Formula One will attempt a comeback in the U.S. later this year when it runs a race in Austin, Tex., but whether the series can finally win over American fans remains to be seen.
In contrast, getting bums on seats and eyes in front of television screens isn't a problem for stock car series NASCAR, which has roughly 40 million hard core followers in the U.S., along with several million more casual fans.
While the downturn hurt NASCAR, F1 teams would almost kill to attract the kind of numbers the stock car series enjoys in these bad economic times.
Several NASCAR drivers have a few suggestions that might help F1 develop a real following in the U.S.
“I think that there are fans in the U.S. that love F1,” said four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
“The question is whether or not there are enough fans that they can draw a crowd that is willing to pay the ticket prices — you are talking about a higher end clientele.”
Gordon was once thought to be a U.S. driver who might end up in F1. A hugely successful stock car racer who is third in all-time NASCAR wins, Gordon fuelled speculation of a switch when he and then F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya swapped cars in a demonstration run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003 as part of a promotion to get fans to the track's grand prix.
The move to F1 never happened. Instead, he stayed in NASCAR and remains one of its biggest stars. This year, Gordon celebrates a 20-year relationship with his sponsor DuPont, which has had its name on his No. 24 Chevy for every race of his NASCAR career.
The famed Brickyard hosted eight U.S. Grand Prix beginning in 2000, but the run ended when Speedway boss Tony George refused to meet the sanctioning fee demands of F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. It also didn't help that the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix was marred by a problem with Michelin's tires that saw only six of 20 cars start the race, something that had many fans vowing never to watch another F1 event.
After three years of pressure from the auto manufacturers in F1, who wanted to race in the U.S. to help sell their cars, the series announced in June 2010 that it would sanction a race in Austin. The Texas city will host its maiden grand prix in November at a state-of-the-art, purpose-built racing facility.
A year later, F1 announced plans to run a second U.S. race on the streets of New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City. The planned 5.15-kilometre street course will run through the through the towns of Weehawken and West New York, with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop.
Although Gordon thinks that building a track in Austin, Tex., has several pluses, he's skeptical about F1 racing in New Jersey next year.
“I am going to question that one [New Jersey]until the day I see it happen — I just think there are too many variables that can shut that one down,” he said, adding that he watches every F1 race on TV.
“But Austin has potential: I know that area is untapped when it comes to motorsport, and I think it has the potential to draw a pretty good crowd. I hope it's successful, because I would like to see F1 back in the U.S. and find a home where they can draw a good crowd.”
The planned Texas event was wrought with troubles long before a car was even close to hitting the track, including a power struggle between the promoter and the track owner, difficulty getting state support, and delays in construction. While the organizers vow that the track will be ready and the race will go ahead, many in the NASCAR garage also expressed doubts that it would happen.
If and when it goes ahead, F1 should look at NASCAR as it tries to show U.S. fans that grand prix racing is for them, insisted Montoya, who moved to stock car racing in 2007.
After also competing for six seasons in F1 beginning in 2001, he has a keen understanding of the differences between the two series. He said that the closed paddock in F1 is the complete opposite of the fan-friendly atmosphere in NASCAR, and that's something that still won't play well with fans in the U.S. this time around.
“Honestly, if you go to an F1 race and after you've been there you come here [to NASCAR] you really notice the difference,” said Montoya, who drives the No. 42 Chevy. “I think that's the biggest thing.”
While NASCAR allows ordinary fans to enter the garage area with the appropriate ticket, the F1 paddock remains a closed community where only those with credentials issued by the series' governing Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile can pass through its high-tech electronic gates. In most cases, only team members, media, celebrities, and sponsors and their guests gain access to the paddock. Everyday fans hoping to get an autograph from their favourite driver or see an F1 car up close are usually plain out of luck.
MMontoya said F1 should pay attention to the access that fans have to his sport and the attitude NASCAR has when it comes to those who ultimately pay the bills.
“They have to look at what NASCAR is doing,” he said as he waved his hand in the direction of the fans mingling with the drivers and teams in the garage area directly outside of his hauler window at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“NASCAR is a sport for the fans: They really care about the fans, they really look after the fans, and they care what the fans think and that's why the fans love it. Here, they are really focused on making sure the fans are happy.”
Although he agreed that finding ways to appeal to those who are more accustomed to fan friendly NASCAR and IndyCar was a key to F1's success, Gordon insisted that winning U.S. crowds will require more than just changing the attitude at the track.
He pointed to the wildly successful National Football League, which doesn't have the accessibility of NASCAR, but still outdraws the racing series when it comes to fans. He insisted that F1 also needs to look at the product on the track where the guy on pole usually goes out and wins the race.
“For F1 racing to be successful there has to be more overtaking — they are cool cars and they are fast, but they never pass one another and I think that's the challenging part,” Gordon said.
“We are known for oval track racing and lots of lead changes. You can start almost anywhere in the field and still win the race, and while that's getting tougher and tougher all the time, it still does happen.”
While Gordon thinks the race in Texas will attract people from around the world who love grand prix racing, he's still not convinced enough U.S. fans will make the trip to Austin to ensure F1 will be successful over the long term.
Maybe U.S. fans are just too accustomed to their own homegrown sports to be attracted to another's different way of doing things, he mused.
“The U.S. fan is used to football that is different from soccer — a contact sport, high scoring — and NASCAR racing that has a lot of action, a lot of passing, wrecks where people walk away,” Gordon said.
“I think if you are not a real car enthusiast, you don't get F1.”
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