Grand Prix racing was born in France and Formula One has flourished in Europe ever since, but it has never really caught on in the United States. In a culture based on independence and a free market economy, it seems strange that Formula One racing has not been openly embraced in the United States. Oddly, these may be the same reasons why Formula One has not found a solid foothold here…yet.
Open wheel racing traditions in the United States are rich and diverse, but largely noncommittal if one takes a brief look at where and how open-wheel racing has evolved here. Before Formula One became the global draw for drivers, promoters, and teams worldwide, and even throughout Europe, open wheel racing dates back as early as 1916 in the U.S. with one of the earliest championship formats sanctioned by the long-defunct American Automobile Association (AAA). A string of fatalities in the U.S. and abroad (including Alberto Ascari) fractured any consistency in an open-wheel championship here in the U.S. until the mid 1950s when a national championship format was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC), which was run by Tony Hulman (then owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway).
The marquis event for U.S. open wheel racing quickly became the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was built in 1909 with a gravel and tar track surface eventually becoming paved. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what would later become known as the Indy 500 quickly became a worldwide event attracting European drivers and manufacturers. What really made the race attractive to European racers was when USAC created regulations limited engine displacement and becoming more akin to European open wheel racing formats attracting manufacturers like Offenhauser and Miller, who supplied winning engines and chassis for many entrants in the 1950s and 1960s. As open wheel racing became better sanctioned, “somewhat” less deadly, and more popular in the U.S., the Indy 500 became a regular magnet for endurance drivers, open-wheel racers, and Formula One drivers in Europe. From 1950-1960, the Indy 500 was even a points-scoring event in the FIA World Driver’s Championship! After USAC
So, where did the problems develop for open-wheel racing (and Formula One) in the United States?
The once glorious years where European drivers would come to the U.S. to compete in a familiar set of regulations seem like centuries ago now. After USAC, one of the longest running, top-level open-wheel sanctioning bodies in the U.S., began having difficulties in the mid to late 1970s, things went downhill for U.S. open-wheel racing. The Indy 500, which was the magnet for European talent and manufacturers, was still the crown jewel for American sanctioning bodies and those in the motor sports BUSINESS. Power struggles then ensued. Things get ugly and confusing.
After USAC, SCCA initially stepped in to help Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART – think Sebastian Bourdais, Paul Tracy, and Michael Andretti) get off the ground, which included the Indy 500 on its calendar in the late 1970s. CART became quite a formidable hotbed for European and other foreign talent racing on U.S. soil. The USAC still independently sanctioned the 500, but CART teams could participate in the event. The Indy 500 would be a one-off spectacle for years to come. CART became the U.S. open-wheel national championship of choice for a while with the USAC allowing CART’s teams to participate in its Indy 500. In the mid-1990s, the USAC founder’s grandson, the infamous Tony George, created the Indy Racing League (IRL) and was bent on taking over open-wheel supremacy in the U.S. George was able to wrest control of the Indy 500 for his series while directly competing with CART, which was still a national championship but now lacked a marquis event like the Indy 500. CART teams could not participate in the Indy 500. CART, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the IRL then proceeded to fight over who could use the “Indycar” name for their national series, and CART was eventually sold, rebranded as the Champ Car World Series, and then folded at the end of 2007. Confused yet? The current “Indycar” series as we know it in the U.S. was formed in 2008 with Champ Car being folded into the new entity. Indycar as we know it today, is the premier U.S. open-wheel series and has sole control of the Indy 500, which still has considerable luster and appeal as an internationally renowned event.
Throughout the course of the above saga, other open wheel and sportscar traditions were developing and quickly evolving in the U.S. Dirt tracks (typically ovals) becamse ubiquitous in the U.S. Midgets, sprint cars, modifieds, and countless other “relatively inexpensive” and exciting brands of racing popped up everywhere, especially in the midwest. NASCAR came on the scene mid-20th century and really took ahold in the 1960s as stars like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Fireball Roberts, and David Pearson captivated fans with tough, bruising action on track that has remained consistent to this day.
The moral of the story is that the U.S. is chock full of competing interests and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, all of the wrestling and fighting over the Indy 500 and top-level open-wheel racing was really devastating for the fan and business base in the U.S. American open-wheel talent rarely made it abroad to compete in Formula One, which is, of course, due to geographic and cost limitations. But the really amazing U.S. drivers and manufacturers who managed to pull it off are names that most Americans would not recognize today. Formula One was practically counter culture for a while, but thankfully it did not deter the likes of Mario Andretti, Phill Hill, Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Bob Bondurant, Jim Hall, and many others. Drivers, manufacturer, and fans quickly fled to NASCAR and other booming, COHESIVE forms of motor sports that are now the biggest business interests in American motor racing. If you were to ask a bystander in the U.S. whether they could correctly identify Richard Petty or Mario Andretti, most would be able to recognize and place Petty, “The King”, much easier.
Formula One certainly suffered while U.S. open-wheel racing struggled to find its identity. Although the U.S. Grand Prix was hosted for its longest (and possible greatest) stint at Watkins Glen International Circuit (1961-1980), the U.S. Grand Prix has been circulated among so many different venues it is difficult to name them. Some of them include street circuits in Long Beach, California, Detroit, Phoenix, Dallas, Texas, and, of course, the infield road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway most recently. The grand prix held in Phoenix, which was won by none other than Ayrton Senna, was notoriously out-attended by a nearby ostrich race of all things. Clearly, Formula One has struggled in the United States because as a hungry free-market economy, business interests do not often align with consistency. Where the dollar travels so does Formula One. And for the last 5 or so years, Formula One was simply not even close to being a top-level draw for investors, promoters, and all involved (Bernie Ecclestone & Co. included).
Well, the Circuit of the Americas is about to shift things in the right directions. With a 10-year deal in hand and other sanctioning bodies like MotoGP and V8 Supercars set to visit regularly, the U.S. Grand Prix is back in a big way. The organizers, promoters, and municipal officials were able to work past lawsuits and big divides to make this event happen. It is a big victory for U.S. Formula One fans and the entire motor sports industry over here in the States. If Formula One wants a foothold in the U.S., this is a damned good first step. With a bit of consistency in the calendar, the promise of huge revenues, a world-class racing circuit, and a tremendously hard-fought 2012 WDC, the U.S. should be poised to feel the Formula One “love”. I should also add that having two strong U.S. contenders for a seat(s) in Formula One (Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly) shouldn’t hurt, either.