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F1 still spinning wheels in U.S.

Grand Prix tries to gain ground in struggle to capture more interest.

BRANT JAMES
Published September 25, 2003

Twenty-five years have passed since Mario Andretti became the second and last American to win a Formula One world championship.

A decade has peeled away since the last American - Andretti's son, Michael - attempted at least part of a season in the Euro-centric circuit.

As the U.S. Grand Prix approaches its fourth Indianapolis Motor Speedway installment this weekend, F1 continues to be more of an oddity in this country than the passionate spectacle that enrapts most of the world. With homegrown NASCAR firming its grip on American fans, Formula One and its ranks of foreign drivers seem no closer to seizing the national consciousness than when Andretti won in Monza, Italy, to capture the 1978 title.

"You have to remember that this country has so many choices when it comes to racing, let alone so many other sports," Andretti said. "In motorsports (the United States) has its own national series with two open-wheel series and NASCAR and others on the local and regional level.

"That's why there has been minimal participation from a driver standpoint, because all the choices are right here."

Red Bull, which sponsors Eddie Cheever's Indy Racing League team, has backed a program the past few years to identify and promote the next young American F1 hopeful.

Finding that driver is key in raising Formula One's profile in the United States, Cheever said. Because many of the best candidates are in their upper teens, the process will take time.

"It would be like me going to Iraq and starting a softball league trying to find the best pitcher in the World Series in three years," said Cheever, whose 132 F1 starts is the most by an American. "It's not going to happen. Now, there may be a kid who can throw a fastball very hard, and he just doesn't know it yet."

If American fans are going to embrace F1, they don't know it yet either.

Though a third jewel in the IMS season, the U.S. Grand Prix has not matched the Indianapolis 500 or Brickyard 400 in grandeur.

The Indy 500 draws 250,000-plus and generates $336.6-million annually, according to an Indy Partnership study. The Brickyard 400, attracting more than 250,000, is worth $219.5-million annually.

The Grand Prix drew about 125,000 last year and is worth an estimated $170.8-million, but the estimated 2002 crowd was well less than the 200,000 who saw the race in 2000 when it returned to the United States for the first time since 1991. Still, the 2002 attendance figure put the Indianapolis event among the F1 circuit's top draws.

The question is whether the Grand Prix is financially worth keeping for IMS' owners, Hulman & Co., even though it financed a 2.6-mile road course specifically for Formula One.

Promoters pay a sanctioning fee to host F1 races, estimated between $7-million and $12-million by the Indianapolis Star, and are responsible for travel costs incurred by the 10 European teams. NASCAR Winston Cup events command just a $5-million fee, the Indy Racing League $1.5-million, and those circuits pay their travel costs.

Bernie Ecclestone, who owns the rights to market Formula One, typically has signed five-year deals with tracks. The race this weekend would be the fourth at IMS. George would not comment on the length of the contract.

Races have faltered in Phoenix because of heat and lack of interest, in Detroit because its course was too tight, and at Watkins Glen because the layout was made unsafe by increasingly powerful cars.

The first U.S. Grand Prix was at Sebring International Raceway in 1959, but its bumpy surface was too hard on the finicky vehicles. Revered IMS, with its new course, massive seating capacity and name recognition, therefore, is the logical stage for Formula One in the United States.

"It's good for us because there are very few places where you go in America where the cities are instantly recognizable to the people of the world," Ecclestone told the Star.

"If you say Indianapolis anywhere, people think motor racing. That's why I went there."

Now the task is to keep it.

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