There have been a few times over the last 50 years when formula one had its chance to break into the pantheon of motorsports beloved by Americans. But drivers, and races, came and went, leaving NASCAR to capitalise on its quintessential American mythology. F1 took a backseat. Now, with a Grand Prix in Austin at the end of the month and one planned for New Jersey in 2013, F1 is back to conquer the final frontier: America
‘1’, as in F1, is the loneliest number
American Formula One supporters are few and far between, But they are as ardent as any sports fans in the world.
It’s just before 10am at The Kezar Pub in San Francisco, and the front room is full of sports fans at full froth, screaming at the television screens hoisted above the bar. On the screens is lacrosse? Or the Highland Games? Or some other thing involving long poles and running? Regardless, a patron has to weave a path through a collection of lunatics to get to the back room, where the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix is about to air on tape delay. This is the life of a Formula One fan in America seeking a communal viewing experience. Not only are you relegated to the back room of a bar that specialises in telecasting weird sports, you don’t even get to watch the race live.
According to Formula One Management, more than a half a billion people worldwide watched the series during the 2010 season. Of the last three races that aired in the United States, not one was watched by more than one million people, according to Nielsen Media Research.
There are several reasons why Formula One hasn’t taken off in the United States. Some are due to logistics: most of the races are shown on motorsport channel, Speed, a cable channel that sits firmly in the 600-something nosebleeds on the guide. They are shown live, which means the races in Europe are painfully early for fans on the West Coast and the races in Asia are painfully late for fans on the East Coast. Sports that require pre-twilight caffeine bingeing are not destined for mainstream American success. Opting to record the races means the fan has to live in a social media vacuum until they have time to sit on their couch and press play.
However, the other reason for America’s Formula One apathy is social. This country’s heart belongs to NASCAR, with its savvy marketing and quintessential American backstory: c’mon, a race series that evolved from bootleggers in Appalachia evading the cops? Amazing. The odds of another form of motorsport gaining traction, let alone one considered as exclusively for effete European one-per-centers as Formula One, is small.
But the next 12 months could be when F1 conquers its final frontier.After the US Grand Prix in Austin this month and another race scheduled in New Jersey next year, media coverage of the sport in the US will be at an all-time high. There are two young, promising American drivers – Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly – edging their way towards the starting grid. In September, director Ron Howard – he of over a billion dollars in box office receipts – will debut Rush, a movie about the 1970s rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
With all of this about to explode on the American media landscape, right now the diehard Formula One fan in America feels like they’re in on a tremendous secret. For the few, the proud, the ones who know how to pronounce “Hungaroring” on the first try, it’s great fun.
Backing the American dream
It’s been almost 25 years since a Formula One grand prix was won by an American. The year was 1978, the race was the Dutch Grand Prix, and the driver was, of course, Mario Andretti. Without his charismatic, competitive spirit on the grid, F1's flair has faded from the memory of most Americans – but not Andretti, who says the racing series is the one that most captured his heart. As spokesman for the Austin race, Andretti told The Red Bulletin that there's no better time for F1 in the US than right now.
The Red Bulletin: Do you think now is the right time for the US Grand Prix to return, and do you think Austin is the right place for it?
Mario Andretti: There’s been such an incredible investment in this facility, which was very much needed. In the United States we have many Taj Mahals when it comes to oval tracks, but all of the road racing facilities unfortunately have fallen behind the times. Compared with the rest of the world, there was nothing to offer until now. Now with Austin coming up, we finally have something to be proud of. I think it will definitely make a big difference to the interest in Formula One here because I see stability there – Formula One in the United States has moved around considerably. It was always just ‘Put up a tent for a weekend for a temporary circuit!’ and the word ‘temporary’ is the one that resonated too much.
How was your little turn around the Austin track in an SUV?
Part of the track, maybe three or four corners, was paved. The best part was throwing this SUV around, and the corner workers were in peril. They were out there cheering, ‘Wheee!’ That’s what we want to hear. Cheering and lots of rubber squealing. At the official opening, I’ll be able to get on there with a racing car and get a taste of it in a non-SUV.
Can Americans love NASCAR and Indy and F1?
I think so. You have the real loyal race fans that will stay in their little corner. But in general, we get crossover in the fanbase. Lots of the NASCAR drivers follow Formula One and vice versa. We’re all fans of one another.
How about American corporate support?
If there’s ever a chance, now is probably going to be the best opportunity to open it up. When you have global interest in something, you cannot ignore it. You want to be part of it. I think once this event takes place, it’s really going to open up the sky. A lot of people will say, “Oh my gosh, finally, America has arrived in modern times.” We’re competing with the rest of the world with this facility. There’s a solid investment and it’s a different theatre. Previously, if you talked about any country that hosted Formula One, they would outshine us every time. That’s no longer going to be the case.
Read the full story in November's issue of The Red Bulletin.