There was a time, close to 50 years ago, when Formula One was on the cusp of breaking into the pantheon of motorsports beloved by Americans. Then Mario Andretti moved to CART and NASCAR capitalized on its quintessential American mythology. F1 took a backseat. Now, with Grands Prix in Austin at the end of the month and one on the horizon in New Jersey, F1 is back to conquer the final frontier: America.
The Fans: F1 is the Loneliest Number
Fans of Formula One in the U.S. are few and far between. But those that love the sport are as ardent as any in the world.
It’s just before 10 a.m. at the Kezar Pub in San Francisco, and the front room is full of eclectic sports fans at full froth, screaming at the television screens hoisted above the bar. Is that lacrosse they’re watching? Or the Highland Games? Or some other thing involving long poles and running? Regardless, a patron has to weave a path through this collection of lunatics to get to the back room, where the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix is about to air on tape-delay.
Such 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 specializes in telecasting weird sports -- you don’t even get to watch the race live.
According to Formula One Management, more than 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 over 1 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research.
There are several reasons why Formula One hasn’t taken off in the U.S. Some of it is down to logistics: Most of the races are televised on Speed, a motorsports cable channel that sits firmly in the 600-something nosebleed section of the program guide. Events 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 binges are not destined for mainstream American success. And opting to DVR the races means you have to live in a social-media bubble until you have time to sit on your couch and press play.
However, the other reason for America’s ongoing Formula One apathy is cultural. 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 so closely associated with effete European 1 percenters as Formula One, are small.
But the next 12 months could be when F1 finally starts the long process of conquering its final frontier. After the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, this month and potentially another race in New Jersey next year, media coverage of the sport in the U.S. will be at an all-time high. There are two young, promising American drivers -- Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly -- edging their way toward the starting grid. And in September, director Ron Howard -- he of over a billion dollars in box office receipts -- will debut Rush, a movie about the rivalry between ’70s-era drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
With all of this about to explode on the American media landscape, right now the die-hard 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.
The San Francisco Formula One fan group is the largest in the United States, with 2,000 members signed up through various social-media outlets. According to founder Peter Habicht, a couple dozen gather to watch every race at Kezar’s --unless it’s a morning when the Giants or the 49ers are on, in which case they are booted out of the bar entirely and move their viewing party to a Go Kart track in the suburbs.
Habicht is one of the die-hards. He blogs about F1, visits circuits under construction just for fun and arranges outings, screenings, and lectures for the club at local car museums. And, of course, it frustrates him to no end that his favorite sport is relegated to the sidelines in the U.S.
“When you look at the spectrum of entertainment in the United States -- movies, videogames, TV -- and you take that slice of it that’s going to sports, motor racing is another subset of that, and within that, most of that is NASCAR,” he says. “It’s a really difficult job that Formula One faces when trying to sell itself in the United States. I think a lot of that understanding and awareness comes over time.”
There are hundreds of clubs like Habicht’s in the United States, handfuls of people throughout the country who meet in bars at ungodly hours. For the Monaco race, several dozen have gathered at Kezar’s to order breakfast and Bloody Marys and cheer their chosen team.
It’s a far different atmosphere from the usual for Chris Dove, who just moved to San Francisco from Montana. For three years running, he got up in the middle of the night by himself to watch the races on Speed. “I only met one other person who was a fan,” he says. “But he was rich, so he always went to the races.”
For Dove, that’s one of the main reasons F1 has only a cult of core fans in the U.S.: “It’s viewed as a rich person’s sport. The entry fee just to see it live is a ticket overseas.” All this while NASCAR’s Americana is much more accessible. “F1 is disturbingly European,” he says. “If you went to your average American, they’d be like, ‘Uhhh Vodafone? Sauber?’ ”
The group at Kezar’s cheers as Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber crosses the finish line first. Many in the crowd have paid that steep airfare to see Monaco live, making a trip to the hallowed Grand Hotel Hairpin and the Nouvelle Chicane firsthand. While American Formula One fans are a rare breed within U.S. borders, to see one overseas is like glimpsing an endangered species.
“I went to Spa with a friend in 2007, and it was hilarious because we were two single American women showing up and no one had any idea what to do with us,” says Charlotte Evans, who runs the San Francisco MeetUp.com Formula One group. “We went to a bar in Brussels afterwards and we saw a group of guys, and they were all gasping. People would take our picture and run.”
