Formula 1?s lost nations: USA

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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

64 comments on “Formula 1?s lost nations: USA”

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  1. With respect – already we have money being put before talent in F1. Please don’t let hormones be included in this sad slow decline…

    1. I think we need to bear in mind that competitive motorsport isn’t some impartially-organised civic endeavour where the drivers with the most raw talent are allocated the best cars in the top teams by some kind of ranking because they really deserve to be there.

      This year in particular there are some superb drivers in all kinds of series who are without race seats because there are simply not enough to go around – Justin Wilson, Darren Manning, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jason Plato all spring to mind. And some youngsters who will never get the chance to make it big. Not fair, but then life isn’t.

      Every single driver on the F1 grid is there for talent plus some other reason – luck, determination, personal sponsorship or the ability to appeal to some marketing niche that helps keep the team solvent.

      So why is Danica’s gig any worse than, say, Nico ‘my dad was a world champion’ Rosberg’s? Or Takuma ‘give the Japanese fans what they want’ Sato’s? With things as they are this year F1 is already 90% marketing and 10% racing and we’ll be lucky if it stays that good.

      As for the crack about hormones – should we dispense with the adrenaline too, maybe? Lewis Hamilton has proved that old adage about if you want to come from outside the charmed circle and succeed you have to not just be merely good but outstanding – and all power to him. And it’s true that Danica’s probably not the female driver with the blazing talent to do the same.

      But she’s done a creditable job in a very tough world and she has earned my respect as a result.

    2. For clarity, I think many understood that my reference to hormones is not related to the fact that she is a woman and all the stupid stereotypical pub jokes that that usually entails. I just get the impression some people have the ‘hots’ for her and are allowing their judgements to perhaps be clouded…

  2. Rossi’s achievement at the BMW world series is great, but then I looked a picture of him next to Mario Thiessen and immediately thought “he’s too tall to be in Formula One!”.

    I don’t think another Grand Prix in the USA is going to happen as long as Bernie is in control, even if all of the manufacturers are screaming for it.

    I’d love to have races in Florida and California, somewhere that people actually want to go on a vacation. No offense, but not Indianapolis.

  3. The worst thing is not F1 doesn’t show up in North America, since the BIG 3 are to be dead. Rather, it’s the schedule seems far too early for most Americans. If you are Westerners, it’ll be extremely bad.

    Just consider the following EST (NYC, boston, philly) adjusted timing in 2009:

    AUS, 2:00am
    Malaysia, 5:00 am
    China, 3:00 am
    Bahrain-Singapore, 8:00 am
    Japan, 1:00 am
    Brazil, 12:00pm (the only one race that is OK for general watching)
    Adu Dhbai, 6:00 am

    Therefore, I missed most starts last year, even for Spa.

    For PST (bay area, Seattle), 3 hours earlier!

    I should acknowledge that for such global races, you can’t find a way to satisfy all people, yet considering the market in North America, I should say, teams and sponsors would not be satisfy.

  4. I remember that the U.S. Grand Prix, when raced at Watkins Glen, was in the autumn, and there were lovely images of the cars racing among trees with fall colours of red and orange – it is one of my childhood memories from seeing these things in car magazines.

  5. First off, as a dedicated American fan of the sport, my compliments to everyone on here who supports a return of F1 to the United States. After so many negative comments by Bernie and a very small majority of fans, it is great to hear all of this positive support from around the world.

    Keith makes a great point that F1 may never be “hugely popular” in America, but let me try to add to that feeling. As someone who juts got hooked on F1 after being dedicated to traditional American sports, my feeling is that F1 needs to develop a marketing strategy and promote itself in a manner that dose not directly compete with mainstream American motorsport. There is a great core of F1 fans here, and that audience can be expanded on and developed into a very successful and profitable fanbase that has enough of a mainstream presence to be worth major sponsorship and TV Dollars.

    The best example I can use is English Premiere League Soccer. While MLS is making good strides and growing in popularity, it is the Premiereship that has the big following among a growing number of fans here in America. The league is creeping into mainstream sports more and more here, and I would imagine they are making a few Dollars here as well. F1 can be all that and more if they just realise they need to put in just a little work and effort on our shores.

    1. Interesting example about the EPL, hadn’t heard that before.

      But would you agree it is broadly the case that home-grown sports are more popular in America than international ones? NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB…

    2. Indeed Keith, you have hit it right on the head. All of those sports you mentioned (nice job on the acronyms, by the way) are tops in America, and perhaps that is best seen now during the ongoing Super Bowl Week. But along with that, the EPL is a good example-it is growing in popularity because it dose not try and go head-to-head with the mainstream. F1 can follow the same route- it just needs the powers to be to put a strategy in motion.

      At the end of the day, I am living proof that something like this can work, After never following F1 for 21 years, and growing up addicted to the NFL and MLB, I’m hooked to the point where I proudly mention McLaren along with the New York Giants and Yankees as my favorite sports teams :)

    3. Bernification
      29th January 2009, 9:38

      Hey Gman,

      The EPL hasn’t happened by chance in America- it’s taken concerted effort on the part of hugely successful brands like Man. United, Arsenal and Chelsea, who all turn over huge profits every year, and the Premier League, with expensive world wide advertising.

      I think you identify this fact in the F1 markets itself, but I just can’t see Bernie changing that. He feels that as F1 is the worlds premier open wheel racing, everyone else ie. the individual promoters, should do this. He won’t. It’s not his field, or his style (to spend money).

      Thats the sad truth. He needs to go.

