Can Haas reverse the tide?


Last week NASCAR team owner Gene Haas announced his intentions to field a new American Formula 1 team as early as next year. Haas will base his team in the heart of NASCAR country, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, in company with his existing NASCAR operation, and his plans have been greeted dismissively by some and with considerable scepticism by many more.

Many decades have passed since an American team has been successful in F1 and the failure of the Charlotte-based USF1 team to even get off the ground a few years ago has added a large grain of salt to the belief that an American team will never make it in F1. I’m afraid to say I share some of those doubts, but there are some important and substantial differences between Haas Formula and USF1. Indeed, anyone who discounts Haas’s capabilities and ambition does so at their peril.

What sets Haas apart?

First of all, Haas’s California-based company Haas Automation is the USA’s largest manufacturer of CNC machine tools so that Haas enjoys tremendous manufacturing and financial resources. Haas founded his business in 1985 and started his NASCAR team in 2002. Seven years later Haas went into partnership with two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and Stewart went on to win his third NASCAR championship and first with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011.

From the start, Haas partnered his NASCAR team with Hendrick Motorsports which supplies Haas’s team with chassis and engines. This is a key element in the team’s success and this year Stewart-Haas has expanded to run four cars for Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.

Stewart leads Harvick in Texas

Among Haas’s many resources is the full-scale Wind Shear wind tunnel in North Carolina which he built a dozen years ago and continues to operate. The FIA doesn’t allow full-scale wind tunnel work these days so Haas is in the process of downsizing his existing world-class tunnel.

“I think the combination of Haas CNC, Stewart-Haas Racing and Wind Shear is what makes us different than USF1,” Haas commented. “USF1 was a startup that had no resources whatsoever. It didn’t have a racing team and they took on a huge challenge.

“I admire the fact that they took that challenge, but on the other hand, I’m partners with Tony Stewart in a very successful NASCAR racing team. I have a machine tool company that has the capability of building the most sophisticated machines in the world. We build five-axis machines. We build all the machines that we need to even make our parts. I have a rolling road wind tunnel, Wind Shear, a 180mph wind tunnel. So I have a lot of the resources and basic infrastructure that I think is necessary in order to succeed at this.

Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor of USF1, 2009

“I think USF1 didn’t have that. I think I already have at least 50 per cent of the parts available to do this, so I think I’m a little bit farther ahead on the curve than US F1 was. I feel confident that we can fill in the remaining bits of the puzzle and be successful at this.”

American F1 constructors
Scarab, 1960
All American Racers, 1966-68
Shadow, 1973-80
Penske, 1974-76
Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, 1974-76
Team Haas, 1985-86

Haas says he hopes to double the global sales for Haas CNC machines tools by promoting his brand in F1. I like Formula 1 from a marketing aspect,” he says. “I think it reaches the world. That is just a fact. NASCAR is more of a domestic series. When I’ve been over to Europe, and I go to Europe a fair amount of time, people don’t know what NASCAR’s all about. Nobody in the rest of the world, or virtually nobody, knows what NASCAR is and that’s a bad thing for NASCAR. They have a good strong domestic base, but in this day and age, I think you’ve got to be global in everything you do.

“That’s where Formula 1, I think, has a big advantage. It’s probably the most watched motor sport venue in the world. So I definitely think that Formula 1 has a worldwide impact which I find is great, and that’s going to help with my initial plan which is to sell more product in the rest of the world.”

Japanese Ferrari fans at Suzuka

Haas hopes to announce his team’s engine partner and chassis builder in the next few weeks. He says it’s likely his team will start racing with Dallara chassis but plans to build and develop its own cars over time. Engines and power trains will come from either Mercedes-Benz or Renault.

It will also be interesting to see how Tony Stewart’s role in Haas Formula evolves in the coming years. A great all-rounder, Stewart is one of America’s most popular racers and has appeared in recent years in some humorous Mobil 1 TV ads with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. As one of NASCAR’s biggest stars Stewart is sure to help promote Haas Formula and F1 across America and around the world.

In the end, if he’s to be successful in F1 Gene Haas has to reverse the tide of history. Allow me to recite the daunting facts: The last American team to race in F1 was Carl’s Haas short-lived Beatrice-Ford team in 1985 and ’86. The last American driver to win an F1 race was Mario Andretti back in 1978 and the last American team to win in F1 was Penske Racing in 1976.

John Watson won for Penske in Austria in 1976

It’s also sobering to reflect that the last American-built car to win the Indy 500 was Gordon Johncock’s Wildcat in 1982 and the last time an American car, team and drivers won the Le Mans 24 Hours was way back in 1967 when Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt won the long-distance classic for Ford.

So as I say, it will be a great thing for American motor racing and for F1 in America if Gene Haas proves himself capable of re-writing history. I wish him the best of luck on his great odyssey.

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