“It’s like Chez Panisse or McDonald’s,” sighs Terry Griffin, a retired Formula One photographer. “There’s always going to be a few people who are McDonald’s people -- that’s the NASCAR crowd.”
It’s hard to argue with Griffin as he stands amid $30 million worth of gleaming, mint-condition sports cars at a San Francisco F1 event at the Mallya Collection in Sausalito, California. Vijay Mallya is chairman of India’s UB Group, a conglomerate that includes Kingfisher beer and Kingfisher Airlines -- and more importantly for F1 fans, he is team principal and co-owner of the Sahara Force India Formula One team.
Malcolm Page is curator of the collection, ensuring that Mallya’s cars are ready to roll should he visit his nearby home and want to take his 1913 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost or 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder for a spin across the Golden Gate Bridge. Keeping the cars in ready-to-run condition is a technical feat, something that Page, as a Formula One fan, particularly appreciates.
“Formula One is all about the engineering,” Page says. “The technology you get in F1 today is so much more above an Indy car.”
And those racing fans who do appreciate how F1 pushes aerodynamics are rewarded. The San Francisco F1 gathering is doubling as a fund-raiser for the Make A Wish Foundation. As Sausalito housewives teeter around a red Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing in impossibly high heels, a replay of the Monaco race plays on a big-screen over the bar. It’s a convivial, almost impossibly posh experience -- all the free-flowing booze and food in a private garage on the harborfront that’s packed with priceless automobiles.
“If you don’t know people in a group like this, then you’re home watching alone,” says club member AJ Rosensky, “and that can get lonely.”
The Legend: No Time Like the Present
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 chance for F1 in the U.S. than right now.
The Red Bulletin: Do you think now is the right time for the U.S. 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 in the interest of 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.
I heard you took a little turn around the Austin track in an SUV.
[Laughs] 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. [Laughs] They were out there cheering on, “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 racecar and get a taste of it in a non-SUV. [Laughs.]
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 fan base. Lots of the NASCAR drivers follow Formula One and vice versa. We’re all fans of one another.
How about the possibility of 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 theater. 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.
What can we do to get an American driver on the grid?
What makes it difficult here to groom drivers who compete at that level is that the individual has to really want Formula One specifically. America, unlike every other country in the world, has a motor-racing series that can provide you with a brilliant career without having a passport. You could have a NASCAR career and be just fine with that. When I was racing here, Formula One was foremost in my mind. I’m driving a midget somewhere on a dirt track, and I’m thinking of Dan Gurney in a Ferrari. To me, it would be so valuable if the FIA would open up the opportunity for teams to field a third car at some events. Who knows, some talent somewhere would showcase and we’d be like, “Oh my God, this guy! The first time out he even beat one of the regulars!”
What does driving a Formula One car feel like?
It’s like a fighter aircraft. It’s purpose-built for one thing: Speed. You can experience the limit of what an automobile can do. An Indy car is a compromise because [it runs on] the oval. They’re much heavier; it doesn’t brake as well. A stock car has windows, it has a roof, it has fenders. In an F1 car, you don’t have air-conditioning in your helmet, you don’t have a hook on the side where you can hang your hat so you can put it on before you come out.
In your career, what do your years in Formula One mean to you?
I don’t think I could have really called my career complete unless I had a stint in Formula One. It’s where my love for the sport began.
Things seem to be progressing to also having a grand prix in New Jersey. What do you think of the potential of having another F1 race in the U.S.?
It’s even better. Let’s face it, this country, of all countries, is big enough to host two grands prix. If you ask me, I’d love to have five. It can only help. If they can make that happen, God bless them. Or as they say, Godspeed.
The Track: Deep in the heart of Texas
The United States Grand Prix will be held Nov. 16-18, 2012, at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. Is the city -- known for big-ticket music festivals like SXSW and Austin City Limits -- ready for a sports event the magnitude of a Formula One race?
August 27, 2012: 83 Days Until the USGP
Dave Doolittle remembers in July 2010 when the FIA, the governing body of Formula One, officially announced that Austin would be the host of the United States Grand Prix.
Everyone sitting around him at his workplace, the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, swiveled in their seats to stare at him. He was the staff’s only out-and-proud Formula One fan.
According to Doolittle, community reaction has been mixed: Sports fans and car nerds are intrigued, but a segment of the population is aggravated that taxpayer dollars are being used to supplement the cost of building a track for a sport that’s favored by Middle Eastern oil sheiks and corporate raiders.
