F1 in the US: Roadblock or Opportunity?

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that Formula One will stage a Grand Prix in Las Vegas, giving the international series three races in the US in 2023. The reaction among fans of the NTT IndyCar Series has been mixed – and that’s putting it mildly. Some follow the theory that the tide rises all boats, while others claim that the sky is falling on top of IndyCar.

Formula One has had a love-hate relationship with the United States for decades. It is a market they cannot ignore, but I think F1 leadership in the past would have preferred to – given the choice.

If you really want to get technical, the first US Grand Prix ran under the moniker American Grand Prix in 1908, which was a version of the Vanderbilt Cup. But my focus on the off and on status of the US Grand Prix will be on Formula One, which officially came into being in 1950, and the races run in the US under Formula One sanction.

Formula One staged races at Sebring (1959) and Riverside (1960), before settling in at Watkins Glen in 1961 for the next twenty-years. Watkins Glen had begun to deteriorate through the seventies and the track began to accumulate debt – including a $750,000 loan from the Formula One Constructor’s Association. Watkins Glen originally appeared on the 1981 Formula One schedule, but it was cancelled when the debts went unpaid. F1 never raced at The Glen again.

At about this same time, Long Beach had been hosting a Formula One race (since 1976), known as the US Grand Prix West. Once The Glen fell off the schedule, other Formula One races popped up in cities like Dallas, Detroit and Las Vegas. After the 1984 Long Beach F1 race, track officials realized they could not make a profit off of Formula One, so they switched to CART and made the race an IndyCar event, which has continued to just this past weekend.

In 1989, Formula One settled on running a street race in Phoenix, which proved to be unpopular with the drivers and unnoticed by the locals, resulting in poor attendance. When Ayrton Senna won from the pole in Phoenix on October 7, 1991 – it would be the last time a Formula One race would be held in the United States for almost a decade.

Tony George had big visions for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the late nineties. For decades the massive facility was used only once a year, during the month of May. In 1994, NASCAR invaded the hallowed grounds for the first time when the Inaugural Brickyard 400 took place. With The Split in high gear in the late nineties, George wisely figured that the facility could host other motorsports events, if a road course was built in the infield. Carl Fisher and the other three original founders had originally planned an infield road course, but scrapped the idea before the track was built. Almost ninety years later, Tony George was able to finally see it through.

Of course, George had his eye on Formula One. Nothing else would have been worth demolishing the Master Control Tower and all of the stands to the south behind the pits. When the project was complete in 2000, a much larger Pagoda stood near the site of the old Master Control Tower, along with Formula One style garages stretching from The Pagoda all the way to the end of the pits toward Turn One. Inside the ovals was a winding 2.6-mile road course, with the idea of utilizing the Turn One of the oval with the cars running the opposite direction down the main straightaway.

The first US Grand Prix at Indianapolis drew over 225,000 fans and was won by Michael Schumacher. Formula One staged the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis from 2000 to 2007.

The closest I came to going was in 2002, when I took my two kids to Saturday’s qualifying session. I sat in the upper-deck of the E-Penthouse, and loved the sound of those high-pitched engines of that time, echoing off of the stands. The Honda engines of Jordan and BAR had notes that were ear-piercing, to the point that I had cover my ears, whenever I saw them approaching. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed being there that day. For the first time, IMS did not feel like the Speedway I had grown up with. The stands and building looked familiar, but there was no Midwest feel to the place. Instead, I felt like I was in a foreign country as few fans we came across were speaking English. Things felt much more normal, when I returned the following May.

This was not an exciting circuit. There was not a whole lot of passing and attendance dwindled. The 2005 race was known for the Michelin tire debacle, when fourteen cars chose to not race over safety concerns.

Less than a month after Lewis Hamilton won the USGP for McLaren in 2007, it was announced that IMS and F1 could not agree on terms for 2008. Ultimately, the 2007 race was the last Formula One race at Indianapolis and the last F1 race in the US for four years; making many around the globe wonder if F1 would ever catch on in the United States, or if Formula One really cared if it did or not.

Formula One returned in 2012 to the brand new Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. For a while, it looked as if the track’s finances may put that race in jeopardy. Formula One was purchased by US-based Liberty Media in 2017. The race has gained traction over the last couple of years and was packed last November. The Netflix series, Drive to Survive, has suddenly made Formula One popular in the US – so much so that a second Formula One US race will debut next month, in Miami – around Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins.

Liberty Media has done an outstanding job marketing Formula One, at least in the US market. For the first time, it seems that Formula One is actually concerned that they have a very small following in this country; and they are rapidly taking the right steps to correct this. Drive to Survive has done wonders to suddenly make F1 intriguing to US fans.

