Recent trips to different forms of motorsport in North America suggest that the ballgames are winning the race for the sponsorship dollar and raise the question will F1 ever prosper over there?
We hear a lot about IndyCar racing in Europe these days, and at Indianapolis it’s easy to assume that every one in the States loves it. It thus came as something of a surprise the week after attending the 500, as we had travelled to Detroit to take in the Gold Cup hydroplane race, when a cab driver turned round and asked: ‘How many races has Al Unser won in Europe?’ It took a while to realise that he meant Michael Andretti, and made us wonder just how popular motorsport is in North America. In terms of spectacle there is no better race in the world than Indy. Even Brits feel a lump in their throats as the Star Spangled Banner is warbled, Jim Nabors sings Back Home in Indiana (a tune impossible to get out of your head in subsequent weeks) and Mary Fendrich Hulman exorts the field to start its engines. The balloons, the flypasts, the parades, the pageantry, make Indianapolis an unforgettable event, and perhaps the greatest difference to F1 is that it has a real sense of identity and historical perspective. They’re proud of their race, and it shows.
The Gold Cup is the Indy 500 of Unlimited racing, but it’s more about anticipation. There are eight heats, but the final is over all too soon after five fast laps which, at Chip Hanauer’s 1993 winning average of 141mph, occupied around half an hour. We all know the differences between IndyCars and F1, but Unlimited racing also has several parallels with the latter. For a start, both are dominated by men called Bernie. Ecclestone in FL, Little in Unlimited hydroplanes. They’re both unpopular at times, the guys the fans love to hate and hate to love, but each in his way has done a powerful lot to improve their sport.
Like ‘our’ Bernie, Little is also obsessive about appearances and tidiness. Crew chief Ron Brown runs Budweiser with total professionalism, with a capital P. All the metal, such as the skid fin and the rudder brackets, is finish treated in gold to match the red white and gold colour scheme of the boat. The three safety straps which encase the engine just in case a turbine wheel tries to pop out of the casing, are always carefully aligned so that their letters read B-u-d. A neat touch. It reminded me of the story how all the motorbikes in Bernie Ecclestone’s showroom used to be lined up with the front wheels at exactly the same angle. Attention to detail. There’s money here in this team, all right, but you don’t have to study it for long to see that it’s spent on preparation and presentation. Small wonder that Little’s team has scooped 13 titles since 1969 . . .
The boat races are all down to the start, another thing they have in common with F1. After that there isn’t much passing and repassing. Deck-to-deck combat is now rare. Does that sound familiar too? The fans rely on the spectacle and it is terrific of the individual boats bouncing over rough water, throwing their distinctive roostertails. Also like F1, the Unlimiteds are edging uneasily towards serious regulation changes. As F1 takes steps to effect a ceasefire in the rampant technological war, so the Unlimited owners continue to discuss proposed fuel restrictors to even out horsepower. Those who opt for turbine engines nowadays the vast majority are mandated to use the Avco Lycoming 155 L7 or L11 powerplants, supposedly with a maximum of 2650hp. As with all motorsports, however, there are engines and there are engines. Budweiser is generally believed to have in excess of 4000hp. Crew chief Ron Brown has created his own turbine dynamometer in the Seattle engine shop, to squeeze out more power. Bernie Little is not a man to do things by halves, but his life is a paradox. Like Ron Dennis or Frank Williams, winning is the core of his entire being. Mr Little is the sort of guy the fans either love or loathe.
There appears to be no in between. Everything about the Budweiser operation bears Little’s distinctive stamp. The Budweiser yearbook bears his features all through it, Bernie smiling with Senator Bob Graham, Bernie back-slapping Anheuser-Busch chairman and president August Busch III, Bernie partying with Joe DiMaggio. Bernie’s wife, Bernie’s sons, Bernie’s grandchildren. That’s a lot of Bernie. I spoke with him briefly in Detroit before he hurried to the jetty, promising to return within a couple of minutes. I gave up waiting after 20. He never did come back my way. I guess maybe he was just too busy being Bernie. Probably he was having more photographs taken for the 1994 yearbook. The 1993 version had 137 photographs, 82 of which were of him. There were only seven of his Gold Cup-winning pilot. And yet . . .
Like Mr E there are a lot of misconceptions and a lot of the good things remain firmly concealed beneath the surface. When Dean Chenoweth died as Miss Budweiser flipped in Pasco, Washington back in 1982, less than a year after Bill Muncey had perished in Mexico, it was Bernie Little who moved heaven and earth to stop the sport being dubbed a widowmaker. It was Little who used his budget the budget the Have Nots so frequently criticise yet naturally covet to research into improving safety. Little who set in motion the programme that led to today’s safety cockpits that have so demonstrably saved lives. And Little who made the technology generally available to the Have Nots. That’s a lot of Bernie too, thankfully.
