AUSTIN, Texas – Formula One, the world’s most popular motorsport, is trying once again to conquer its final frontier: the United States. This time the Europeans aim to make it stick.
The glitzy sport with ultra-fast cars and a flair for the exotic has landed deep in the heart of Texas, of all places, with a gleaming new track, a down-to-the-wire championship race and hope that it can grab the attention of American race fans who rarely look up from the NASCAR standings.
The U.S. Grand Prix makes its grand return after a five-year absence Sunday at the $400 million Circuit of the Americas, a course built expressly for F1 on rolling scrub land just a few miles southeast of downtown Austin.
“This is what was needed,” said Mario Andretti, the Formula One champion in 1978. “Now we can compete with the rest of the world and some of those new venues that have gone up in the last few years in the Middle East and Asia.”
As NASCAR grew into the dominant motorsport in the U.S., demand and interest for open-wheel racing took a hit and F1 didn’t even race in the U.S. from 1992-99 before making its return at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the cradle of American racing. Even there it couldn’t last and track officials and Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone parted ways.
Formula One had seemingly abandoned the U.S. until Ecclestone made the surprise announcement in 2010 that it would return with a 10-year deal to race at a track that hadn’t even been built yet. With billionaire businessman Red McCombs an investor, organizers began a mad dash to build the track.
Austin seemed an odd choice. A trendy city of 1.5 million, Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World” and is the capital of Texas. But it hardly fits in with the other cosmopolitan F1 hosts like Melbourne, Shanghai or Singapore. Earlier this month, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell joked that Austin hosting F1 was “sort of like Mayberry having the Super Bowl.”
The U.S. Grand Prix achieved its mandatory goal of getting the track built, but the challenge will be how to succeed and keep drawing fans beyond the initial excitement of the inaugural race.
“It looks like they have got a beautiful circuit down there. The challenge is going to be maintaining that in year two, three, that kind of thing, because that’s where Formula One in the states has struggled,” said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts NASCAR and IndyCar races three hours north of Austin.
Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns and operates eight tracks, was dismissive of Formula One’s future in the U.S. and the possibility of it picking off fans from NASCAR. There’s already head-to-head competition. The NASCAR season finale in Homestead, Fla., is on the same day the U.S. Grand Prix makes its debut.
“Go back as far as you want to and Formula One has never worked in this country,” Smith said.
Zak Brown, founder of the Just Marketing International firm that caters to auto racing, sees a different scenario. He noted Formula One signed a four-year broadcast deal with NBC Sports Group. The exclusive rights deal, which begins next season, will provide more than 100 hours of programming across NBC and NBC Sports Network.
“You need a great home base, they have that. You need a good TV package, they’ve got an enhanced TV package,” Brown said. “Ideally, all they need now is an American driver.”
That hasn’t happened yet. This season’s championship chase is down to two drivers, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.