Formula 2.0

Can F1 build an American fan base?

Originally Published: November 15, 2012
By Eric Morse | ESPN The Magazine

Circuit of the Americas TrackCourtesy of Circuit of The AmericasThe Circuit of the Americas is the first purpose-built road course in the U.S.

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IF NASCAR IS THE NFL of motorsports in the United States, Formula One is more like soccer. While Americans prefer the knock-the-other-guy-into-next-week sport, the rest of the world goes crazy for a nuanced game in which minuscule differences in strategy and execution decide the outcome. But on Nov. 18, F1's wine-and-cheese brigade returns to U.S. soil for the first time in almost six years, racing at a new purpose-built track in Austin, Texas. In so doing, the series faces a daunting question: Can it put fans in the stands?

The good news is that F1, known for having the most technologically advanced parades in motorsports, has finally brought some excitement and passing to its races. "Americans love to see drivers coming wheel to wheel," says 2008 world champ Lewis Hamilton. "And the new rules are enabling that more and more."

One of these changes is the drag-reduction system, which allows a driver on the attack to open a gap in his rear wing and go faster on the straightaways. Drivers can now actually get alongside and fight the car in front of them for a spot on the track. Not coincidentally, entering Texas, the penultimate stop of the 20-race season, F1 has had eight different winners, with each race crazier than the last.

So why aren't Yanks eating this up? For one, only four of those races were shown on Fox; the rest were aired during off hours on cable. Next year, the NBC networks take over F1 rights, but again, only four races will run on network TV. "Formula One hasn't had to sell itself in the past," says Martin Whitmarsh, CEO of McLaren, one of the top F1 teams. "But America doesn't need us. We need to conquer it."

Having an American driver to root for would help. The last time "The Star-Spangled Banner" played after a Grand Prix was when F1 legend Mario Andretti (an Italian-born American citizen) won the championship in 1978. The best bets to end that drought are Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly, both making waves in the F1 feeder series.

While the main circuit awaits their arrival, Andretti is encouraged that plans are under way for a second U.S. race, starting in 2014 on a street circuit in Weehawken, N.J., facing the Manhattan skyline. "Having two Grand Prix in the States will help the exposure factor, not just to fans but to our own drivers," Andretti says. "They will say, 'I want to be a part of it.'"

First Austin, then Weehawken, then all of America.

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