Will Formula One ever go back to the United States? Not necessarily, according to those David Phillips has spoken to
One afternoon in March 1991, Ayrton Senna swept past the chequered flag at the corner of Jefferson and Third Avenues in Phoenix, Arizona to become the first driver in history to win five US Grands Prix. As it now stands, Senna may also have the distinction of being the last driver to win a US Grand Prix.
The Brazilian’s final American victory came in front of less than 20,000 spectators. To nobody’s surprise, a 1992 US Grand Prix never materialised, nor has there since been a serious attempt to stage a Formula One race in the country. What’s more, a combination of factors, including the popularity of domestic racing series such as NASCAR’s Winston Cup and the PPG Indy Car World Series, a dearth of suitable venues for a Formula One race and FOCA’s financial demands make another United States Grand Prix a remote possibility . . . at best.
Ironically, a race that once served as the pot of gold at the end of the Formula One rainbow has vanished for financial reasons. In the 1960s the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen offered the biggest purse of any race on the Formula One calendar, with $100,000 going to the winner. It also attracted as many as 125,000 fans to rural New York each October to brave weather conditions ranging from Indian Summer to (more often) Inuit Winter. The lack of nearby amenities, coupled with Formula One’s demands for improvements in the circuit itself, led to the cancellation of the 1981 race and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation.
It was but the first of many blows to Formula One’s American fan base. “The crowd at Watkins Glen was special. It was like Sebring in that the weekend was part rock and roll festival and part race. There was also a family tradition where fathers brought their sons and those sons grew up and brought their sons to the race. Once there’s a hiatus to that tradition you can’t restart it,” says Roger Bailey, a regular at Watkins Glen in the ’60s and ’70s with various Formula One teams and who, as president of the Indy Lights series, knows about the difficulties of developing a fan base in the American market.
By the time of the demise of “the Glen” there was a US Grand Prix West in Long Beach. Two years later, the US Grand Prix East was reborn on the streets of Detroit. Those races were to have limited life spans as Formula One events. The PPG Indy Car World Series was growing exponentially and, before long, CART began talking with with Long Beach promoter Chris Pook about replacing Formula One at a substantial reduction in cost. Pook accepted the CART deal for 1982: seven years later the Detroit Renaissance Committee made a similar bargain. “It wasn’t that the quality of the product was not good the product was excellent,” says Pook. “It was just financial. At that particular time you couldn’t charge the sort of admission prices that were needed to make the pro forma work. You couldn’t get the sponsorship level up to the point, at that time, where it would make sense.”
Other events came and went with the wind. A convoluted circuit in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas decided the 1982 World Drivers Championship, then switched to CART before folding. Dallas hosted a race in 1984 that saw Keke Rosberg win and Nigel Mansell collapse from heat exhaustion as he pushed his Lotus to the finish line. Before a second Dallas GP could be staged, promoter Don Walker was jailed for a host of financial irregularities.
“Dallas had the potential for being a tremendous event,” says Pook. “It’s just unfortunate that Walker couldn’t abide by the rules, which resulted in his taking a vacation in the Big House and of course the event went away. So I think it would be very unfair to Formula One to put a rap on them for Dallas. “Caesar’s Palace was in principle a good concept. It’s just that the American public who go to watch motor races don’t gamble. Phoenix was a very sad set of circumstances. There was never a chance.”
From 1989 through 1991 the city of Phoenix spent millions to bring Formula One to the SouthWest, but the event was ineptly promoted, there were few general admission tickets and prices for the limited number of seats were astronomical.
“It was not so much the poor attendance, rather the inability to put more than 20,000 seats in a position where people could see, and then only a small part of the race,” says Ecclestone. But even a savvy promoter had his hands full with a US Formula One race in 1991. The rise of the PPG Indy Car World Series with national household names such as Mario and Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jnr, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal had given America a high profile, open-wheel formula indistinguishable from Formula One to all but the most knowledgeable spectators. Meanwhile, NASCAR was packing in fans by the hundred thousand to watch its Winston Cup series.
“The following for Formula One in the United States is shrinking by the year,” says Ralph Sanchez, promoter of the Miami Grand Prix street race from 1984 to 1994 and who, in 1995, opened the showcase Homestead Motorsports Complex 40 miles south of Miami. “As time goes by it’s getting less and less and less and less. That has to do with, number one the success that NASCAR has had and, number two, the success that IndyCar has had.”
The television ratings speak of the challenge facing Formula One in the USA. The Nielson ratings for NASCAR events averaged around a 3.5 (with each rating point representing 100,000 watching households) in 1996 as compared to the 2.0 usually scored by IndyCar races. By contrast, Formula One’s average rating of 0.2 is barely significant, statistically speaking. And to put racing in perspective, the recent World Series baseball championship between the New York and Atlanta teams was history’s third lowest rated and still averaged a score of 16.4.