Budweiser pilots Hanauer, Jim Kropfeld and Tom D’Eath are among those who have reason to be grateful for his efforts. All of them are stars of the game who might otherwise simply have become grim statistics on the role of honour. Racers who would no longer have been around without Little’s resolute determination to drag the sport into the Nineties. So he makes a lot of noise and likes to have his picture taken with other celebrities, but in his own way he’s done a lot to deserve his indulgences. But on top of all this Little is also aware that he needs to be careful that Miss Budweiser’s success doesn’t kill the sport. Williams and Dennis can dominate F1 knowing that behind them there are still sufficient numbers to give depth to the field. Behind their individual teams are another 24 cars. In Detroit there were nine boats, and Circus Circus was eliminated early. Little thus walks a tight line between doing what needs to be done to win regularly, and not destroying the show altogether by doing so. As it is, Unlimited hydroplaning is on an upswing again after the unhappy months of 1990 which saw champion Hanauer deciding to quit after falling out of love with the sport. Now he is back, racing the Bud, and so is his old team, Circus Circus. Winston Eagle is strong, as are Tide and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and others such as Miss T-Plus have tasted victory this season. Nevertheless, it was interesting to do a little on-the-spot research into the Monday papers in Detroit after the Gold Cup, the Milwaukee 200 IndyCar race and the Dover Downs Budweiser 500 in NASCAR. It’s not in-depth, but here’s what the straw poll revealed.
USA Today: Nothing on the front page. A paragraph wrapping up Mansell and Earnhardt’s respective victories on the front of the sports section, but the big stories are about National Basketball Association and the French Open. The Gold Cup doesn’t make the front page of sport, but gets three paragraphs and a photo inside. NASCAR gets seven paragraphs, IndyCars 13.
Chicago Tribune: Milwaukee, being local, is the big story here with 16 paragraphs in the sports section, against one apiece for the hydroplanes and NASCAR.
Detroit Free Press: The Gold Cup, being the local feature, gets on the front page and on the front of the sports section, and NASCAR edges out IndyCars with nine paragraphs to three inside the sports pages. Detroit News: Again, following regular qualifying updates in previous days, this majors on the Gold Cup which makes colour on the front page and again on the front of the sports section. But, in sport, it gets second lead to Jane Geddes success in the LPGA Oldsmobile Classic golf tournament. No, I hadn’t heard of her, either. The Cup also merits two feature stories besides the main report. NASCAR outpoints IndyCars again, with eight paragraphs to three.
On television it’s baseball and basketball virtually any time you care to switch on. Football is strong, too. The IndyCars got live coverage Sunday and a repeat that night, but the Gold Cup was reserved for edited highlights a fortnight after the event. What does all that prove? Maybe a lot, maybe nothing. But it’s confirmation that motorsport is a long way from having the highest priority in the American sports enthusiast’s mind, and if that’s the case it also means that all motorsports are going to find the going super-tough in the battle for the sponsorship dollar.
Indeed, the American sports enthusiast is currently far more likely to be occupied monitoring the war in which basketball is squeezing baseball down into the number two position in the popularity stakes.
All this is bad news for F1 too. If IndyCars merit such fragmented reports nationally, it’s further indication that F1 has even less meaning to the average north American. In Indianapolis a friend of mine was adamant that F1 would never go back Stateside, and it remains to be seen whether plans for a GP in Washington DC come off next year. Frankly, my dears, a lot of punters don’t seem to give a damn. NASCAR is now the dominant motorsport category in the US (Indy apart), with both fans and drivers. It has the feed-in from the Grand National training formula, and it’s where drivers can make a living. In a more glamorous way, its relationship with IndyCars is like the British Touring Cars’ with F3. It’s where the television is, igitur it’s where the sponsorship buck goes. Therefore, too, it’s where you can earn a living. Highly rated Jeff Gordon proves it. PJ Jones plans to follow him. If you had the choice of living comfortably and enjoying a competitive NASCAR ride and media prominence, or scratching to find the bucks for a mediocre IndyCar seat, which would you choose? The truth is that there’s something not quite au point with all forms of motorsport in north America. Yellow flags can make things artificial in NASCAR and IndyCars, although the racing, particularly in the former, is pretty damn exciting. But don’t tell me the yellow they threw at Indy when Mansell hit the wall, for example, was necessary; they didn’t even send anyone out to check the condition of the track, to inspect for debris in Turn Two. In F1, as some American friends highlighted over dinner one night in Montreal, the cars just aren’t around often enough in qualifying. ‘We sat watching at 9.30 one morning, and hey! where are the cars?’ said one. ‘There just seemed no sense of urgency. Yet we had paid even more than last year to see them for less time!’
