Will F1’s all-American gamble pay off?

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MIAMI — How in the world did the world’s most prestigious racing series arrive here? Not here as in Miami, but rather here as in this moment in time?

Formula One’s former boss once said he didn’t believe his series needed the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. motorsports community and its massive fan base always seemed to get along just fine without F1. The U.S. spent eight years each in the 1980s and ’90s without a stateside event, then once it returned, it seemed perfectly content with one-and-done weekends each season, either sandwiched in between IndyCar and NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or held in Austin during a Texas Longhorns football away weekend. American-born drivers seemingly were always looked down upon by the old-school, Eurocentric F1 paddock. Those same racers accused those same Europeans of rigging the system against them, you know, like a formula.

The point is, Formula One and the United States were always like a pair of magnets turned the wrong way and pushed together. Like a round piston in a square block. Like synthetic oil and perfectly chilled Fuji water. Like Kimi Raikkonen and smiling. They just didn’t go together. American F1 fans were considered a fervent but niche group. The races were something to watch before Sunday brunch in the summertime, with no football pregame shows to watch instead. The cars and drivers and sponsors, they all felt so, well, distant.

Yet here we are, with seemingly every celebrity you’ve ever heard of jetting their way to South Beach for the weekend. Why? To witness the inaugural Miami Grand Prix (2 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC). To gaze upon a sparkling, pastel-painted 3.363-mile, 19-turn race circuit fancily titled the Miami International Autodrome, all wining and dining in the fake yacht marinas and pop-up hospitality areas that have risen around a stadium used for NFL games, watching as racers across all genres and global borders embrace in a three-day group hug, aglow in the petrol-laced sunshine of South Florida.

“I have been to a lot of races and a lot of parties around races,” McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, himself a walking party, said earlier this week. “But it sure feels like a lot of roads and momentum have been leading up to this weekend in Miami, doesn’t it?”

F1 is indeed having an American moment amid an American movement. The only question now seems to be how long that moment will last, and how big the sport could still become here in the New World.

“It’s our first time in Miami as a sport and the anticipation for this event has just skyrocketed. Everyone is so excited,” F1’s all-time race winner Lewis Hamilton said on Wednesday, sitting alongside the Florida resident with whom he just golfed, Tom Brady.

Brady will be in attendance on Sunday to watch Hamilton, along with a herd of fellow GOATs expected to include Michael Jordan, Serena Williams and LeBron James.

“It’s exciting when you go out and find a new course and find out different features of the circuit,” Hamilton said. “It has been a dream of our sport to be in Miami. Our sport will hopefully earn its right to be here.”

Being here at all used to seem like little more than a tailpipe dream. But the Miami Grand Prix, having yet to turn an in-race lap, already has a 10-year deal in place and is the second American date on the 2022 F1 calendar, joining October’s USGP in Austin. It’s the first time since 1983 the series has raced in the U.S. twice in one season, and next season it will bring a third U.S.-based event on a Vegas Strip-anchored street course. It will be just the third time since 1950 that F1 has traveled to the same nation three times in one year, and one of those occurrences was due to COVID-19 pandemic-forced schedule scrambling.

“Just three years ago, it was difficult to have one [American] Grand Prix full of people,” F1 president and CEO Stefano Domenicali explained last month, noting that nearly 85,000 fans are expected to pass through the turnstiles in Miami, a number that had to be capped because of high demand. “Now we are headed to a situation this year where we’re going to have two events totally sold out.”

It is all undeniably awesome for American motorsports enthusiasts. For those who have made their living in the sport, it is all also just as unbelievable.

“If someone had told you not so long ago that this series would not only be in Miami, but that it was going to be in the United States more than once a year, if at all, you would have had their heads checked,” 1978 F1 world champion Mario Andretti said.

Andretti, 82, grew up in the hills of Northern Italy before moving to the hills of eastern Pennsylvania as a teenager.

“I have always believed that America was probably the only country on the planet that can properly host two Formula One races,” Andretti said. “I have also always believed the American F1 fan base has always been understated. It just needed to be woken up.”

Consider it awake.

ESPN’s domestic F1 television ratings are up 22% over this time last year, a season when they were up a whopping 54% over 2020. Netflix just announced a two-year renewal of “Drive to Survive,” the reality show that captured the stuck-at-home eyeballs of millions during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, generating a tsunami of new F1 fans who started tuning into the races themselves.

“Wave, that’s the perfect word, because that’s what it has felt like,” explained Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren and longtime F1 blue blood who has found himself as a leading character in many “Drive to Survive” episodes as his team fights from behind to catch the title contenders. “I have been in this job six years, but I have been in this paddock for a couple of decades. The show is only a part of what is happening. It’s new races and new sponsors, all in the United States, and it’s ticket demand and hospitality demand that we’ve never seen. America is catching on. We knew it could happen. We just needed the right roots to grow it.”

Brown (and no, it’s not the country rock singer or the Pro Bowl linebacker, but rather the marketer and racer-turned-exec) is a Californian. Haas F1, the first American-based team since 1986, is headquartered in NASCAR country just north of Charlotte, North Carolina. The series itself is also run by Americans, purchased in 2017 by Liberty Media, the Colorado-based owners of the Atlanta Braves and SiriusXM radio. They have been behind the curtain, urging the current wave of young drivers to be more accessible, or at least appear that way, than their predecessors, who always seemed to be unreachable and unrelatable. It’s working.

Just this week, series-leading Red Bull announced a sponsorship deal with Florida-based Hard Rock, the name on the stadium the teams will be racing around this weekend. Earlier this year, Red Bull inked a half-billion-dollar deal with Texas-based Oracle. Seemingly every major sponsorship announcement this season in the F1 paddock has involved American-based companies.

