There are smart people saying this, so it must be right, right? Americans are sweeping aside NASCAR and IndyCar and embracing Formula 1, which is taking over motorsports here.
Call me smart, dumb, visionary, stuck-in-the-past, or whatever else you want, but I’ll stake my claim on “Ain’t Gonna Happen.”
This, by the way, applies to F1-vs.-NASCAR, F1-vs.-IndyCar, or F1-vs-Saturday-night-specials-running-for-$500-to-win. Still ain’t gonna happen.
Yes, the F1 race at Circuit of the Americas has become something of a phenomenon, which has attracted Las Vegas, which knows a “We-can-turn-this-glitter-into-gold” opportunity when it sees one, and things seemed to have worked out nicely in Miami so far, but it says here that all of that fits into the “Next Big Thing” basket, and if you believe Next Big Things always stick around, then let’s talk about what you’ll pay for my Beanie Baby collection.
Besides, that’s three races, not a full schedule like NASCAR and IndyCar have to support. Ask the COTA throng from ’22 who won at Australia last week or Ulaanbaatar (or wherever it was they ran) before that, and see how many are seriously following.
At this point, the U.S. F1 races are more Kentucky Derby – freakishly big events in a sport with middling support otherwise – than the are like Cup racing or even IndyCar.
That’s fine for now, but where things go from here . . . well, consider these thoughts:
- In terms of coverage, F1 has a long way to go, except maybe in a few Northeast and West Coast markets. Even in the stick-and-ball dominated sports pages I see, they might equal IndyCar every now and then, but NASCAR typically is in another coverage league. Week-in and week-out, it’s the same with TV ratings.
- That’s just part of the difference if you want to actually follow the sport. Some markets don’t have particularly good print media coverage of races that aren’t either close by home or at Daytona, but at least it’s easy to watch them on television. The Australian Grand Prix was on at 1 a.m. Sunday! Oh, easy-peasy, just switch over after you finish watching Saturday Night Live.
- Fan favorites. How many current F1 drivers can you name? Only the most popular sports have a fan-favorites list with more than eight or ten names. NASCAR and IndyCar both have struggled there as the older stars have faded. That’s one reason Dale Earnhardt Jr. filled North Wilkesboro Speedway by running in a late model race, while Richmond delights in incremental increases in attendance when its capacity is reportedly less than when the new track was built 35 years ago.
- Favorite fans. Have you seen ticket prices at COTA? NASCAR prices have dropped since the trend-followers left, and the dramatic ripping-out of grandstands is an effort to create a supply-and-demand situation that will allow them to go up again. Riding the crest of popularity (and 400,000+ attendance last year), COTA recently released a small number of single day tickets (as opposed to 3-day passes) for Sunday’s race at $280 each. Those are the cheap seats! (Actually, they don’t guarantee you a seat at all.) Do you think that means they give a toot about fans in my economic bracket? How long do you think it’s going to take for even the most jaded sports fashionista to realize that’s about as legit as Bitcoin?
- This is the biggie. How many F1 races have you actually watched? How anxious are you to watch more? Thanks to esteemed colleague David Nance, I know that Richmond had 3,816 “green flag passes” Sunday, 8 of which were green-flag passes for the lead. Now I know that not as many cars start F1 races, but even if you use NASCAR’s statistic for “quality passes” in positions 1-15, there were 1,177. Just a guess, but I’m halfway doubtful that F1 has that many in a SEASON. Sunday’s race was, by F1 standards, a wreckfest, and it had a late red flag and restart that messed things up too much for some competitors and insiders, who said it was too NASCAR-ish. Can’t take a little action, guys?
- Finally – and you can ask NASCAR about this one – it’s fun being the Next-Big-Thing . . . until the NEXT Next-Big-Thing comes along, and all those trend-followers run as fast as they can toward it. Five years down the road: “Formula 1? Oh, that’s so 2024.”
Let’s face it, everything changes. Go back 75 years and Indy was the big thing, with road racing nipping (politely) at its heels. Then NASCAR and to some extent drag racing stole some of its thunder. Today, some people would rather watch drifting.
Let F1 enjoy its minute. Just keep a few folks from K-Mart, Circuit City, Netscape, or MCI/Worldcom around to explain what happens next.
FRANK’S LOOSE LUG NUTS
Of course, in order to NASCAR to maintain any U.S. advantage over other forms of motorsports, there has to be a NASCAR, and the current state of relations between Daytona and the Charter owners casts a little doubt on that.
I’m pretty sure I expressed an opinion that this would happen back when we got the Charter system. The owners want a Microsoft or Apple business model, where you can make whatever profit you want and nobody can do anything about it. Not sure we fans fully buy into that, nor likely do the drivers, who see the pie sliced yet another way.
Sorry, I’d like this to be a SPORT, not a BUSINESS MODEL, and if NASCAR hadn’t allowed it to become so freakin’ expensive, that might be possible.
I am unapologetically old-school here. I think if you’d asked David Pearson about his business model after an off-night on the track, he’d have stubbed his cigarette out in your nose. I always liked Pearson.
A Sad Note
I need to share with you the loss of a great racing historian from nearby to me. On March 21, we lost Al Torney of Annapolis, Md. Ironically, I was supposed to hear Al take part in a presentation at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing a couple of weeks ago but learned that he couldn’t make the trip because he had taken ill. He died the next day, a month shy of his 81st birthday.
Al founded and shepherded the Maryland Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame (www.mdscarhof.org), a wonderful resource that a racing history buff can waste hours reading and viewing. He also held a reunion for Maryland racing folks that just took place a few weeks ago. At one time I thought I might be able to attend and regret that I didn’t.
A lot of our racing history would be lost without people like Al Torney. As we see regularly, NASCAR protects that part of its history that serves its purposes, but the stuff that doesn’t fit into public relations and marketing is important, too, and it’s the folks doing history for the love of it who keep all that from the dustbin or dumpster.
Al, it was a privilege to know you. Thanks for all you did.
. . . and finally
I can’t resist this one. Having used NASCAR’s Loop Data Statistics in this article, I have to relate a story from back when all that came into being a little less than 20 years ago.
I was working at Richmond, helping set the Infield Media Center up for race weekend, and one of the NASCAR guys came in, carrying box after box of something new: Loop Data Statistics packets.
“It’s Brian (France)’s baby,” he explained, without enthusiasm. After the race, we threw nearly all those packets away. As time went on, NASCAR brought in fewer copies, and maybe a few more were used.
Today, people actually pay attention to them.
Brian, we might not have loved you, but you did leave a little legacy.
(PHOTO CREDIT – I didn’t place photos in this article, but the cover shot came from F1’s website.)