“I think 10 percent of the city loves the idea and 10 percent hates it,” he says. “And the other 80 percent really want to know what’s for dinner. They don’t care.”
August 28, 2012: 82 Days Until the USGP
There is a countdown clock in the lobby of the Circuit of the Americas executive office on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. Its angry red digital numbers relentlessly tick down.
“When there were like 300 days or 200 days, it was kind of okay,” says Bruce Knox, executive vice president of COTA. “Then when it went from triple digits to double digits, you start getting kind of nervous.” The last F1 race in the U.S. was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a storied bastion of motorsports history. It begs the question: Why Austin? One reason: logistics. Austin is about a three-hour flight from either U.S. coast or the border with Canada.
Ticket sales have been brisk, with two tiers selling out: the $159 roam-where-you-want-to three-day pass for grassy spaces that line the track, and the three-day bleacher seats that started at $269. Fifteen percent of the tickets sold so far are for international fans -- 37 countries total.
The name of the track -- the plural on “Americas” -- is no coincidence. The border is a four-hour drive from Austin -- and Knox says Mexican F1 driver Sergio Perez’s fans are devoted. “At Grands Prix, people from [Perez’s] family will see me, and they’ll say, ‘There’s the guy from the Mexican Grand Prix.’”
August 29, 2012: 81 Days Until the USGP
Right now, there are just two things speeding around the Circuit of the Americas: dragonflies and dumptrucks. A team of 900 construction workers are onsite round-the-clock, seven days a week. The 3.4-mile track is ensconced in 11,000 acres of Texas scrubland, and nature still lurks on the outliers of the circuit: deer, wild hogs, turkeys, rattlesnakes.
It’s a sprawling layout designed by Tilke Engineers & Architects, and there are turns on the track in homage to other circuits: a hairpin from Istanbul, a G-force-generating left-right-left reminiscent of the Hockenheimring in Germany.
Standing at the track’s peak elevation -- it’s at Turn One, a left-hander that comes after a sharp 133-foot climb from the starting grid straightway -- there is the faint smell of hot asphalt as the final layers of the track cure. The skyscrapers of downtown Austin can be seen in the distance, a reminder that, eventually, big construction projects get finished.
The Superstar: Anonymous in America
Sebastian Vettel is one of the most famous racecar drivers in the world. But in New York, he can pretend he’s just any other guy.
Vettel kept his chin down, trying to remain unobtrusive as he went through customs at the American border. He just raced in the Montreal Grand Prix, where he finished fourth. Given that he started the race on pole and recorded the fastest lap -- Vettel reached an average of 130 mph on his final lap around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve -- finishing off of the podium was a disappointment. He was hoping to duck the crowds of fans who usually spot him in public places and get some solitude to go over the race in his head.
The American customs official swiped his passport and looked it over. “Why did you go to Canada?” he asked.
“For the Grand Prix in Montreal,” Vettel replied.
The agent nodded. “Did you get good seats?” he inquired.
Welcome to America, where being the two-time Formula One world champion doesn’t mean a thing.
It’s an odd sensation for the 25-year-old Vettel. The F1 racing season consists of 20 races in locations as disparate as Abu Dhabi and Singapore, and in each locale he gets a reception that’s akin to how Americans treat Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton -- a young athlete who has already demonstrated potential for greatness.
Vettel is a driving prodigy, a man who has the prefix “youngest ever” attached to most of his Formula One records: youngest ever to lead a race, youngest ever to be on pole, youngest ever to win a race, youngest ever world champion, youngest ever two-time world champion.
After Vettel annihilated the field in 2011 -- he won 11 races for Red Bull Racing after qualifying on pole 15 times -- the regulatory overlords at F1 mandated a new compound of Pirelli tires be used during the 2012 season. The rubber used in the tire results in erratic driving conditions, with car response being consistent only in its inconsistency. “The tires degrade quickly,” Vettel says. “Not in one lap, but that’s not far off.” The upshot is that seven different drivers won the first seven races of the year -- a first in Formula One.
For Vettel, this makes it the first season in many years where he isn’t the presumptive winner from the moment the race takes off. His wins year-to-date have come in Bahrain, Singapore, Japan and Korea, and he is ahead by a scant six points in the overall driver standings in front of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
Vettel is taking the season in stride, and defuses the suggestion that he was under pressure after his dominance last year. “I don’t want this to be the best part of my life,” Vettel says. “I don’t want to be 65 and look back and have what I was doing at 22 or 23 be the peak.”
