In late October, coverage of sports in America reaches its annual frenzy. The World Series starts next week, NFL broadcast coverage is on full weekend blast, the NBA season is about to kick off, and NASCAR’s cup race soon draws to close. Wedged in the midst of this smorgasbord of televised sports mania is the sole US race on the Formula 1 calendar, which will be broadcast live from the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas on Sunday afternoon. In its fourth year, the US Grand Prix transforms Austin from a live music town into a host city of one of the world’s most popular sports, capped off with a planned performance by Elton John on Sunday, if forecasted storms don’t rain on America’s fastest parade.
But ask most Americans to name their top three Formula 1 drivers, and you’ll be greeted by stumped expressions. And this is where it gets tricky. In the US, top-tier Formula 1 programs are non-existent, kids don’t grow up aspiring to be F1 drivers, and understanding of how a Formula 1 race works is scant. F1 and the US have a long breakup-makeup history. American drivers Mario Andretti and Phil Hill were both world champions, and this year marks the 37th running of a US Grand Prix and the 55th F1 event held in America. But a broad base of enthusiasm has never quite stuck.
Man and the ultimate machine in a series of tight, death-defying turns
I met my first true Formula 1 fans when I began to write about cars over a decade ago. It was the height of the Michael Schumacher era and Ferrari’s domination of the podium. On Monday mornings, my colleagues discussed their erratic sleeping schedules, and how they sacrificed a solid night of sleep to watch the Australian Grand Prix live on the Speed Channel. As a road racing novice, I had a hard time following the weaves and turns on a screen, but their enthusiasm made me curious. At the time, NASCAR fever was sweeping the US, but the F1 fans I knew were adamant about the distinctions between the two. They said NASCAR’s oval was a bore compared to F1, where man was paired with the ultimate machine in a series of tight, death-defying turns.
This is how American F1 supporters still function — a coterie of feverish fans, distanced by time, access, and revelry in the gossip that tantalizes the rest of the world. But the difference is that now, thanks to social media, they have each other, and while most of the races take place in far-off time zones, it’s much easier to stay in the loop.
Motorsports fans are not all alike; some come for the emotion and the adrenaline, some come for the scene, and still others come for the world-class technical prowess. When I saw Senna, a film about the life and tragic death of Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna, in a New York theater shortly after it came out, there was not a dry eye in the packed house. F1 is Monaco, yachts, Swiss time pieces, and luxury automakers. But it’s also thrilling average speeds from 124 to 195 miles per hour, as previously seen in Austin, and ever-evolving engineering. In F1, success is less about man and more about machine. It’s a sport based entirely upon the newest technology that must adhere to the series’ fluctuating rules and engine requirements. These are not just engines, but supercomputers that are costly and complicated to produce. When I finally made my way to the Monaco Grand Prix a couple years ago and experienced a thrilling hot lap in one of the Infiniti Red Bull team’s older Formula 1 three-seaters on a French race track, I understood the adrenaline and thrill that keeps this sport alive.
The author turning laps at France's Paul Ricard Circuit.
Breathtaking F1 performance is also a selling point for supercar makers. Ferrari and McLaren, for instance, burnish their brands simply by being in close proximity to the sport. "Austin has been a great home for F1 in the US, as the race takes place at a wonderful facility and in a great destination city," says JP Canton, a McLaren Automotive spokesman. "The combination of the two attracts fans from around the country and many from Latin America as well, which combines with the fact that local Texans love racing to fill the grandstands. In the end it all adds to the race atmosphere and really keeps people coming back year after year — something that has been traditionally hard to accomplish by F1 in the US."
However, Mercedes, which has produced dominant F1 cars that lead the current points battle, is more known in the US for its luxurious S-Class than it is for racing. But we still need humans to operate these machines — and their skill set must be exceptional. Outside of the US, Formula 1 drivers are celebrities. Thanks to a healthy dose of pop culture ties and spillover from the British tabloid blogs, the number one ranked Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton’s brand is growing stateside. He dates pop stars and hangs out in Hollywood, which — particularly in celebrity-thirsty American culture — doesn’t hurt. Hamilton has a chance to square away his season’s first-place finish this weekend against his top competitor and former F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, who races for Ferrari, making him a three-time world champion.
We still need humans to operate these machines — and their skill set must be exceptional
"He’s a great example of someone who has helped to engage his following," says Jason Dial, president and CEO of the Circuit of the Americas. "He has some incredible celebrities that are coming in that are friends of his. When you get Hollywood and New York actors flying in, it’s great for the event." Hamilton is taking over the track’s Twitter account at points over the weekend drawing in the eyes of his 3 million followers. "Lewis has won the last two years. He loves the circuit. He loves the US and he wants to see it grow. His team reached out to us and we put a whole plan together that wouldn’t distract him from his participation."
But some argue that the US needs a hometown favorite, and a last-minute entry has caused a stir: California-born Alexander Rossi, who will be the only American driver in the paddock. The 24-year-old driver is the first American to race F1 since Scott Speed, who last competed in 2007. His story is compelling. He’s earned considerable attention for raising money through crowdfunding. He made his Formula 1 debut only one month ago — and since then it’s been a media feeding frenzy to tell his story. But Rossi is an up and coming driver, and while he’s not favored to make the podium, his big hope is to attract the interest of a prominent team. One name that’s been thrown around in circle is Haas, which will make its debut in F1 next season, and is the first American-owned team to compete in 30 years. The Haas name is big in NASCAR circles; its NASCAR team is co-owned by driver Tony Stewart. "Between Alexander Rossi and the Haas team entering next year, there is great excitement. We are very US centric. We love to root the folks from the US," says Dial, who used to work in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But not everyone is bullish about F1’s US prospects, and it especially hasn’t helped that the current F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone recently expressed his reservations about the sport’s potential in America. F1 considered holding a race in New Jersey, until the deal fell through. "The biggest problem with America is they believe they are the greatest power in the world," ESPN reported Ecclestone as saying. "Not in reality, but in belief. It’s difficult because they are sort of isolated — they are a big island — and they are slowly starting to learn about what other people in the world do."
But Dial is optimistic about the potential for long term growth for the Austin race as a destination, in the same spirit as the Kentucky Derby. "We're doing it an Austin-centric way, infusing it with live music and an incredible technology story." And for new fans who stumble upon F1 this weekend, there’s another race coming up in a friendly time zone: the Mexican Grand Prix returns to the racing schedule for the first time since 1992 on November 1st.