Robert Duvall, portraying cranky NASCAR crew chief Harry Hogge in 1990’s Days of Thunder, barked that racecar drivers don’t attend funerals. Too sensitive a subject.
Hogge was proven wrong at the 1989 United States Grand Prix in Phoenix.
Drivers showed up for that funeral. Unfortunately, they were about the only ones.
“That place was almost like a mausoleum,” says Mark Armijo, who covered motorsports for the Arizona Republic from 1984-2007, and still wonders why the race was scheduled for blistering June. “I don’t think there were 1,000 people there.”
Formula 1 has made many trips to the U.S., with some going off about as seamlessly as the Facebook public offering. The last three decades have included forgettable short stints, including Las Vegas (1981-82), Dallas (1984) and Phoenix (1989-91).
F1 hit America’s motorsports mecca, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, from 2000-2007. That partnership today is mostly remembered for the 2005 race, when only six cars (using Bridgestone tires) competed following the withdrawal of 14 Michelin-based cars over tire safety.
Now, after five years, the U.S will get another chance to support Formula 1 — Sunday at the newly constructed $300 million Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Is America finally ready to offer F1 the most famous line from Oliver Twist?
“Please, sir, I want some more.”
Austin’s not a bad place for a comeback. When the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines skewered President George Bush in 2003, the country group couldn’t have walked Nashville’s Music Row without body armor.
Austin’s mayor responded by honoring the trio on “Dixie Chicks Day.”
That openness is crucial for the Austin effort, readily admitting that much of the spectator pool will come from Europe.
“If people are just looking for the cowboy hat and the Texas experience, they may not find that here,” admits Matthew Payne, executive director of the Austin Sports Commission. “They’ll find a little bit of that, but I think you’ll find more of an across-the-board culture.”
Both Payne and Steve Sexton, president of Circuit of the Americas, cite the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, where you might find Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z, as an example of the city’s eclectic nature.
Sexton came to Austin after running Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, an event as dependent on big hats and mint julips as Triple Crown hopefuls. He thinks Austin’s atmosphere has similar appeal.
“It’s just a unique marketplace where’s there’s a lot to do,” Sexton says, “but you’re not a 10 million person metropolis.”
Sexton’s dedication to Formula 1 is unyielding. But will Formula 1 offer equal dedication? Last year construction halted at Circuit of the Americas and the Austin race nearly canceled before a sanctioning fee was finally delivered to F1.
Last June F1 head Bernie Ecclestone expressed doubt about a second U.S. race in New Jersey, then scheduled for June 2013 on a Weehawken/West New York, N.J. street course, in view of the Manhattan skyline. Ecclestone eventually expressed renewed confidence in the effort, only for the race last month to be postponed until 2014.
Bill Green has seen all this track rigmarole before. He’s chief historian at Watkins Glen International and Watkins Glen’s International Motor Racing Research Center. Formula 1 had its best U.S. run at upstate New York’s Glen, from 1961-1980.
Green says F1 worked well there into the ’70s, when Ecclestone came into power and made demands that contributed to the track overextending itself. He adds that Formula 1’s concern is who has the most money at the time (spelling out M-O-N-E-Y to make his point), as opposed to long-term relationships.
“The big dream Bernie’s always has had is to have the background of the skyline of New York City,” Green says. “…And it’ll happen because they’ve got money…. How long it’ll last, I don’t know. Till Bernie gets disappointed with them.”
Ecclestone doesn’t waste words. Claims that F1 plays tracks against each other for dates are “rubbish.” He notes that one of the biggest problems with general Formula 1 popularity in America is inconvenient start times due to the international schedule. Besides the live fan opportunity, U.S. races bring reasonable start times to U.S. TV watchers.
“In the end, when there’s 6 million people watching a NASCAR race, that’s a big audience,” Ecclestone says. “And we get 8 million people in Italy — 60 million population as opposed to 300 million [in America.]”
The theme of foreign travel and international TV ratings begs the question: Does Formula 1 need Americans to make it in America? Ex-Formula 1 drivers who now compete in NASCAR says if they do, they’re in trouble. NASCAR made its meteoric rise from regional obsession to national prominence championing fan access, from the ability to get into the garage to the ability to listen to drivers and teams via scanners.
Nelson Piquet Jr., who raced in Formula 1 from 2007-09 and now competes in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, wonders if F1’s highbrow ways will make it impossible for the American crowd to embrace the sport long-term.
“I think they’re always going to be very snob, not in a bad way,” Piquet said of Formula 1. “But they always try to bring up the sport very elite, like European football, FIFA, for example, they try to be very elite, everybody’s dressed very well. [There are] private clubs on top of the pits, even the tickets in the grandstand are expensive. So, that’s the image they want to bring, that’s the image they want to keep, and I’m sure they’re not going to change it just because it’s America. I don’t know if they’re going to make the grandstand tickets cheaper, but the fact is they [fans] are never going to get close to the drivers, never. They’re never even going to see their faces. So I doubt they’re going to change it. They want to keep it very elite so the high-society people can follow it.”
Piquet isn’t alone.
“The biggest problem you’re going to have if that people in America are used to having access,” says Juan Pablo Montoya, who won Formula 1’s crown jewel race, the Grand Prix of Monaco, in 2003 and entered NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series in 2007. “People want to feel like they’re a part of it. You come to a NASCAR race, you come into the garage, you can see the drivers, you never feel like you’re far from the action.”
Would Formula 1 ever adapt its marketing style like NASCAR, just for America’s races. Or is F1 too set in its ways?
“The second one,” Montoya says, laughing. “Absolutely. That’s the way they are, that’s the way they’ll always be.”
Follow Josh Stewart on Twitter @JoshNASCARWWE.
Above photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR