 race. “I love racing. I love Formula One racing. So, to bring a race here really was a dream come true.”

Garfinkel, who had a short stint as a racing team owner and worked with Chip Ganassi Racing in the early 2000s, is already focused on the challenges the Miami Grand Prix must overcome before its next race.

Room for improvement

Despite loving the atmosphere, F1 drivers openly criticized the racetrack all weekend.

The newly-paved track lacked the grip drivers preferred and affected their ability to pass each other. There were also certain areas that appeared bumpy.

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“It's kind of crazy when you think that people in this day and age should be able to make a flat road relatively easy,” Hamilton, who finished sixth, said last week.

Drivers loathed a sharp corner outlined with curbs on a part of the track that ran under the Florida Turnpike. Their super-heavy, stiff and wide F1 cars did not perform well in that area.

“I remember the four laps I did on Friday, I almost knocked myself out because I hit the first curb, and your head just bounced from left to right like at least five, six times,” Verstappen said. “It was pretty bad.”

Garfinkel vowed race organizers would do extensive research into areas of concern from drivers to ensure a better racing experience for the next Miami race.

“I think if we get the racetrack right and the racing right, it’ll be a very sustainable event because it’ll be great racing,” Garfinkel said.

Charles Leclerc (16) of Ferrari takes the first turn at the Formula 1 Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix, Sunday, May 8, 2022 in Miami Gardens.

The race brought plenty of attention, but it wasn't profitable — not yet. It was the first race of a 10-year contract and expenses exceeded expectations, Garfinkel said.

Ticket prices rivaled the most expensive F1 races this season. The cheapest grandstand seating costing $640 and a campus pass was $500 on race day. Suite experiences for others were well into the thousands. Prices skyrocketed on secondary sites. Some sections reached close to $30,000.

Still, it did not outweighed the at least $300 million Ross spent to privately fund the racetrack. Garfinkel did not want to divulge further financials.

“We’re not going to make money this year,” Garfinkel said. “It was important to us to deliver a great event. The expenses far exceeded the expectations. We tried to do everything we could do first-class to be on brand of what Formula One is and the kind of event we wanted to deliver.”

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Influencer paradise

Fans could easily log over 10,000 steps during the day, walking from the Hard Rock Beach Club — with pool party vibes on the east side of the stadium — to the far west where the faux marina and 10 yachts sat on trailers surrounded by plywood covered in water-colored wrap to enhance a waterfront illusion.

“We want the brand to be fun, and it’s an upscale brand just like Formula 1,” said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International.

The campus was a social media influencer’s paradise with so many areas for photo opportunities.

Everywhere you turned, attendees danced while indulging in a variety of food and beverage options. They changed tires like they were in the pits, posed at the podium like they placed in a race and stocked up on F1 racing gear (hats alone cost more than $100 depending on the team). They could even walk about the 300 level of the stadium or take a ride in a 12-car gondola for overhead views unique to this race.

“You can have your seats in the stands, but still there are plenty of spots along the track to walk around,” said Terry Nagel of Chicago, whose daughter bought him a ticket for his birthday next week. “The food is great. The atmosphere is great. It’s a shame it’s so expensive, and maybe it’ll come down more so people can enjoy it. But I’m having a great time.”

The South Florida heat and humidity were unforgiving at times Friday and Saturday. Shade was at a premium. Some light drizzles and clouds during most of the race provided relief — so did the portable restrooms with air conditioning.

Even the drivers searched for respite in the Florida climate.

Verstappen loved hitting the track’s longest straight where the breeze helped. And once the race was over, he could not wait to unzip his driving suit.

Off the track, Rodrigo Elias, a University of Miami student, shared a headphone with his friend Marco Locoya, from Chihuahua, Mexico, while they sat near the track and streamed the race on a phone. The Dolphins and Verizon outfitted their campus with 5G coverage before the 2020 Super Bowl.

“The heat stroke is pretty bad, but besides that I feel that it’s a pretty good event,” Elias said. “It’s good to have the race on the phone because we hear the cars going on the racetrack, but we can also hear what’s going on with the race.”

Bottled water could have been at a lower price point than $5 so fans spent less time at water refilling stations, which drew long lines as water gradually pumped into their pre-purchased bottles.

Parking and traffic were smooth for some and challenging for others — and the trek back to vehicles felt arduous as many wandered too far from where they entered. Still, they patiently walked up and through crowded pedestrian bridges that weren’t so bad once you got to the other side.

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“I’m not too familiar with Formula One, but this has definitely got me more excited for it,” said Demi Varis, who came from Queens, New York, with her parents Lena and Sal, just for the race.

Her parents already have tickets to the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas but are unsure about the Las Vegas race in 2023. The family vowed they’re “definitely coming back” to the Miami Grand Prix.

“It’s an experience,” Varis said. “It’s one thing to be watching it on the screen, and it’s another thing to be right here in front of it and hearing it all.”