MONTREAL – The world has come to Quebec this weekend, in the form of the Formula One “circus.” This billion-dollar racing juggernaut spans five continents and reaches a total of 527 million viewers around the world, compared to the 111 million who tuned into this year’s Super Bowl.

The reaction from Canada’s neighbor to the south? Largely, a big yawn.

“I think Formula One has the same identity crisis in the U.S. that World Cup soccer does,” said Jerry Gappens, general manager of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., noting the absence of buzz around an event taking place mere hours’ drive away.

The lack of a large fan base in the United States has long plagued F1 management, but the construction of the country’s first purpose-built F1 venue in Austin, Texas coupled with the recent addition of a Grand Prix there for the 2012 schedule may help get a toehold here.

“The challenge that’s faced by the Grand Prix is faced by a lot of international sports,” said Brian Corcoran, president of the Shamrock Sports Group, a Portland-based sports marketing firm.

Getting an American behind the wheel will be a big step to grow the American audience.

“Lacking a driver to root for is a big issue,” said Corcoran. F1 needs “an American who brings performance and personality to the sport.”

Adam Parr, chairman of the AT&T Williams F1 team, agrees. “In every country, a sport takes off when there’s a national champion,” he said.


Team Lotus may have a leg up on other F1 teams in trying to grab a share of a U.S. audience in American Alexander Rossi, a promising young member of Team Lotus’s driver development program, who might be destined for an F1 seat in the near future.

Getting an American into the driver’s seat will be no easy task for many teams, though, since the U.S. lacks the feeder series — think lower levels of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series — that are prevalent overseas.

An American driver will be a big draw for F1, but sponsorship by American companies will also help, said Tom Webb, press officer for Team Lotus.

Sponsorship in Formula One has always had a distinctly European feel to it, with big names like the telecommunications giant Vodafone — well known overseas, but virtually unheard of here — playing prominent roles, along with worldwide brands like auto manufacturers Ferrari and Mercedes.

“As American fans see American brands, they’ll feel a connection,” said Webb, whose team counts Dell among its sponsors. “Once more American brands come in, you’ll see more fans from the U.S.”

Sponsorship, on the other hand, has led to one of the things that many Americans find off-putting about Formula One. In its efforts to promote exclusivity to its sponsors, F1 has jealously guarded access to the sport and its inner workings, in contrast to NASCAR’s greater level of access for regular fans.


It’s something that many F1 teams are trying to overcome through digital media and social networking, pushing information out to the fans even during the course of the race. And while the open house pit walk held here on Thursday might be the exception rather than the rule, digital media may help American fans get the behind-the-scenes information they crave.

“This allows us to embrace the fans,” said Webb. “It gives us an opportunity as a team to get a foothold in America.”

Teams need to be careful how they convey that information, though, said Parr of AT&T Williams, lest they overwhelm newcomers.

Things like the detailed, sometimes technical, Twitter feeds that many teams have could intimidate someone not familiar with F1. “I would suggest that that doesn’t work in developing a new fan,” he said.

Instead, he said, a way needs to be found to introduce Americans to the sport, one that will let them appreciate it for all its complexities.

“There’s so much going on there,” said Parr. “And we need to communicate that to the people. We’ve got to convey that subtlety and richness.”


Parr also hailed the return of Formula One to the U.S. as a major step, saying “It will be a superb event at a superb location.”

The construction of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin is “a watershed moment for the sport in the United States,” said Peter Habicht, who runs the F1 in America website, which is devoted to the sport and its fans in the States. “A purpose-built F1 facility will be a point of focus. It will be a nucleus for Formula One fans in the U.S.”

Still, in a country as enthusiastic about motor sports — NASCAR, in particular — you might expect F1 and its new venue to get a little more attention. But that’s not the case.

“It’s kind of like cricket and baseball. They both involve bats and balls, but that’s about it, isn’t it?” said Will Buxton, F1 pit reporter for SPEED Channel, discussing the lack of overlap between the two sports.

That lack of overlap also helps explain the sanguine attitude felt by many involved in motor sports in the U.S. about this threat from abroad.

“We’re two different audiences,” said NHMS’s Gappens. “I don’t think they’ll be taking ticket sales away from us.”

While it might be tough road ahead of them, don’t expect that Formula 1 will give up on growing its fan base in the United States any time soon.

“It’s an accepted fact that F1 needs America more than America needs F1,” said Webb.