I’ll admit my interest in F1 waned considerable in this century. In the nineties, I would get up early on Sunday mornings to catch Bob Varsha on ESPN, and watch the race. I kept up with Formula One almost as much as IndyCar – and followed it a lot more closely than NASCAR. But somewhere along the way, Formula One grew tiresome to follow. The cars kept getting uglier and the politics became too much. By 2010 or so, an entire Formula One season would go by and I would realize at the end of the season, that I had not watched a single race. Between 2010 and 2020, I’m not sure I watched a single Formula One race.

In February of 2021, Susan and I spent two weeks in Louisville for her surgery. We had a lot of time on our hands, so we decided to check out Drive to Survive. We ended up binge-watching the first two seasons, and I think Susan enjoyed it as much as I did. Shortly after we got back home, Season Three dropped in and we watched it over one weekend. Coincidentally, that was just as the 2021 F1 season started – so we ended up watching several F1 races last season, and we’ve watched the first three races of the 2022 season with great interest.

So this brings us back to the original issue – should IndyCar fans be concerned that F1 is suddenly becoming very popular in this country, or will the newfound popularity of F1 actually enhance the appeal to IndyCar and help race attendance and viewer ratings?

I’m torn, because I think both could be the case. What I would like to see is that US fans are drawn to open-wheel racing due to the renewed interest in Formula One. Then they will be curious about an IndyCar race either in their local area, or they stumble across it on TV. If they come across it on TV, they may have previously kept scrolling through the channels, but since it sort of looks like Formula One – they will continue to watch it, and become IndyCar fans.

Before you scoff too much at that far-fetched idea, that’s how I became a Formula One fan in the early nineties. I was aware the F1 existed, but never watched it. By 1990, my fascination with IndyCar had become insatiable. I could not get enough. With no internet, no streaming and very few videotapes available at that time – I glommed on to anything I could find that even resembled IndyCar. That’s when I started watching Formula One, and became intrigued with their storylines, almost as much as IndyCar. When Nigel Mansell came over to run CART in 1993, as the reigning World Champion from 1992 – it was surreal. It brought legitimacy to IndyCar and a lot of Europeans started following the US-based series for the first time.

My becoming interested in Formula One in the nineties did nothing to detract from my interest in CART. In fact, it made me appreciate CART more because it demanded a broader skill set from its drivers. F1 drivers just needed to know road and street courses. IndyCar drivers, then as today, need to excel on road and street courses, as well as short ovals and super-speedways. It is a true overall champion, who can succeed on all four types of courses.

Will the new fans that are jumping on board the Formula One bandwagon realize this? Those that are becoming true fans probably will. Many won’t, but those will probably be the fickle fans that will be moving on from F1 in the next couple of years anyway, in search of the next great trendy sport to latch on to for a short time.

So while many are predicting gloom and doom that Formula One is going to be the death knell for IndyCar, I think this is actually an opportunity for IndyCar to appeal to many that would not have looked at them a few years ago. I think the timing is good, because I’m not sure the Hulman-George family had the wherewithal to go head-to-head with Formula One and Liberty Media. I think Penske Entertainment is much better equipped to turn this into an opportunity for IndyCar.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “F1 in the US: Roadblock or Opportunity?”

  1. My interest in F One started to vanish when Senna died but
    what killed the sport is dominance. F One became boring when Michael Schumacher won 7 world titles and even worse after Hamilton won another 7 titles. It just became predictable.
    The 2022 season looks a bit better.

  2. Quote
    What I would like to see is that US fans are drawn to open-wheel racing due to the renewed interest in Formula One. Then they will be curious about an IndyCar race either in their local area, or they stumble across it on TV. If they come across it on TV, they may have previously kept scrolling through the channels, but since it sort of looks like Formula One – they will continue to watch it, and become IndyCar fans.

    Exactly my thoughts and why not? If you like open wheel then I think this will be an accurate prediction.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Pretty much all types and series of racing have some sort of crossover appeal with each other, so the success of one can certainly benefit others, but… what exactly is it that Formula 1’s growing American fanbase finds appealing about the series and do those things sit in the overlapping part of an F1-Indycar Venn diagram or not?

    I would posit that Indycar can make inroads with F1 fans who find appeal in:
    – On-track racing action and speed
    – The nature of auto racing competition (including qualifying, pit work, in-race adjustments, tire management)
    – The general nature of race car engineering

    These things above are areas where Indycar and F1 are very similar.
    On the other hand, I would then posit that Indycar will struggle to appeal to F1 fans who are especially interested in:
    – Exotic foreign locales and jet-setting lifestyles
    – Brand prestige (for the series, constructors, and many of the sponsors)
    – Deep dives into race car engineering and technical innovation
    – Overt political statements (I’m not naming this as a good or bad thing, just something some folks do find to important and something that F1 does quite a bit more of than Indycar)
    – Drive To Survive-style drama between drivers, crews, and teams

    I would expect that new Formula 1 fans find the series’ appeal in a mix of these things, some entirely inside and some entirely outside of the Venn overlap… and some with things both inside and outside. There are going to be new F1 fans whose interest in F1 is driven by something Indycar simply cannot offer, but that group was never likely to become Indycar fans regardless. For those struck by the competition and speed of Formula 1, there seems to be little reason that they would not find at least some level of appeal in Indycar.

