F1, Liberty and the USA

by Nigel Roebuck on 29th September 2016

Why Formula 1 and Liberty Media must make the most of America – and what must be learned from the history of the rocky relationship 

It’s early days yet, of course, but there seems little doubt that Liberty Media’s acquisition of Formula 1 is going to have far-reaching effects on the future of our sport. New chairman Chase Carey has said that it cannot be run as a dictatorship, which is something of a novel concept in itself – albeit not one that will find favour with some of the team owners and principals, Christian Horner for one recently avowing that F1 emphatically needed a dictator, by which he meant, of course, one B.C. Ecclestone.

One question arises, of course: how long will Bernie remain in the business? For one thing, he has recently celebrated his 86th birthday; for another, will he feel inclined to continue after a period of ‘working with’ the new owners? When CVC bought F1 back in 2006 it soon became clear that their interest was confined to how much money they could separate from it. There was no inclination to try to run it: all that mattered was the receipt of large cheques, and they were content to let Bernie do the deals, as he had always done.

From what has been so far said, however, it appears that Liberty Media may take a rather more enlightened approach. Chase Carey has spoken of F1’s need to maintain its European heartland, rather than routinely put in jeopardy such as Hockenheim, Silverstone and Monza – anywhere, in fact, that does not have access to government funding. That in itself is heartening, and I hope it is adhered to down the road.

Being an American company, Liberty Media is also keen to push F1 in its own land, and that, too, I find pleasing. Although F1 first ventured to the USA nearly 60 years ago, still it remains the last largely untapped market for the sport.

For whatever reason Ecclestone has never had much enthusiasm for dealing with Americans. Long ago he was keen to have a street race in New York, but that predictably came to nothing, and then more recently he lent his support for the scheme to stage a race across the river in New Jersey, with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. That, too, died a death, because the necessary financing wasn’t there.

Undoubtedly there is a perception that America just doesn’t get F1 (just as until relatively recently was the case with 'soccer'), but that wasn’t always the case. True, it got off to something of a lacklustre start at Sebring in 1959, with a crowd way smaller than that which traditionally attended the 12 Hours, and there weren’t many people at the second race, run at iconic Riverside the following year.

Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo 179B) leads the final Grand Prix held at Watkins Glen, while behind Alan Jones and Andrea de Cesaris take to the grass

In 1961, though, F1 found what was to become a spiritual home at Watkins Glen, in upstate New York. Among the best tracks ever used for F1, ‘the Glen’ invariably pulled a sizeable crowd, and if the Monaco Grand Prix remained the most prestigious race in the world championship, undoubtedly the American was the most lucrative. In the pre-Ecclestone F1 era there was ‘starting money’ (which varied according to driver and team) and prize money, and that was it: at Watkins Glen it was much higher than at any other Grand Prix.

Over time, though, F1 moved increasingly into the corporate era, and as it did so Watkins Glen began to fall out of favour with the powers-that-be, for the area was light on hostelries suitable for Important People, and, as well as that, the US Grand Prix was no longer exceptional in the financial sense. The last was run in October 1980.

By this time, though, America had a second Grand Prix venue, run at the other side of the country and at the opposite end of the season. The brainchild of entrepreneur Chris Pook, this was a street circuit in Long Beach, California, and from the start in 1976 it proved hugely popular.

By 1983 there was a problem, and of course it was to do with money – Pook declining to meet Ecclestone’s increased financial demands. A couple of days after that year’s race he announced a deal with CART, just as he had warned Bernie he would do, and ever since the Long Beach Grand Prix has been for Indy cars.

I always thought this one of Ecclestone’s few tactical errors. He simply didn’t believe that Pook was serious and called his bluff; thus, what had become a classic race was lost, and – perhaps more importantly – a vital link between F1 and America had been broken. There had always been a considerable fanbase in California but it wasn’t the same everywhere in the country, as two farcical events in Las Vegas, run in 1981 and ’82 on a makeshift track in the car park of Caesars Palace, had already demonstrated.

On both occasions Vegas ended the season and both times the championship was up for grabs, but the locals couldn’t have cared less. “What’s this deal they’re fighting for?” a man asked as I waited to check in at my hotel. “The World Championship,” I said. “Jesus,” he replied, “I hate race cars – I wouldn’t even care if it was the American Championship...”

Keke Rosberg takes victory in Dallas

Keke Rosberg clinched the title at Vegas in ’82, and afterwards dealt deftly with an over-effusive interviewer: political correctness was never his thing. 

“Kay-kay, did you find the track different at all this year?”

“Yes, sure, I thought it was much better than last time.”

“Oh, really? Why is that, Kay-kay?”

"Well, since last year we’ve been to Detroit...”