That rule of reduced practice laps was to have been scrapped after South Africa, but that good old bogey of unanimous agreement reared its head when Giancarlo Minardi a nice man and a racer but not one rendered conspicuous by his team’s overall performances objected. Other team owners were thus a little peeved later to meet up with him at Jan Smuts Airport as he prepared for his first class flight back to Faenza.
The Gold Cup was fantastic fun first time around and the boats are beautiful, but the performance gaps are currently too wide and the action doesn’t last long enough with four lap heats and a five-lap final.
The bottom line, as it so long has been, is that the NASCAR boys are the closest to getting it right. Their events are a big deal, close fought, unpredictable, attract good crowds, plentiful television and good sponsorship deals. But the real reason why all those factors have come together is that Bill France Snr ruled with a rod of iron and his son continues the tradition. It’s a benign dictatorship, and that’s all that ever works. The trick is, though, knowing what direction to take that dictatorship in. NASCAR has it right; the others are still struggling to varying degrees.
The good things, from Indy, NASCAR and of late from F1, are the driver parades. Score 10 for re-introducing them, Mr E, but deduct points for not making sure that A Senna attended the first in Magny-Cours.
Meanwhile, in North America John Doe doesn’t give a stuff about F1 since it left Long Beach. It’s left a trail of duff venues, from Vegas to Detroit to Dallas and Phoenix. He doesn’t really care that much about IndyCars unless it’s the Indianapolis 500 which attracts 400,000 punters who only have to pay a meagre $20 to get in. He and his friends may flock to the Gold Cup but claimed spectator figures of 500,000 reflect free entry on Belle Isle. In marketing terms, everything but NASCAR is a lap behind the men in basketball, baseball, football and ice hockey. Unpalatable facts, but true.
The final straw for F1 quite possibly came in Canada, as the IndyCars ran at Detroit and Nascar in Pocono. The declaration that virtually all of the cars were illegal shredded the last vestige of credibility, and prompted one man to call a Williams representative early on the Sunday morning to enquire what on earth was going on. His neck was on the line as he was about to commit his company to a multi-million dollar sponsorship, and here was network news that the cars didn’t comply with the regulations. Pacified, he duly agreed the Rothmans deal that became public knowledge a week later, but it was momentarily touch-and-go. It was not what Formula One needed. And you know the funny part? I thoroughly enjoyed Indy and Detroit, but I felt really quite glad to get back to F1 like meeting an old friend again. Good old F1! If you look at the sheer depth and breadth of professionalism and competition among the teams, it has the other categories bar NASCAR whipped. What it needs now, as the high-tech equipment heads for the skip, is aerodynamic rules that will permit overtaking and re-overtaking to avoid processional encounters.
Max Mosley recently offered that, taking away machinery factors, the difference between the best and worst F1 pilots is 2.5s a lap, and he’s probably right; in IndyCars it’s woefully larger anyone who watched Ross Bentley at Portland will know I mean and likewise in the hydroplanes. All forms of motorsport have had and will continue to have their dominators. In F1 McLaren is relentlessly stalking Ferrari’s record of 103 GP victories but Williams Renault currently has the upper hand. In NASCAR Dale Earnhardt remains on the warpath. In IndyCars, Roger Penske has just celebrated a record ninth win in the Indy 500 and Emerson Fittipaldi is well hooked up elsewhere too. And in the Unlimiteds Chip Hanauer’s record ninth Gold Cup triumph also put Bernie Little’s score in the world’s oldest powerboat race up to nine. All of the categories have some strong points in their favour that the others need to assimilate, but overall it may be time for the respective rulemakers to take a long, objective view at the reasons behind the success of basketball, baseball and football in the States, and football, tennis and golf in Europe. In basketball in the States, everyone watches spellbound when Michael Jordan weaves his magic. He magnetises the cam eras. In football and golf the camera follows the action too, but in motorsport, particularly F1, the direction of late has been appalling. Anyone who watched the French GP will agree with that, where the cameras failed to pick up on one of Michael Andretti’s four strong passing manoeuvres. It’s shrimp cocktail instead of Coquilles St Jacques. The presentation of F1 seemingly reflects the way it feels about itself at present, and right now it seems to have a very poor self-image. Instead of excitement, tension and spectacle, that is all that the majority of television directors seem able to communicate. We are currently paying the penalty for past elitism and segregative policies. There’s more action in a Nintendo game. Sadly, James Hunt left us at the very moment that F1 most needs the communicative skills of his ilk. If we are in the middle of great upheaval in F1 in particular, now may be the best time to take on board some of the lessons from other categories, to plagiarise the good points and incorporate them while the opportunity for further change exists. D I T