  4. I wish I shared your enthusiasm about Penske Entertainment. I opened up the Indy Car site and there is a black and white photo on a baby blue back ground. The IMS site has an article on NFT which is fine but the last post is from 8 days ago. I think there might be a couple of races there next month. Hiring media people from the local news outlets is fine but there needs to be someone handling the media with more national experience to better promote the sport.

  5. jvolgarino Says:

    George–Will race fans cross over to see other series? Your column has piqued my interest in open wheel racing, but I realize I know so little even though I’ve seen a couple of races in the past. You provide some great information for someone like me that really hasn’t understood the differences between Indycar and F1.

    I’m in Iowa, not especially known as a bastion for pro racing series other than sprint cars and county fair dirt tracks. When the Iowa Speedway was built, I followed the commentary about whether a short track like this one could survive and the jury may still be out on whether this venue has a great future.

    But I am excited to finally see an open wheel race (Indycar) this coming July and hope this will be the beginning of a long-term relationship between this old gearhead and these delicate looking road rockets. Your insight and knowledge are appreciated!

  6. Mark Wick Says:

    George, I think you are right, both ways. I will use football, as you often do, as a reference point. For years I followed the NFL even though Indianapolis did not have a team. I probably started watching the NFL because I did follow college football, probably because of my involvement with my junior high and high school football teams. Because I followed the NFL, I was quite curious to see what the WFL (World Football League) had to offer and watched every game on TV I could and became a fan. The same for the USFL. This weekend I will watch at least one game of the new USFL to see if I find it worth my time. I also discovered the CFL (Canadian Football League) four or five years ago, found I really love their rules and games, and follow that league as closely as possible even though I don’t have any way to watch games live. BTW, I strongly recommend to anybody who likes football to get familiar with the CFL and watch their games if you have ESPN. I haven’t payed any attention to the NFL for four or five years now. I used to cover, primarily for Associated Press, the 500 and those cars at various other Midwest venues, including MIS and Cleveland, for about 25 years, until the split. I then followed CART, then reconnected with the 500 in 2001. I have closely followed INDYCAR racing ever since. I also covered NASCAR, NHRA and IHRA through the ’70s and ’80s. Neither has an appeal to me now, but I am starting to follow sports cars, and will probably watch at least the first few SRX races this summer. INDYCAR is much easier to follow now, and more interesting, because I have access to practice and qualifying which help me to understand who the competitors are, why each race matters to each one, and helps to make even seemingly boring races more interesting because I know the sub plots. INDYCAR and F1 qualifying are often more interesting than the races. INDYCAR does need to do much better at providing options for people to get to know the drivers and other humans who participate in so many ways in INDYCAR, because the human connection is what builds, and holds, meaningful interest for those in the general public.

  7. Funny how as my interest in F1 has waned (and now evaporated) over the last few years, more Americans are suddenly fascinated. The new viewers are probably people who are obsessed with “reality” TV.

  8. “,,, head-to-head with Formula One and Liberty Media.”
    two against one will be struggle. it might work out better
    if all three join forces. it does not have to be
    a zero-sum outcome. as F1 has shown, the “pie”
    is growing in size, so the “pieces” are bigger, too.
    Penske’s piece of this proposed pie could be much
    larger than his home-made pie would ever be.

  9. Britindycarfan26 Says:

    I’m both a fan off f1 (since late 80s) and indycar …… which I first got into in 93 when Nigel mansell came over … to me the few things that one gets very wrong… the other has a good solution for and vise virsa … some years f1 has been terrible … (late 90s come to mind with the horrible grooved slicks ) but luckily indycar ( or both during the split!). was very generally good during those few years … and likewise when indycar had a bit off a dip generally f1 is doing well… it’s like being a new order and o.m.d fan… if one’s not up to anything at least the other one is making great music … if I could wave a magic wand they would “merge” so while it would still be a “world” f1 points championship still there would be a maximum off 9 races in the states (8 under state flags with one state 2nd race and/or biggest road course getting the USA flag gp ) … 4 would be road/street courses 4 would be “proper “ ovals including Indy and the 9th could be Cleveland/roval … pro’s gets rid off the worst indycar venues (mainly street tracks ) gets more races/teams/drivers/off American heritage into a “true” world single seater championship … gets f1 a bit more “grounded “ and more importantly get them onto a oval/roval a few times a year especially Indy just like they half did in the 60’s … but alas it won’t happen so I’m half worried this will be a brief fad (and a boring Miami track adds to that!) like 3 American races in the early 80s f1 was … and also at the moment we have 3 solid road/street course championships (f1/indycar/and fe is slowly getting better and more relevant all the time) all fighting for attention but also at the same time oval racing is slowly dying (NASCAR’s numbers down indycar oval tracks/attendance down?) … these all together just worries me!

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