A sport's fan base is built upon great performances that people share and pass on to the new generations. Jordan's game six. Maradona's Hand of God. Frazier vs. Ali.
Formula One fans have years of memories to pass on. Races are nothing short of spectacular and take place in unique settings. In Monaco cars blow through incredibly narrow streets that include a tunnel, a marina, and the most famous casino in the world. Singapore's Grand Prix takes place at night, requiring 1,600 light projectors with a total power of 3,180,000 watts. Montreal features its very own "Wall of Champions." The last turn in the track is so close to the wall that going just an inch long can ruin the race. This is where myths and rivalries are built.
However, in the U.S., a different Formula One memory remains.
Indianapolis, June 19th, 2005. Fans boo while throwing cans and bottles onto the track as a parade of only six cars, all from the three teams with Bridgestone tires, start the United States Grand Prix. The remaining 14 cars, all with Michelin tires, do not line up at the start of the race due to safety concerns caused by tire failures during practice. The leading cars, Renault and McLaren, driven by eventual world champions Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, do not race. "Indygate" is born and formula one takes a nearly fatal blow in America.
With regards to Formula One, there are two types of Americans: the ones who do not know or care, and the ones who remember Indygate.
The US Grand Prix was held after Indygate for two additional years, with significantly lower attendance and interest. After 2007, the race was discontinued due to lack of economic viability. With no grand prix in the U.S. in the foreseeable future, would this be the dagger for the most sophisticated motor sport in the largest sports market in the world?
It certainly looked like it.
However, Formula 1 is back in the United States. This month.
Designed by German engineer Hermann Tilke, the Circuit Of The Americas (COTA) in Austin will host the US Grand Prix on November 18. Not only is Austin a vibrant city and a central location to attract fans from south of the border, but the race will be the second to last and crucial in a very tight championship. The icing on the cake: a second US Grand Prix is in the works for 2014 (after being delayed for a year). It will take place in New Jersey and will have spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline.
But will it be enough to grow the sport's limited U.S. fan base? The answer may depend on two heavily interwoven factors: strong TV coverage (ideally daytime broadcast) and competitive American Formula One talent.
The textbook example was the emergence of Formula One in Spain. The sport was not popular and had limited tradition until 2001-2002. Then, out of nowhere, a driver named Fernando Alonso became the youngest to achieve a pole position, the youngest to win a race, the youngest to become world champion (twice), and arguably the most important Spanish sports figure with the likes of Rafa Nadal and Pau Gasol. In a matter of months, broadcast TV channels were battling over the TV rights and the business of Formula One was born in Spain. Can the same happen in the U.S.?
TV coverage of Formula One in the U.S. is suboptimal. For the past 17 years, Formula One has been broadcasted live by Speed Channel, with only four races shown on Sunday afternoon (East Coast) or morning (West Coast) on network TV on Fox. For the rest of the races, U.S. fans need to use their DVR, stay up very late at night, or wake up very early. Not the easiest way to attract new fans.
Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that NBC Sports would cover Formula One for the next four years, with four summer races shown on the NBC broadcast channel. Although the great Speed Channel personnel of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett will be missed, at first glance not much is changing.
However, there is something intriguing about NBC Sports. In its attempt to compete with ESPN, NBC is going beyond the Olympics and investing in franchises it can nourish, develop and grow with. Formula One is one example, but perhaps the most interesting one is soccer. NBC or NBC-owned channels now have rights to the Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cups, and the English Premier League. NBC Sports is serious about becoming a powerhouse. It needs sports it can own and build its brand around, and Formula One should benefit from that.
The tipping point would be the emergence of a local hero. The last American driver was Scott Speed, in 2007, and before that, Mario Andretti in 1993. A competitive American Formula One driver could become a national celebrity. Drivers are remarkable athletes. They regularly withstand forces of four to five G, go from 0 to 125 mph in less than four seconds, and lose eight to nine pounds each race. They also possess the strategic intelligence of a quarterback. What is the best set up and tire strategy for qualifying and the race? When is the best time to pit? How to administer tires until the end of the race? It is not a surprise that Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton make more money than Tom Brady or Eli Manning.
If Formula One is a competitive driver away from going mainstream in the U.S., who is that driver? The most significant American prospect is Californian Alexander Rossi. Rossi is part of the development program of Formula One Team Caterham (formerly Lotus) as a test driver. He has won races in GP2 and the World Series by Renault. Rossi is taking the right steps but will need financial support from a sponsor to get to Formula One. If he makes it, he will need to prove his worth quickly.
Time will tell whether the Austin or New Jersey Grand Prix can bring excitement to American fans and generate an appetite for increased TV coverage or a sponsored American Formula One driver. Time will tell whether the memories of Indygate will be replaced. Five years since the last Grand Prix on U.S. soil, there is hope again. No one can deny Americans are trying.