Formula 1?s lost nations: USA

Mario Andretti was world champion for Lotus in 1978

Mario Andretti was world champion for Lotus in 1978

Last world champion: Mario Andretti, Lotus, 1978
Last Grand Prix winner: Mario Andretti, Lotus, Zandvoort, 1978
Last Grand Prix starter: Scott Speed, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Nurburgring, 2007
Last Grand Prix: Indianapolis, 2007

Although F1 has never been hugely popular in America, and probably never will be, it has a small but dedicated following in the USA. Unfortunately the last period of F1 racing in America showcased some of the sport’s very worst moments.

America?s F1 history

As with many sports, America?s domestic motor racing series have always attracted more interest among home fans than their drivers? efforts to achieve success on the international stage. America has a long tradition of oval racing, from the once-great Indy Car series, which tore itself apart in the 1990s, to stock car racing which dominates the US racing scene today.

But Phil Hill was drawn to the international scene. He was the first American-born driver to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, and won the world championship for Ferrari in 1961. He left the team the year after, and retired from racing altogether in 1967. He died of Parkinson’s Disease last year.

Mario Andretti, whose family emigrated from Italy after World War Two and settled in Pennsylvania, took the title for Colin Chapman?s Lotus team in 1978. In a tragic parallel with Hill, he too won the championship on the day his team mate was killed.

Andretti last raced in F1 in 1982 and since then very few Americans have competed in the world championship. Once of them was Mario?s son Michael, whose 1993 effort was memorable only for being an unmitigated disaster.

Efforts to find a home for an American Grand Prix have been thwarted by more than just the public?s preference for Indy Car and NASCAR. F1?s promoters have shown no willingness to make concessions to secure a foothold in the world?s most lucrative market. Popular events at classic tracks such at Watkins Glen (1961-1980) and Long Beach (1976-1983) fell by the wayside for these reasons. But losing unloved venues like Las Vegas (1981-2) and Phoenix (1989-91) was easier to accept.

F1?s latest attempt to establish itself in America ended in 2007 and several of the manufacturer-backed teams voiced their displeasure that Bernie Ecclestone had been unable to agree terms with Indianapolis boss Tony George. Worse, F1 shot itself in the foot twice at the Brickyard: in 2002 the race ended in a contrived farce as the Ferrari drivers swapped positions on the final lap, and in 2005 only six cars took the start after Michelin discovered problems with its tyres.

America?s F1 future

America has never been short of good racing drivers ?ǣ the problem has usually been that they aren?t interested in Formula 1, or they are, but can?t find any sponsors who would rather be on an F1 airbox than a NASCAR fender.

Marco Andretti, son of Michael, had until recently been tipped for a future F1 drive. But the team that showed the most interest in him, Honda, is up for sale and Andretti?s efforts are now focused on his Indy Car career.

Another up-and-coming America driver to keep an eye out for in the future is Alexander Rossi. Rossi won the BMW World Final in Mexico at the end of last year (pictures here), aged 17. He beat Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, who won the F1-supporting Formula BMW Europe championship last year.

As for America returning to the F1 calendar, I hope it happens soon. But with NASCAR and Indy Car ticket prices so much lower than what is charged in F1 I can’t see how an American race promoter could afford Ecclestone’s prices. And although America has many fine road racing circuits – Road America, Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta to name just three – few are up to F1’s safety and facilities standards.

Do you think we’ll see another American in F1 soon? Will F1 go back to the USA soon? Have your say in the comments.

American F1 driver biographies

Formula 1’s lost nations

Alexander Rossi in the BMW World Final 2008, Mexico

Alexander Rossi in the BMW World Final 2008, Mexico

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64 comments on Formula 1?s lost nations: USA

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  1. David said on 28th January 2009, 8:40

    I would like F1 be back on the Glen.

  2. F1Yankee said on 28th January 2009, 9:04

    manufacturers and sponsors are desparate for a presence in north america, and there’s plenty of fans here to welcome them. bernie has sold us all out to asia, in general, and the sheiks in particular.

    although i have no affection for indianapolis, nor tony george and family, to their credit they have been trying to bring f1 back. team sponsors are (were) willing to make up for the difference in bernie’s asking price, but he still refused.

  3. ajokay said on 28th January 2009, 9:15

    3 Races in America please… East Coast GP at Sebring, West Coast GP at Laguna Seca, and an Oval GP on Indy’s Speedway

    Scott Speed can stay well away though. He’s been the only American i’ve seen race in F1 (I was slightly too late to see Andretti fail in a McLaren), and if his manner and temperement are anything to go by, I’d rather not see another one.