Others are less sanguine. The global nature of F1 means that at any given moment, there are millions of people with thoughts about the last race, the next race, or how Vettel flubbed the apex on that one turn in Montreal. There are the thousands of blogs who do a Talmudic analysis of every offhanded comment Vettel makes and analyze his body language in his interactions with teammate Mark Webber. There are the autograph seekers. There are the screaming girls.
“Actually,” Vettel says, “the screaming girls are okay.”
Visiting the United States gives Vettel a chance to breathe the air outside of the Formula One bubble. Because F1 only has a cult following in the U.S., America has long been the choice vacation spot for Formula One drivers, an escape from the constant attention they receive across the rest of the globe. All-time-great driver Michael Schumacher vacations in the Rockies; photos of McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton rock climbing in Colorado quickly made their way around Facebook during the summer.
During his time off last year, Vettel flew to San Francisco and drove down the coast to Los Angeles on Pacific Coast Highway, then headed inland across the desert to Las Vegas. (So what does the two-time Formula One world champion drive on a road trip? “Just a rental car,” Vettel shrugs, sheepish.) “I enjoy America, and I want to see more of it outside of the cities,” he says.
Vettel has a nostalgic fondness for the country, since his first race was at the United States Grand Prix in 2007, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He finished eighth, becoming -- yes -- the youngest driver to ever earn a championship point in Formula One history. He was 19.
The accomplishment came after a lifetime of amateur karting and minor-league Formula racing. By the time he was 18, he still hadn’t decided to become a professional racecar driver; Vettel was applying to college when he got the call up to Formula One.
His first session in the car did not go well. “I remember thinking, ‘This is for men, I’m a boy,’ ” Vettel says. “I’m done.”
But he wasn’t. He now loves the power of a Formula One car, the 7-speed V8 beast that can rev to 18,000 rpm with 900 horsepower. “I wish everyone could drive it,” Vettel says. “It’s not like going out in a typical sports car, like taking your Jaguar out. I was so tired I couldn’t hold my head up.”
The waiter at Lavo on 58th and Madison Avenue is the quintessential good Manhattan waiter. He has picked up from contextual cues -- namely, the four-person entourage that makes requests like: “Sebastian has a flight to catch tonight, he needs to be served first” -- that Vettel is a Very Important Person, indeed. It is also evident by the slightly bewildered way that he brings Vettel’s dinner -- Eye contact? No eye contact? Speak to him directly? Don’t speak to him directly? Wait until he stops checking Euro Cup soccer scores on his iPhone or just barge right in? -- that he has no idea who he is.
He tentatively but efficiently brings Vettel a meal of steak, potatoes, and vegetables. As Vettel drinks half a beer, he recounts his day. He’s in New York for a press conference for the Grand Prix of America, a proposed race across the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, that hopes to be included on the 2013 F1 race calendar.
Vettel took several laps on the planned track -- it’s a road course, like Montreal and Monaco -- in a 348-horsepower Infiniti IPL G coupe. Starting along the riverfront, the anticipated course has a 157-foot elevation change, and Vettel thinks he would be able to hit in excess of 200 mph on the straightaways -- all with an astonishing view of the New York skyline from the grandstands.
“There are a lot of fast, flowing corners, and that’s what we the drivers really like,” Vettel says. “You need to have big balls. It should be real fun.”
The police escort trailing behind him huffed and puffed and failed to keep up with Vettel as he blew over the speedbumps in the Infiniti at 80 mph uphill. After spinning a few doughnuts down by what would be the pit lane entrance, Vettel unloaded his queasy passengers -- mostly friends of local politicians -- in front of the ferry terminal.
But the day isn’t all ditching the cops and doing doughnuts. There are still the out-of-their-depth reporters who ask Vettel questions like: “Do you like being German?” (Vettel responded with a bemused “Do you like being American?”) But that morning, Vettel left his room at 6 a.m. to wander the streets of downtown Manhattan. He enjoyed the rare ability to be alone in the canyons of skyscrapers with just his thoughts and the early June sunrise. “One person recognized me,” Vettel says. “It was a European tourist.”
Check out the December 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands November 13) for more of the article. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.