It is that time of year again. As the season turns to fall, the leaves change their colors, apple picking becomes a little less lame, and yes, Formula One lands in the U.S. at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Quick sidebar: if you are reading this column and you are going to the race, I place the responsibility on you to correct every fan around the circuit who says “Graaaand Prix” and not “Graund Prix.” Let’s have some class.
Anyways, the topic of discussion that always surrounds this F1 event is also back this year. How does the sport grow in the U.S.?
Chase Carey, the guy with the big fluffy mustache who was seemingly given the reins of the sport partly for this reason, will have to answer that same question all weekend. It will be discussed all the way until Sebastian Vettel somehow ruins his race and Lewis Hamilton is crowned five-time F1 champion.
How should he address it? As someone who fancies himself a Formula One journalist (it’s in my Twitter bio), I have my two cents on the matter.
But first, before we go into the state of modern F1 in the USA, let’s briefly revisit the history of the U.S. Grand Prix.
The U.S. Grand Prix, or American Grand Prix, started in Sebring, Florida in 1959, a race won by Bruce McLaren. It took a quick pit stop in Riverside, California in 1960 before moving to Watkins Glen from 1961-1980. Since then, the sport bounced from Detroit, which was the longest-lasting home since the Glen for most of the 1980s. It then moved to Dallas and a parking lot (a PARKING lot!) in Las Vegas before the circuit in Phoenix held the event from 1989-91.
After nine years off the schedule, and failed plans to race in New York, we reached a smooth patch. The race moved to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the heartland of racing, for an extended stay. The home of the Indianapolis 500 seemed to be the perfect permanent home of Formula 1. It made sense. Indy loved their open-wheel racing and NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart cut their open-wheel teeth in Indiana. This track could be the place where Formula One could spread its front and rear wings in the United States.
Then, the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix occurred. Back when the sport featured competing Michelin and Bridgestone tyres, controversy in the Michelin camp grew concerning the track layout. The durability of Michelins came into question in a 2005 season where the FIA rule stood that teams could not change tyres for the entire race. The fast Turn 13, basically Turn 1 in reverse, was too much for the Michelin tyre to handle, evidenced by Ralf Schumacher who was hurt in a practice crash. That sparked even more safety concerns as Michelin teams did not think they could go 10 laps on the circuit, let alone 73.
The idea of the Michelin tyre teams slowing down in the final corner was too dangerous with the Bridgestone tyre teams being able to run it full throttle. The result led to every Michelin team withdrawing. Only six cars started the Grand Prix, leaving American F1 fans with a bad taste in their mouth. After 2007, Indianapolis was removed from the schedule.
While this history discussion may seem a bit boring, it gives a strong reason as to why F1 hasn’t been able to grow in the U.S. Year after year, track surface issues, tyre issues and a race held in a parking lot that came off as a joke made it nearly impossible for race fans to wrap their arms around Formula One. With COTA, F1 can more than likely count the first race there in 2012 as the beginning of the sportʻs climb in America.
But thereʻs more at play. When you ask a person who casually follows NASCAR or IndyCar, what do they say they like the most? They tend to answer with the lap-by-lap excitement and battles where chaos could come at any corner. In F1, this doesn’t happen as much as in other forms of racing. Yes, the strategy can make it exciting and there are some battles. However, a crown jewel race like Monaco allows for the possibility that a car with a dying engine can win because it is so difficult to pass. After watching the start, which is by far the most exciting part of the race, you can basically turn the race off until the first pit stop, then check back in case the leader has mechanical problems. For the most part, there is very little excitement nor anticipation of side-by-side battles.
Formula One is aware of this issue, however, and people like myself look forward to the simpler front wings, causing less dirty airflow and allowing cars to follow each other better. I also cannot wait to see what the *bleep* happens with the 2021 regulation change to encourage more competition. Once the product is more exciting and appealing to watch, without having to follow the storylines of the championship or wondering where Esteban Ocon will race next year, viewers will tune in. The increase in popularity will apply for all F1 races, not just the U.S.
But it doesn’t stop there. One thing that has been lacking in F1 since the 1980s has been the presence of a successful American driver. Mario Andretti is the last American to win a Driver’s Championship (1978). And Andretti wasn’t even American born, as he was born in Italy before his family moved to the United States. Since then, only the likes of Scott Speed and Alexander Rossi and a few others have graced the lineup, but never in competitive cars. As we have seen from the likes of Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, an American superstar that domestic fans can embrace does wonders for a sport’s popularity. I mean, who really cared about the Tour De France before and after Armstrong’s string of success*?
More American junior categories allowing young drivers to build on a FIA super license would be a push in the right direction. Right now, Americans who are persistent in their attempts to make it to Formula One need to essentially become European citizens to chase their dream. Then, the trouble with finding sponsorship and funding brings another obstacle. I am no expert in the finances of supporting young drivers, but a competitive junior category in the U.S. could only help young drivers find sponsorship to pay for their rides. It removes potential language barriers and the “who is this American?” sentiment when a young ambitious American driver moves overseas.
Another crutch to F1 is the time races get run. I admit this obstacle is a very difficult one for the U.S. The Chinese Grand Prix, for example will start 12 hours ahead of ET. Most races also occur in the early morning hours in America, sometimes Saturday night around 1-2 A.M. It would be irrational to move start times up and down to accommodate America, essentially slapping the host country’s fans in the face.
But this issue also isn’t a killer to F1 in America. International soccer has picked up popularity in the states with their early start times. Marketing has played a big role in that, selling “Premier League Mornings” and acknowledging that “yeah, we start at a really early time in America.” But they have been able to make an event out of it.
Marketing could be assisted by American television holding rights to the broadcasts, which F1 has taken a step back for in 2018. NBC was outbid by ESPN who then just simulcasts the Sky Sports F1 feed, with no real effort to promote other than essentially saying, “Here it is! Watch it, or don’t, we don’t care.” With ESPN carrying almost anything from baseball to volleyball, thereʻs not a lot of room to stand out from the weeds. Now, I love Martin Brundle, but F1 needs to pick up an American network that loves Formula One as much as the fans and market the sport properly. Since I don’t work in marketing and am just here to write my opinion, I have all the right to point and say “do this for me.”
While I mentioned a few reasons here, there are still many other things that F1 can improve on to build an American audience. But here’s one you shouldn’t do. Please, pretty please do NOT go for street races in American cities. Trying to build a unique street circuit in Brooklyn or Miami seems like a good idea, but the chaos that comes with essentially shutting a city down (especially in New York) will do more harm than good for F1 in terms of word of mouth. I can hear the heavy Brooklyn accents now saying, “Hey, I’m walking here! What do you mean I can’t see my cousin Vito because the entire street is blocked off for some rinky-dink race? The only formula I care about is Vito’s secret formula to his red sauce.” (I can say that because I am Italian.)
But these are just my opinions. I would love to hear your thoughts on what F1 can do to improve its reputation in America — and let’s keep it constructive.
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