    • ajokay, trust me I believe Speed’s attitude is not the norm for American drivers and sportsmen. Yes, we live in a culture where victory and excellence is prized, but there are many drivers here who are great with the fans and very friendly. While he may not be at the top of many prospect lists, I did an interview with Jonathan Summerton for a guest post on here, and the guy was not only quick to respond to my requests, but also was as friendly and helpful as anyone i’ve ever interviewed in my writings.

      In Speed’s case, I applaud Red Bull for trying to find and develop American talent, but forcing Speed into a car when he probably wasen’t ready was not their best move. Had he developed and matured more, or had a different driver been picked from the American Driver Search, it could be a whole different situation now.

  4. arthur954 said on 28th January 2009, 10:01

    North America is a natural place for F1. I agree with ajokay that there should be a tour, with Canada and at least 2 US races – good for logistics´and fun for the drivers. The North american Tour could end up being the most exciting part of the calendar.
    This would be much better for sponsors than the typical GP that Bernie comes up with, on tracks with empty seats and no history.
    There could be guest appearances by American drivers, and a lot of good press.

    In bike racing, the 500cc class is now called MotoGp, is even more popular than before, and the most fun race of all is the USGP at Laguna Seca, with all kinds of celebrities attending like Michael Jordan who owns a bike team, Brad Pitt who owns several bikes, etc.
    But as long as we have Bernie “Gimme Some Mo´” this is unlikely to happen : he runs F1 in a somber way that is no fun, and CVC keeps all the money.

    What I think is important is that future rules changes produce cars that actually fit on an existing racetrack. These F1 cars of today are huge – specially LONG. They make nearly all tracks obsolete, and make passing difficult. There are BEAUTIFUL tracks in North America, but the cars have to be designed so they fit in the tracks — if not the only places to race are on new tracks in the Middle and Far East

    A final thought for an American racer in F1 : Mark Donahue – you can look him up in Google. His team Penske once bought a works Ferrari and redid it better than the factory – a fascinating story to investigate

    • Great point about the MotoGP race at Laguna Seca- I think that event grows more and more popular every season, the riders seem to love it, and it is a perfect exampel of what F1 could have if Bernie was sensable.

      As I would say to Bernie…. “You now have ZERO F1 races in America, while MotoGP has not one but two races- both being held at at tracks that were upgraded for your show. When A1GP joins they frey here in the next few years, how will you explain your prolonged absence from this market to your shareholders and sponsors, let alone the fans?”

  5. The USA needs to be back on the F1 calendar – the world championship can never truly be a world championship unless it races in the US. For F1 to get a real foothold in the US it needs a good venue, low ticket prices and at least one competitive American driver on the grid. But these are not easy to overcome.

    Indy was a reasonable place for a race but has too many bad associations – Michael Schumacher trying to engineer a dead heat, the Michelin debacle, etc. But Indy has an extremely dull track layout beyond its use of the oval. Although F1 would work better in a setting like Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen or Road America none of these places are likely to come up to scratch safety-wise.

    F1 also needs to be able to offer well priced entrance tickets and better access to teams and drivers, which is pretty much par for the course in the US. I went to a CART race in New Hampshire in ’93 – it cost about the same as attending a British F3 meeting and about a tenth of the cost of attending the European GP at Donnington the same year.

    Lastly, drivers. Even in Indycars the leading drivers are mainly non-American – Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe, Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, etc. Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick have not often been thought of as serious F1 prospects.

    If F1 really wants to gain some ground in the US, it may have to bite the bullet and make some compromises – race on a classic US circuit, allow a couple of wildcard entries from US drivers, perhaps even try to link up with Indycar to run a joint event, offer heavily discounted tickets, etc.

    • There are dilemmas, though: allowing wildcard US drivers to race on F1-spec cars: they won’t be used to it and therefore will most likely underperform. Allowing Indycars to race alongside F1 cars? The differences in performance characteristics might make this unsafe, though then again, F1 and F2 cars used to race concurrently without much fuss.

    • Michael- You’ve got a good point on that note. If you want to spin it another way, think about this for a second….

      I know everyone even close to F1 is enamoured with Monaco, but on the same weekend, perhaps one of the F1 teams should consider entering one or more of their young drivers for the Indianapolis 500. They would need to find a driver with a clear schedule, given the near-month of practice and qualifying, but it would be a neat marketing ploy if someone was up to it.

  6. Pete Walker said on 28th January 2009, 11:17

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I still say have the USGP on the Indy oval. Obviously there several large practical issues (cars would need to be modified, race length would need extending, F1 drivers would no doubt refuse etc etc) but can you imagine it as an event? The sense of occasion would be second only to Monaco (and thats including Singapore).

    I know this idea comes straight from laa laa land but I strongly believe that if you want to turn American race fans on to F1, give them a format they’re already invested in.

    As for drivers, if Danica Patrick ever happens upon a run of success in her career, I can actually see her making the jump to F1 – the marketing potential is enormous.

  7. I’d like to apply some common sense logic if I may to break it down. If Bernie reduces his money demands, he will be able to go to more venues, and thus increase F1 exposure massively to more markets, thereby filling his pockets with vastly more of exactly what they all want i.e. money…

  8. dploy said on 28th January 2009, 11:57

    I live in Florida and 2 weeks ago I spoke to some marketing officials that work for the state tourism board . They admitted that they seriously looked at Miami or Daytona as a venue for F1.

    But when the price tag came down for term commitments, fees, security costs and ‘fan management’ as they put it, they could not justify it.

    They further said that they had doubts that any municipality in America could afford such an expensive event. Especially now that most Police Dept’s personnel are being cut, municipal jobs are thin and taxpayers are stretched. Just too hard to get the public to approve.

    Shockingly, their feasibility study showed that a F1 event was 3 times more expensive than the Super Bowl or World Series, and 10 times more than a domestic NASCAR or Indy race.

    Has Bernie out-priced the event for America? They think so…

  9. bernification said on 28th January 2009, 12:18

    I have to say,IMHO you’re all looking at this from the wrong way round.
    ‘If F1 wants to come to America it has to do….’?

    It’s hard enough for the UK and France to keep there respective GP’s (with all their heritage) and get teams to agree on things. Getting them to change the cars, rules, or introduce new drivers is not going to happen.

    Either prospective host need to put in a lot of groundwork, or we get rid of the poison dwarf.

    Bernie only looks at this as a commodity, he doesn’t look at it and think, ‘who really deserves a GP’.
    He thinks ‘who will give me the most money’.

    I’d love to see a race in the US (Laguna Seca would be cool!, but would the cars make it round the corkscrew?), but not if it’s some kind of mickey mouse race.

    Changing the cars to fit the course! They spend millions on the cars- they’re not going to build a 1 off to fit on a course because the owners can’t bring it up to F1 standards.

    I’d like to see a legitimate round of the F1 world championship, but keep the ‘celebrities’ away. Christ, we get enough of those gurning vampires (who have no interest in F1, but know a photo-op) at Monaco.

    • Sorry but Leguna Seca is definately not suited to F1. I do believe there are better tracks. It is perfectly suited to MotoGP and other bike races though…

  10. Keith! Keith! What about Danica Patrick?

    She might not be a stellar racer but she is potentially decent, proficient, second-driver material. And she brings massive publicity and marketing opportunities with her wherever she goes.

    It’s extremely possible that some F1 team is going to see the potential of a big US name capable of attracting business even during a global downturn – plus the buzz of signing a female driver.

    She’s also good on race tactics and timing which is something that could definitely work to her advantage in F1.

    And if someone like Alonso tried mind games on her, well, she’d probably just sock him right on the nose…

    You might very well disagree, and say you don’t rate her. There’s certainly a counter-argument to be made that she doesn’t cut it, which I freely acknowledge.

    But, as ever with Danica, I don’t think you can ignore her!

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 28th January 2009, 13:48

      But as with Andretti, she’s closely linked to Honda and that’s not a route to F1 any more.

      But you’re right, a team looking to make headlines couldn’t do any better than to sign her up.

  11. Jonatas said on 28th January 2009, 14:19

    As a resident here in the US, I can’t wait to see another GP here in the states. As per ticket prices, the admissions at Indy were the cheapest F1 tickets you could get out of all the races on the calendar. I discovered this brutal reality when I decided to go to the Canadian GP in 08.

    Dan Gurney is another great American driver who had mild success in F1. He won the Belgian GP in a car of his own creation back in the mid-sixties. That’s a one and only for USA in F1.

  12. Clare said on 28th January 2009, 14:53

    The Canada/USA double header was one of my favourite parts of the calender of recent years, so much so I actually went all the way from the UK to both of them in 2005 (yes that wonderful Indy race of 2005!) Of all the F1 circuits I have been to (currently stands at 5) I think the North American two are my favourite. Indianapolis had a brilliant crowd atmosphere – better than any other I have been to, (well, before the six car incident anyway!), passionate fans, I had no complaints about the facilities, the ticket price was fantastic compared to most of the other F1 events i have attended and i didnt have to queue for anything all weekend. Indianapolis had that wow factor when I went – just so big, so impressive and the whole weekend gave great access, as well as being able to be really quite close to the cars in some stands.

    It really is such a shame that the sport becomes more and more about money than anything else, because I dont know anyone who is happy with the fact there are no North American races, teams and fans alike, and the fans are so important to the sport, yet seem so insignificant in the eyes of some of the top powers. It’s ridiculous that a WORLD Championship doesnt contain a race from North America, especially given the continent’s passion for motorsport on the whole. It is an extremely important market which is currently being shunned in favour of places which dont have the same passion or popularity but have seemingly bottomless pockets full of money. I think some countries should be guaranteed a Grand Prix every year given their history with motorsport – the USA is one of them.

  13. Robert McKay said on 28th January 2009, 17:03

    For Team Radio-entertainment purposes alone I’d give Scott Speed an F1 drive.

    I wouldn’t give Danica a second thought, with all the respect in the world to her. She’s not even a great IRL driver.

    In terms of the race, there should definitely be a United States Grand Prix, but I was glad to see TG stand up to Bernie and refuse to pay his demands. If Bernie gets with the program he’ll realise that in the long run he’ll make more from letting Indy have a very cheap fee and getting some exposure in the States, but don’t hold your breath.

    Bernie will blame anyone but FOM for the race failure over there – he’ll blame the location, he’ll blame George, he’ll blame Michelin and he’ll try and make some sort of New York city-race GP happen, but he’ll be wasting his time.

    F1 doesn’t have to make a massive dent in North America, it just has to make a reasonable, sustainable impression, which it was doing fairly well before it all went wrong.

    • Perfect summary Robert. Indeed, I believe any motor racing event that shut down large stretches of NYC streets for even a weekend would be a disaster for everyone involved.

  14. I could go on a hate filled rant about Bernie, the two Indy farces, and other things but thinking about how the sport has been destroyed in North America just makes me very depressed. I am tired of being angry about it.

    The simple fact is that F1 and Bernie had a shot when the open wheel split happened in the mid-nineties to bring F1 into the American racing forefront and they blew it. The Indy experiment could of worked but Ferrari,(2002) Max and Bernie (2005) blew it. Long Beach should still be on the calendar rivaling Monaco for glamour but Bernie blew it. Watkins Glen had the history and tradition yet that went away. Vegas, Detroit, and Phoenix were a running string of jokes.

    I am 28 years old but I feel like an abused old housewife who believes that her husband of 30 years will stop beating her and start loving her one of these days. I look at NASCAR races sometimes on TV and see the stands packed, fathers holding their sons up, people smiling and having a good time. Despite the quality, racing is racing. If anything I am jealous. We had that with F1 and open wheel in the US but we’ve lost it.

    About once a year or so I go to the Portland raceway on an open weekend where I use to go to the CART races when I was a kid. I saw Nigel Mansell, the Andretti family, Emerson Fittipaldi , Al Unser Jr., Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal all race there. The old wooden stands are deafeningly now quiet. It is haunting and very creepy.

    Be careful Europe, if things don’t change in F1 soon for the better; this could be your future.

  15. > she’s closely linked to Honda and that’s not a route to F1 any more.

    Yes… the problem with Honda was that they seemed to collect drivers in the way that hoarders collect plastic bags, bits of string and cardboard boxes until they can’t get into their houses any more.

    They had far more people associated with them than they could ever have found drives for – Conway, Rossiter, Davidson, the list is a long one.

    However, since they have this link with IRL because of the engines surely it’s almost the case that every Indy driver who’s ever in the frame for F1 was automatically associated with them?

    You reminded me of that picture out there in the wilds somewhere of her holding hands with Our Jense – now that would have been a driver partnership made in heaven :D

    > I wouldn’t give Danica a second thought, with all the respect in the world to her. She’s not even a great IRL driver.

    She’s a gutsy, decent IRL driver – and a race winner, however much you want to qualify that with ‘fuel strategy’ remarks. She’s certainly not one of those people making a fool of themselves at the back of the field (the names Milka Duno and Marty Roth do rather spring to mind here).

    I know she’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I do think that a little bit more credit is due to her than she’s been getting in this thread so far.

    • Indeed, I will agree that Danica is not the worst driver on the IndyCar circuit. But if you printed out her career results without her name on the paper, do you still think the driver being described would be worthy of an F1 shot? Don’t forget that prior to the merger, she was driving in the oval-first IRL and not Champ Car, so she’s got some more work to do if she wants to prove she can drive in F1.

      If she came in and did reasonably well, fantastic. But it would be a circuis from the start, and if she failed, we’d have another Scott Speed deal- the driver is there for about 90% marketing and 10% racing- with 1,000 times the bad press and public flak.

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