Formula One faces particularly tough scheduling on television owing to the time difference between Europe and the USA. In 1996,11 of the 16 events in 1996 were telecast live to the United States in the wee hours of Sunday morning. As Ecclestone notes, the time difference, “is completely out of my control. For a race to be live on the East Coast it would have to be broadcast at 9 am on a Sunday morning when, I have been told, programming is geared to religious matters (not on the sports channels ESPN and ESPN2 DP): when shown on the West Coast it is obviously 6am most unsociable. Coupled with this is the very simple fact that, in most cases, the domestic series sponsors buy programme time together with the event which makes it attractive for a broadcaster. In general, sponsors of Formula One teams have no interest in this as their markets are not US oriented and they are perfectly happy with the world wide audience which Formula One achieves.” Barring a fundamental reversal in the laws of physics, the barriers to penetrating the US television market for Formula One are not likely to change. But there’s more than poor television ratings and competition from NASCAR, IndyCar and the New York Yankees standing between Formula One and a race in the United States.
First, there is widespread agreement that there are few suitable sites for a Formula One race.
“The safety side is not up to the same standards as Formula One,” says Mark Blupdell, who knows first hand about the circuits in the United States after competing in the 1996 IndyCar season. “But the biggest problem is that the rest of the facilities are not up to scratch. Laguna Seca and Homestead are the only ones which would be user-friendly to Formula One: they’re more geared up on the media end which, in Formula One, is huge.”
In citing the fact that Phoenix was a makeshift circuit, Ecclestone vows not to return to the United States until a proper permanent facility is in place.
“The Phoenix circuit was not designed as a race circuit, but the choice of layout was limited and this is the reason we will return to America when we have a purpose-built facility of the same standard enjoyed in the rest of the world.” he says.
There is one purpose-built circuit in the United States that already meets Formula One standards, the 2.21-mile road circuit in the infield at Homestead, a circuit Sanchez proudly notes is “the only race track in the United States that meets all the Formula One requirements including the garages.”
Although it will never be confused with the Nordschleife or Spa in the annals of classic motor racing venues, Homestead features a challenging blend of infield corners linked to the front and back straights of the 1.5-mile oval.
“The amenities are bang up-to-date,” says Blundell. “The best possible. The circuit’s a little fresh yet: it maybe doesn’t have a great deal of character from the spectator’s standpoint, but it’s a case of it not having been lived in.”
Ecclestone dismisses Homestead for its design and on financial grounds.
“Homestead . . . was never designed for Formula One and anyway the promoter is not prepared to pay the going rate for a Formula One event,” he says. “I am not criticising him for this, as he is endeavouring to make the venue commercially successful.” And therein lies the perhaps the ultimate rub for Formula One in the United States. Given the dwindling fan base, the need for world class facilities and the hard bargain driven by Ecclestone, established promoters believe it’s not economically feasible to stage an F1 Grand Prix.
“Bernie and I discussed Formula One in Miami for a number of years,” says Sanchez. “Unfortunately, Don Walker from Dallas offered him six million dollars in cash so he decided to go over there rather than risk money in Miami.
“What happens is, if you’re trying to find the best deal out there, you’re always putting A against B. [Ecclestone] has sort of priced himself out of the market. Right now I don’t think any reasonable businessman would pay what he’s asking.”
Indeed, Pook suggests it will take a partnership with the government to make another US Grand Prix financially viable “It’s going to take substantial funding. Someone’s going to have to step to the plate to help make it work,” he says. “If its a city or an area that is prepared to put some money into it to help underwrite it a little bit, that will be necessary. I think it’s going to take a certain amount of compromise by Bernard on the area of maybe the sponsorship or the fees. But it’s going to take a combination of things to make it work.”
The most recent effort to stage a Formula One race featured the city of Las Vegas (again), this time with Tommy Baker a man little known in US racing circles failing to persuade the city to hold a street race around the Convention Center (sic). In September, Baker was rebuffed by city officials for, among other things, failing to address their questions concerning his claims that the circuit and grandstands could be set up with minimal disruption to normal traffic patterns.
Meanwhile, Just outside town Richie Clyne was opening his vast new Las Vegas Motor Speedway with seating for 107,000, a 1.5-mile oval and 1.5and 2.5-mile road courses built to FIA specifications. As with Homestead, there has been no meaningful contact between the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and FOCA.
The view from the United States is that it’s people like Clyne, Sanchez and Pook (who is in the process of building the new Gateway International Raceway near St Louis) that Ecclestone needs to be dealing with rather than the Tommy Bakers of the world if he is to re-establish Formula One in the USA.
Sanchez, for one, is not holding his breath. “I wrote a letter a year or so ago to Bernie and gave him my points,” he says. “He probably didn’t like it but I said the only way that you’re gonna make Formula One be something again in the United States is by coming and not being like a nomad, where you are two years in one place and two more years in another place, and then you go away for two or three years and come back again to a different city. That does not work.
“That does not help Formula One races in this country to become a fixture. You need to develop a following. You’ve got to have tradition. So whether you come to Miami or whether you go somewhere else, you better make sure you have a long-term contract and make it a fixture, an annual situation because otherwise you’re wasting your time.
“My feeling is that Bernie is not interested in coming back to the States. That’s my personal feeling. I think that he’s getting very lucrative offers from the Far East, Malaysia, Korea and so on and he knows that coming to the United States is not going to be as simple as that, where they’re just gonna throw dollars at you.
“So I don’t see any possibilities of a Formula One race in the United States in the near future.”