Fifteen miles southeast of downtown Austin, Texas is a strange place for a car race traditionally associated with glamorous European cultural centers. But last October 25, officials waved the green flag to signal the start of the U.S. Grand Prix. Formula One cars driven by superstars such as England’s Lewis Hamilton and Germany’s Sebastian Vettel zipped around 20 turns on the 3.4-mile track; Hamilton took home the hardware. The event is akin to LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant playing an NBA game in Manila, and it shows how serious F1’s leadership is about gaining traction in the American market. But the sport is struggling internationally, and even if it becomes a hit here, the efforts may be too late.
While F1 can’t boast nearly the domestic popularity of NASCAR or IndyCar—the highest F1 television ratings are dwarfed by those of traditional American racing styles—the U.S. Grand Prix has actually been around for 108 years, debuting in 1908. Multiple venues have hosted the race; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did so between 2000 and 2007 before a four-year U.S. absence that ended when Austin’s Circuit of the Americas opened in 2012.
Attendance at the three-day festival dropped from 265,499 in 2012 to 237,406 in 2014, but F1 continues its U.S. push. A race in New Jersey is a perennial discussion topic: NASCAR team owner Gene Haas will launch an F1 effort in the 2016 season. But it’s hardly a gasoline-injected process.
“When F1 comes here, it comes as a side,” says Scott Speed, one of the most recent American drivers to race in an F1 car. “It feels different than it does in other countries.”
For F1 to build an audience in the U.S., says Tom Webb, director of motorsports event marketing for the Circuit of the Americas, the sport needs three things: a race (check), a team (check, sometime this year) and a driver Americans can root for.
Alexander Rossi, a 24-year-old from California, is the best hope behind the wheel. He currently races in GP2, F1’s Triple-A league, and is the only American to have an FIA super license, which is required to race in the F1 World Championship. “If you can’t go to that race and root for an American driver or an American team, there are only so many who will be into it,” Rossi says. (Speed’s experience seems to confirm that. “When I was racing, I was a million times more popular in China than I was in America,” he says.)
But the sport faces a deeper crisis on a global scale. Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz has threatened to pull funding from his powerful Red Bull team because of rising costs and inadequate engines. Private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, widely derided for putting profits ahead of the sport’s future, might sell its 35 percent stake in F1. Races in countries including Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Azerbaijan (and, to some extent, the U.S.) are seen as cash grabs, while traditional F1 strongholds such as Germany and France have given up on hosting duties altogether.
Resolving the difficulties that face the sport makes a pit stop look simple. In order to thrive, F1 racing in the U.S. needs to become a destination event for more than gearheads. In America’s overcrowded sports landscape, that’s a huge barrier to overcome. One has to wonder how much time Austin organizers, and F1 in general, have until the gas meter reads E.