  6. I hope you guys diden’t mind, but I just diden’t want to post one huge comment, so I broke it up a bit.

    On F1 venues in America and a possible return, we all know Bernie’s politics can crush any potential plan- Lord knows how many promoters ditched the F1 concept after early discussions with him. For that, I applaud Tony George and company for keeping an open door and continuing to put something together. Laguna Seca would be great, and from the comments above it sounds as if it could be modified for F1 without losing it’s charecter for other series as well. But again, no way Bernie will cut anyone a break- we saw that firsthand with the Canadian Government deal last year.

    As a result, barring a complete revolt from the FOTA over the lack of presence here, it is difficult to see any venue putting together a deal to pay his radical fees. Indy will probably keep trying, but the economic climate will continue to make it tough.

    On one note about Indy, I know the previous F1 course wasen’t Spa or Suzuka, but I have seen a few clips of it and I don’t think it’s the worst around. Don’t forget that the double-hairpin has been replaced to accomodate MotoGP, and if they could run it the same way as before (including the banking) it woulden’t be the worst deal IMHO.

  7. On the drivers front, America is obviously not in the backyard of all the premiere European feeder series, so we can’t expect to see as many Americas as there are Finns/Britons/Germans/etc.. in the feeder ranks. On that note, it takes some backing and dedication for an American to get it right in the sport, and hopefully that will happen in the future. But on that same note, I believe some team bosses and sponsors need to look at AMerican prospects in a equal light -and not question them as the next Scott Speed or Michael Andretti- while giving preference to prospects from more traditional F1 breeding grounds.

    1. The thing is that the talent pool in the US pretty much sees NASCAR as their only option.

      Take the case of a person like Tony Stewart. Fat jokes aside, he was groomed in an open seater and street tracks. In an open seater he was going from strength to strength. However, he came along during the open wheel wars. Even though he did both stock cars and open wheel for a while, he eventually went to NASCAR because it offered a better career path then what was available.

      This “driver drain” has taken its’ toll. Before the IRL/CART split we had the Andretti’s, the Uncer’s, the Foyt’s, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Scott Goodyear, Rick Mears and loads of other people in open wheel racing. Now the only Americans in open wheel racing are Danica Patrick and ahh.. well.. ahh… well… you see.

      True the talents of the many of the drivers in CART were not up to F1 snuff on the most part (I still think that Rahal and Mears could of done extremely well) but at least there was an outlet to develop drivers. There was a route in America other than NASCAR. I am glad that that the open wheel war is over… too bad everyone but NASCAR lost.

  8. With all the talk in F1 these days about reducing costs, I wonder if Bernie ever thought about making it more affordable for the venues to host the races? Most likely not.

    Bernie is all about the business of F1 and what can line the coffers. F1 isn’t as big here in the U.S. but there a lot of fans that are willing to pay to see a race. So much so that we’d being will to go to Canada see see a race when we lost ours. Now we don’t even have the choice.

    If Bernie’s current movements can be seen as things to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found Europe with fewer races too. The big money is in the pockets of the people in charge of the oil baring and developing countries. And as long as they are will to fork over the money Bernie asks, he’ll keep giving them races.

    That being said, while I do dearly hope that the U.S. will get a race back, as long as Bernie is the one in charge, we never will.

    1. Indeed you would not be surprised — it’s already happening. Germany is down to one GP, France to none, British GP is at risk (Bernie has been on a vendetta against Silverstone for years, and the switch to Donnington is fraught with difficulties). Even Spa has been taken off the calendar once.

      Bernie and Max need to go — even Ferrari, Bernie’s golden team, is starting to get fed up.

  9. If anyone is interested in a fascinating part of US racing, you can look up the Penske team in Google. They are the most amazing company, the equivalent of McLaren in the US. Not as ultra-hightech as McLaren, and more diversified : not only are they into racing and manufacturing racing components, but also they have car dealerships and many other businesses.

    Then there is the story of their drivers, such as Mark Donohue. Particularly moving is the story of the American Ferrari, the 512 driven by Donohue : the engine redone by Traco, a drag racing engine specialist, and the chasis by workers from Holman-Moody , a NASCAR specialist. The car, spectacular in dark blue and yellow, was a lot faster than the works Ferrari, and a match for the Porsche 917. All this can be seen in Google, under Penske Sunoco Ferrari

    I know I am being off- topic, but now that we are talking about F1 in the USA, maybe these fascinating stories will remind everyone out there of the extraordinary American racing heritage – an how deserving the US is to have not just one, but more than one GP races.
    Cheers !

  10. I’m pessimistic about F1 returning to America. It is very unfortunate, but if it couldn’t survive in Indianapolis why in the world would it survive anyplace else? I’m an Indy native, and they love single seaters in that town.

    Racing on the oval is an interesting idea. By the way, I believe that the oval [b]is[/b] approved by the FIA. I remember the asked for some changes to the SAFER barrier on the oval corver used by F1 (normally called Turn One for the 500 and Brickyard). I would assume if they made the requested change on the other three oval corners it would be good to go.

  11. Road America has enough runoff in every corner except the most famous: the kink.

    The bigger problem is that I think it has the same problem Silverstone does; it’s antiquated from F1 brass’ point of view. All of the US’ facilities are.

    It is fair to compare F1 interest in the US to interest in English football, or round football in general: there is a market, there has always been a market, and there will always be a market, but it is a fringe, an underground obsession, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it means you must approach and promote in a different way.

  12. Keith, Didn’t you forget Dan Gurney and Masten Gregory? Did Bob Bondurant ever start a F1 race?

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