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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Formula One racing is a grander show than NASCAR, just ask the rest of the world

opinion@dailylobo.com

My wife and I are flying to Texas this weekend for the inaugural U.S. Grand Prix at the brand new, 3.4-mile “Circuit of the Americas” racetrack in Austin. I mention this to people and I’m usually met with a blank stare. Or they go, “Huh? Grand Prix? Is that a car race?”

Yep, it’s a car race. The cars that race in Grand Prix are called Formula One. It’s by far the most popular form of motorsport in the world, and the second most popular sport overall, after soccer. Each race is watched by a larger audience than the Super Bowl. Past F1 champions include iconic names such as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.

F1 is the world’s most glamorous and exciting sport. The series spans the globe from China and India to Bahrain and Singapore to the billionaire playgrounds of Abu Dhabi and Monte Carlo. In 2013, Moscow will join the schedule, and the United States will host two F1 races for the first time in many years: the race in Austin, and another one at a brand new street circuit on the New Jersey coast, of all places (the Jersey Shore Grand Prix?).

There hasn’t been a U.S. Grand Prix for six years. From a business perspective, ignoring the world’s largest economy didn’t make much sense. That’s why F1 is taking another crack at the fickle U.S. market. Most American sports fans couldn’t care less about Formula One, though. For various reasons, the sport hasn’t gained a foothold with the masses here like it has in the rest of the world.

In many ways, it’s hard to justify my own love for the sport: everything about F1 runs contrary to my principles. It’s wasteful and environmentally unfriendly, it’s hugely expensive, it’s totally cutthroat and it is elitist to its core. F1 promotes some of the worst aspects of free-market capitalism, too: tobacco companies continued to sponsor F1 teams long after cigarette advertising was banned in other sports. The series’ organizers had no qualms about visiting South Africa under apartheid year after year (although they no longer go there), nor did they have any problems dealing with brutal dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil or Spain throughout the ‘70s.

But F1 is also a showcase for the most sophisticated technology outside the space program — and it’s utterly mind-boggling to watch live. TV cameras diminish the sensation of speed. It’s much more exciting in person.

Ever since I was a kid, I‘ve loved fast cars. My dad took my brother and me to our first race back in 1971 at the Ontario Motor Speedway in California, and I’ve been hooked on speed ever since — so to speak. I grew up in Riverside, within a few miles of the famous racetrack (which is now a mall), and I have plenty of fond memories from those days. I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a teenager, and my wife and I attended the ill-fated race at Indianapolis in 2005, when only five cars took part due to safety concerns. Motor racing and I, we go way back.

There are several factors which could explain why F1 hasn’t taken off in the United States. Some are logistical: most of the races are broadcast exclusively on cable channels, such as SPEED, which are not part of the “standard” customer package. The events are also shown live, which means that a lot of the European races don’t come on until 4 or 5 a.m., and the races from the Far East air at 2 or 3 a.m., depending on which coast you live on. Let’s face it: any sport that requires fans to wake up before the crack of dawn is not destined for mainstream success in America.

Another reason for America’s indifference toward F1 is cultural.

The country’s heart belongs to NASCAR — the second most popular series after pro football. NASCAR has dominated the American motorsports scene for many years because of its savvy marketing strategy and “good old boy” consumer appeal. And what could be more quintessentially American than a racing series that evolved from bootleggers trying to outrun the cops?

Still, for a hard-core road-racing fan like me, watching a bunch of hillbillies going around in circles for three hours is not what I call great racing. It’s contrived and tedious. I will grant you that the spectacle of NASCAR probably improves in direct proportion to the quantity of Bud Light consumed — but you couldn’t pay me to drink that swill.

Another major consideration relevant to F1’s popularity is the state of the economy. Ticket prices for F1 races are outrageously expensive. Everything about F1 is expensive. The cheapest grandstand seat in Austin will set you back $170. The whole package needs to be made more affordable and accessible to the average racing fan before the sport can truly thrive in this country.

The odds of any other form of motorsport gaining much traction in the U.S. are pretty slim, however. NASCAR is crammed down our throats on a weekly basis, while F1 gets ignored for the most part by the mainstream media. A lot of newspapers, such as the Albuquerque Journal, don’t even bother to print the race results, and F1 is rarely, if ever, mentioned on local news or even on ESPN, the “total sports network.”

Things could change over the next 12 months, however. Following the return of the U.S. Grand Prix to Austin this weekend, and with two races on the calendar in 2013, media coverage of F1 in this country may finally begin to catch up with the rest of the world.

Two promising young American drivers are working their way through the lower ranks in Europe: Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi. Both of these talented young men could have an F1 ride within the next couple of years, and that will be a crucial factor in generating new fans for the sport in the U.S. There are currently no American drivers or teams on the F1 grid, which is a major stumbling block to the ongoing success of the sport in the United States. We need a home team to root for. The last American F1 driver was the aptly named Scott Speed, in 2008.

Next fall, director Ron Howard will debut his latest project, called “Rush.” “Rush” is a mega-bucks Hollywood production bringing the story of the 1976 World Championship rivalry between legendary Austrian driver Niki Lauda and British playboy James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth from “Red Dawn” and “Thor”, to the big screen. If the movie proves to be a hit, a new generation of F1 fans could be born.

Austin is the second-to-last round of the 2012 F1 calendar. The final race is in São Paulo, Brazil in two weeks. If São Paulo can host a race, why not Austin, Texas? Austin is already known as the “live music capital of the world.” Hosting a Grand Prix will certainly help to raise the city’s international profile even further. As a fellow musician and as a race fan, I say let the party begin.