Clash of the motorsport titans
There’s no denying NASCAR’s American monopoly. I should know, as one of the key races of the series’ “Chase for the championship” takes place less than an hour from where I live. Such close proximity to the world of NASCAR (and the rather ironic affiliation I have with Formula One) lends itself to some interesting perspectives when the two sports eventually cross paths, as they did last week.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage called Bernie Ecclestone “foolish” for organizing a race on the same weekend as the Texas 500 at TMS, when Formula One heads down to Austin for the third year in a row.
“It’s a shot fired by Formula One at NASCAR,” says Gossage. “I can’t say I was surprised because Bernie Ecclestone does a lot of foolish things. The thing he unfortunately doesn’t recognize is there is an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to major American motorsports. The 800-pound gorilla is NASCAR.”
On the surface, it’s easy to see where Mr. Gossage comes from. He has an obligation, as TMS president, to ensure as many people as possible are not only watching the race on television, but attending the race in person. The Texas 500 is a hugely popular stop on the NASCAR calendar, especially as part of the Chase. The track itself is a monster (I have personal experience on the track in an open-wheel car), and offers those in attendance an amazing spectacle. While NASCAR is certainly an acquired taste, there is no denying the excitement of watching 43 900 bhp cars careening around a 1.5 mile oval at over 200 miles per hour.
This is why when Formula One came to town in 2012, tensions between the two motorsport powerhouses mounted.
A November 18th date for the inaugural race was immediately met with anxiety, and with good reason, for this was the exact date as the NASCAR season finale. The championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart was one of the most thrilling the sport had seen for years, and any potential competitor for their money-making finale was less than ideal.
This date was also bad news for F1’s latest foray into the U.S., for the attention on NASCAR at the time was threatening to dampen the sport’s fiery debut in Austin. Once the event came around, most people forgot about the clash and paid attention to the race they were most interested in, which is a good thing to point out.
NASCAR and Formula One have very different fan bases, and the notion that a Formula One race would detract a significant portion of the viewing audience from a NASCAR race reflects Mr. Gossage’s poor understanding of his own industry. There will be some overlap, true, but the sheer novelty of Formula One it the States accounts for much of that, and the natural order will be restored soon.
This assumption also indicates the belief on Gossage’s part that NASCAR and Formula One are somehow competitors in the market for motorsport fans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The average Joe in middle America couldn’t care less about what some German is doing on the streets of Monaco or what fuel flow rates Mercedes engines are running compared to those of Renault and Ferrari. The majority of the NASCAR scene is there to get their high-octane fix of repetitive and relentless racing punctuated by enormous crashes.
Furthermore, Mr. Gossage’s remarks are a feeble attempt at making it seem like Formula One gives a flying fladoodle about NASCAR. Trust me Mr. Gossage, if there were fladoodles in need of flying, F1 wouldn’t send them your way. If F1 truly cared about stealing fans away from NASCAR, their marketing department would make sure people all over the United States knew about the race. And since we all know F1 lacks in this department, you have your answer. F1 is here on its own behalf, not to steal NASCAR’s limelight.
This insignificant over lap presents Gossage with little to worry about. And what Gossage seems to not understand is that the sport his venue is hosting is unlikely to create too many converts. Those cemented in their love for Formula One would be hard to dissuade and vice versa.
If anything, a clash of dates is perfect for both events, as it will push their respective organizers to promote them as much as possible and create the most enjoyable overall experience for their customers. That will increase revenue, and increase the likelihood of repeat visitors enormously, something even Mr. Gossage cannot argue with.
COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein had a few things to say in response to Gossage’s comments earlier this week. He acknowledged the quality, but dissimilarity, of their respective products, and recognized that while there is little overlap between F1 and NASCAR, some fans will have to make a choice.
“The reality,” says Epstein, “is that there are more than 30 NASCAR races in the US and only one Formula One race. It’s impossible not to bump into them.”
The complexities of accommodating Formula One cannot be underestimated. Just one week before the Austin race, F1 will be in Russia for the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, somewhere the sport has never been. That unknown coupled with the relative newness of Austin makes for an almightily logistical challenge. Making a change just so a clash with just one of 36 NASCAR events is far from the top of F1’s priority list. Who can blame them?
Formula One is still far from cementing a legacy in Austin. While the event has been a roaring success the past two years, there is no guarantee that American fans won’t lose interest in the sport, especially with the new level of complexity that will define this year’s championship. The race cannot sustain itself on international attendees alone. It needs American support for it to thrive in the long run. So if I were Bernie, or Bobby or a team principal or a concerned fan and yes, even Mr. Gossage, I would push for even more clashes, because it would only provide F1 another opportunity to stake its claim in the American motorsport conscience.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and IndyCar Media Service.