This was the next US port of call that failed. In some ways it seemed logical that ‘Motown’ should become an F1 venue, but the facilities were primitive and so was the track. Ridiculously slow, even by comparison with Monaco, it was disliked by the drivers, but at least eight races were run in Detroit before it, too, went down the IndyCar path.

Following the disappearance of Long Beach and Las Vegas, Ecclestone sought alternative US venues and oil-rich Dallas seemed just the ticket. A Grand Prix was scheduled for 1984 and in many ways was a great success. The street track was decidedly quicker than expected and on race day the surface broke up in the July heat, but the event pulled a massive crowd. That, though, was it for Dallas because someone went AWOL with the mess takings, and not for 28 years – when the Circuit of the Americas staged its inaugural race – would F1 venture back to Texas.

It was after the last race in Detroit, in 1988, that Ecclestone reached a deal for a street race in Phoenix, and this was perhaps the biggest fiasco of all for there was even less interest in F1 here than in Vegas. One year the local event vying with the Grand Prix for attention was an ostrich race – it pulled a bigger crowd. At the final race, in ’91, a crowd of 25,000 was claimed by the organiser, prompting one local newspaper journalist to write ’Twenty thousand of them must have come disguised as empty seats...’

Thereafter, throughout the '90s, F1 was out of America, and if team owners complained that it was an absurdity that anything calling itself a World Championship did not embrace the USA, Ecclestone maintained it was all a matter of finding the right venue and then sorting out the right deal. After the talk of Manhattan faded away there was talk of San Francisco – even of a return to Vegas – but nothing came to be.

Rubens Barrichello drags past Jos Verstappen in front of a capacity crowd in 2000 at Indianapolis

Finally, as the 21st century beckoned, there came news that Bernie had come to an agreement with Tony George and an F1 circuit would be constructed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On the face of it a perfect solution had been found: F1 would be back in America – and in a place synonymous with racing. The question was, could Indy pull a crowd to watch totally unfamiliar drivers and cars?

It could. At the inaugural race, in 2000, far more than 200,000 folk paid to come in, and if that figure was never subsequently matched, still the attendance always dwarfed that at any other Grand Prix.

“We have to do everything in our power to make the event a success,” said Eddie Jordan. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is far and away the most important development in the World Championship since I’ve been involved in it. And if we blow it this time, we may lose America for good...”

And blow it they eventually did. In 2005 Michelin – the most respected tyre manufacturer in the sport – made a rare mistake, and brought to Indy tyres that couldn’t cope with the banked turn on the newly resurfaced circuit. That meant that only six cars – all Bridgestone-shod – went to the grid, and as the Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello disappeared into the middle distance, whole swathes of the crowd walked out, swearing never to return.

Michelin dealt with the situation very honourably, reimbursing angry fans, and the Indianapolis race survived surprisingly intact. By the time of the 2007 Grand Prix rumours were rife – as at Long Beach all those years earlier – that Ecclestone, now working for CVC Capital Partners, was demanding future fees that George was unwilling to meet.

So that was the end of Indy as an F1 venue, and it seemed a classic example of greed and short-sightedness killing off what had briefly become a fixture in the World Championship. In ’08 America was again off the schedule and the money men focused their attention of new markets, like Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Korea – remember that?

Jackie Stewart, Watkins Glen 1973

By 2012, against all the odds, the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas was built in Austin, and the first race, run that October, was a great success in every respect. The F1 community loved the new facility and the crowd – bolstered by a large contingent of racing-mad Mexicans – surpassed all expectations. Grand Prix racing, it seemed, had found a new natural home in the USA, reviving memories of the Glen.

As with Indianapolis subsequent crowds never matched the first one but still they remained healthy, until last year when truly appalling weather took its severe toll. As well as that, most of the Mexican fans unsurprisingly stayed away because they were to have their first Mexican Grand Prix for 23 years the following weekend. COTA may be a great place for a Grand Prix, but rumours abide that it is on shaky financial ground.

Now that Liberty Media is at the helm of Formula 1 that problem should be lessened; Chase Carey and his people must want the race to thrive, and to that end could be amenable – unlike the gentlemen of CVC – to a rather more affordable race fee.

It is unlikely that this American company will be content to leave it there, and quite right, too. You look at how many Grands Prix there are in Asia – some with a local populace that couldn’t care less about Formula 1 – and conclude that it is absurd that a country the size of the USA should have but a single race.

Doubtless this is a thought that has occurred to Liberty Media. At a time when many events on the calendar are there only by virtue of paying extortionate fees with a government cheque, if the sport’s new owners can take a more rounded approach, truly try to develop it rather than simply seek a quick buck, they will be welcome indeed.

Ask anyone who remembers October at the Glen.

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