There’s only one glaring plank missing in F1’s new red, white and blue platform.

“There has to be an American driver,” Andretti said.

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Nicole Briscoe examines the history of Formula One in the United States.

He is one of only 10 U.S. drivers to win an F1-sanctioned event and one of only five to earn that victory in a “true” Grand Prix instead of the Indianapolis 500s, which were included in the F1 championship throughout the 1950s.

“Can you imagine what it would be like if all of these new American F1 fans had one of their own to cheer for?” Andretti said.

Over the years there have been several programs designed with that very goal in mind. The most notable was a much-hyped Red Bull-powered development push that got Californian Scott Speed into an F1 car, but only briefly before it sent him back to the States to race for its NASCAR team.

“That was so much hard work,” Danny Sullivan recalled. The 1985 Indy 500 champion made 15 F1 starts in 1983 and was later recruited by Red Bull to pilot their mid-2000s stateside driver search and push. “We achieved the goal of getting an American into a car. But getting there and staying there are two entirely different challenges.”

The most recent American to compete in Formula One was Alexander Rossi, who made five starts for lowly Manor Marussia in 2014-15 before being benched for a driver with bigger sponsorship. He moved to IndyCar in 2016 and stunned the racing world by winning the Indy 500 in his first try.

“I’m just excited for Formula One and America, honestly,” said the 30-year-old and seven-time IndyCar race winner, who plans to attend the Miami Grand Prix alongside a pack of fellow IndyCar racers before beginning their three weekends of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “No one wants there to be an American racer with success more than I do. But I also know they need a fair shot.”

“Just to have an American driver is not enough,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner agreed as he spoke with The Associated Press in Miami on Thursday. “It’s got to be a winning driver. It’s got to be a driver who is running up front. When you look at the effect that [defending F1 champion] Max Verstappen has in Holland, or [2005-06 champion] Fernando Alonso has in Spain. You’ve got to have someone in a winning car with a winning ability.”

Horner and Red Bull have an American with potential in their pits this weekend, 17-year-old Texan and Red Bull junior driver Jak Crawford. There will also be much buzz when race fans spot the likes of Rossi and 22-year-old IndyCar wunderkind Colton Herta. Herta, already a six-time winner in barely three full-time seasons, drives for Michael Andretti, the son of Mario and someone who has always been openly bitter about the unfairness of his brief F1 foray of 1993 with McLaren. Earlier this year, Michael Andretti submitted a formal request to look into the potential of future Formula One team ownership under the name Andretti Global.

“I want so much to see what Colton could do there,” Mario Andretti said of Herta in February when the news broke that his son was examining an F1 entry. “I want to see him there with anyone, but if it was with Michael, at least he would know it is a fair deal. Three American races, with two American teams [Andretti and Haas] and at least one good American driver? I would surely tune in to see that. A lot of people would.”

The question remains: Exactly how many people could potentially make up “a lot.” For as overwhelming as the current F1 popularity wave is, there is also no lack of dissent and concern. F1 executives have excitedly and openly speculated about adding more U.S. races, including New York, and possibly adding a double-digit number of new events to its current 22-round schedule. That has led to grumbling about overreaching, expanding too quickly and killing the American goose in the search for more golden eggs. Old-school F1 fans are sounding off, albeit sometimes unfairly, about another race in a parking lot, recalling the much-maligned 1981-82 events held on the asphalt that surrounds Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. They were downright gleeful on social media when the Miami asphalt required some attention in the intense Friday heat.

But as uninformed and mean-spirited as that opinion of the Miami GP venue might be, the larger worries don’t come without genuine concern. It all sounds more than a little like the longtime NASCAR fans of the 2000s who worried that they and their favorite traditional venues were being abandoned in the search of advertising dollars and new audiences in cooler locations who, it turned out, ultimately never saw racing as more than a fad. When those new markets grew stale and those neo-fans moved on to the next cool thing, NASCAR was left holding a lot of empty bags, and it has spent the past decade working to return to its roots. See: “NASCAR Throwback Weekend” currently taking place at Darlington Raceway.

The latest season of “Drive to Survive” received some criticism from within the paddock, most notably from Verstappen, who did not participate. Even those giddy racers from other American disciplines, many of whom will be in attendance this weekend, have started publicly tempering their excitement. Last month, NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick said his 9-year-old son and his karting friends talk about wanting to race for Red Bull and Mercedes, not Chevy and Ford. It concerned him so much that he went to NASCAR brass to discuss it. Many of those execs will be traveling to Miami from Daytona to get a glimpse before heading north to Darlington, South Carolina.

Just last week when Rossi was asked about the rise of his former series, he said, “Sure, it is [competition], especially when you look at U.S. market share. With three races, it’s something we [in IndyCar] need to be aware of. Certainly, continue our development and plan in terms of what we’re doing with the series, with the driver personalities, the teams, the representation we have out there. I think it’s certainly a moving target.”

So, where is all of this headed? No one truly knows. But what everyone knows for certain is that this Sunday in Miami will be an event the likes of which even the planet’s swankiest sport has never seen, from motors and mojitos to movie stars and MJ.

“The future is exciting, there is no doubt about it,” explained Emerson Fittipaldi, 1972 and ’74 F1 world champion and longtime Miami resident. On Tuesday, “Emmo” cut the ceremonial ribbon to officially kickoff Miami Race Week. “But this weekend, I am not worried about the future. I have a smile on my face for the present. I am going to enjoy this Miami Grand Prix. This dream that has come true.”

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