When the Formula One circus hits America, it always makes an interesting cocktail. Probably the biggest differentiator between the development of motorsport on either side of the Atlantic is the attitude to the paying public. In Europe, racing was principally competition between the competitors, whereas in North America it was all about putting on a race as a show and creating entertainment.
In 1905, while helping friends racing in France, Indiana entrepreneur Carl Fisher noticed that Europeans held the upper hand in automobile design and craftsmanship. He came to the conclusion that for America to catch up, it needed to provide a better means of testing cars before delivery to their customers. American racing was just getting started on horse tracks and occasionally on public roads.
However these venues were not really suited to either racing or car testing. In addition, Fisher also believed that spectators didn’t receive their money’s worth from an infrequent glance of a hell-bent competitor racing past during a 50 mile open-road race.
Fisher proposed building a circular track with smooth wide racing surfaces. A facility which would provide manufacturers an opportunity to test cars at sustained speeds and give drivers a place to learn how to maintain control at the limit. Fisher knew he was literally on the right track after visiting the Brooklands circuit in the UK, which opened in 1907.
Seeing the steeply banked 4.4 kms pear-shaped course cemented his determination to develop his dream. With dozens of carmakers and suppliers in Indiana, a dual-purpose track would be ideal for testing, plus would also be the perfect venue for demonstrating a car’s strengths to the buying public through racing. This lead to building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the home of the famous Indy 500.
In fact the Indy 500 between 1950 to 1960 was actually part of the Formula One World Championship, even though none of the Indy drivers raced in Formula One and of the F1 drivers only Ferrari’s Alberto Ascari raced in the 500 in 1952. Five time world champion Juan Fangio practiced at the Speedway in 1958, but ultimately decided against racing there.
The American Grand Prix over the years has had a range of venues. For many years the Grand Prix was held at Watkins Glen in New York State which has the longest hosting record of any American Formula One race in history.
Long Beach was and still is street race held in a suburb of Los Angeles. It became a Formula One event in 1976 and now is a poplar venue for Indycars. I went to the final F1 event in 1983 before joining McLaren, where John Watson’s won for McLaren having started from 22nd on the grid.
In Las Vegas the track was laid out in the parking lot of the Caesars Palace hotel and has been described as one of the worst circuits Formula One has ever visited!
In 1982, the U.S. became the first and only country to host three World Championship Grands Prix in one season. In addition to Long Beach and Las Vegas, the event was held in Detroit, on a street course encompassing the Renaissance Centre, the current headquarters of General Motors.
When the USA Grand Prix went to Phoenix in June 1989 it was approaching the hottest part of the year, so it was ironic that the race was sponsored by Iceberg! The street circuit in Phoenix never attracted a large crowd and it was rumoured that a local ostrich race attracted a larger crowd than for the Grand Prix!
On the track the tension between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna was intensifying. Alain was becoming increasingly convinced that Ayrton was receiving better engines from Honda, claiming that he had more speed on the straight. Whilst the collection of car data through the telemetry was in its early stages, especially when compared to today, I do remember having it explained to me at the time that the reason Ayrton was quicker on the straight was that he was quicker coming out of the corners!
That weekend also showed me a demonstration of the more gentler side of Ayrton. As it was the American Grand Prix, there were a number of Marlboro promotional activities for the drivers to do with senior executives and guests. Whilst Ayrton was never a great fan of going to these functions, once there he always performed well, albeit with one eye on the clock ready to make an early exit. On this particular occasion we had two Marlboro functions back to back, but held at opposite ends of the hotel, the luxurious Phoenician Resort.
My job was to make sure that Ayrton went to both. After the first function the two of us walked through the vast empty corridors of this huge hotel. Suddenly we became aware of a young girl coming towards us. Now the awareness and interest in F1 in Phoenix was not great, but this lady was a fan and most particularly a fan of Ayrton and to come face to face with him in a hotel corridor left her speechless. Much as she wanted to converse with her hero, she was frozen to the spot, with tears welling up in her eyes.
This is when you saw the very gentle and humble side of Ayrton. Seeing the state she was in, he put his arms around her, calmed her down and gave her his autograph. As we walked away onto the function, she still remained frozen to the spot, but with a great big smile on her face!
Then the was the return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but this time to a purpose built section on the infield through the golf course, which then rejoined a couple of the sections of the oval speedway, but going in the opposite direction to regular speedway use.
Trying to educate the guests about Formula One tended to be a challenge, especially as the Indy cars, which normally raced on the ovals, looked very similar and actually had a faster top speed. Therefore we had to emphasise the technology and sophistication of F1 and we did this through putting on a show for the sponsors which took place downtown in the Artsgarden, which was a huge glass auditorium which straddled over two of the main roads.
The first year in 2000 we used the hugely impressive Cirque du Soleil who astounded the audience with their breathtaking acts, to illustrate such aspects as precision and teamwork.
The second year had a much more sombre atmosphere as the race took place two weeks after the horrendous tragedy of the collapsing of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11th. For many days there was intense speculation as to whether the race would actually take place, especially as many companies in the immediate aftermath forbade their employees to travel by airplane.
In the end the decision was taken that to cancel the race would actually be giving in to the wishes of the terrorists, so the race did take place, but to a much reduced audience. This to had an impact on our event at the Artsgarden.
We still went ahead and Ron Dennis gave a very moving welcome speech, describing the impact it had on him watching the demolition of the Twin Towers on TV and comparing the powerful emotion he also felt when seen the first man on the moon – one negative and one positive.
The race in 2001 also marked the end of the F1 chapters for quite a few people, including TV commentator Murray Walker, McLaren Team Co-ordinator Jo Ramirez and also myself. It was also the final race victory for Mika Hakkinen.
It was my job to interview Mika on stage in front of the guests and my final question to him was what were his tactics for the race: “Basically, at the start I am going to be in the lead for the first corner, and I am going to stay there until the chequered flag!”
Typical Mika, forthright and to the point. And he did exactly that!
Viewing motorsport as entertainment is highly topical in Formula One these days and in some areas it is at odds with the purists. Whether you support the “artificial” devices such as DRS or not, apart from the silver cars frequently disappearing into the distance, F1 racing further down the field is arguably the best it has been in years. Lots of dicing and not to many retirements.
Entertainment is key for the American audience. In NASCAR the promotors essentially have a contract with the spectators that ensures that as many as possible of the 43 starters actually finish the race, which is why the prize fund is allocated at various sections throughout the race. Therefore, you can understand the strong negative reaction of the American spectators in the stands with the debacle of only six cars actually starting the Formula One United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2005!
Formula One has now found a new home in Austin, Texas and it seems that F1 has been warmly embraced at the Circuit of the Americas. In many ways people compare it to the wonderful embracing atmosphere of Adelaide for the Australia Grand Prix. The contrast was always that in Adelaide the Grand Prix was the THE event, whereas when it moved to Melbourne it became AN event.
Whilst America does not at the moment have a homegrown hero (with apologies to Alex Rossi) they do seem to have partially adopted Lewis Hamilton, with whom there seems to be a mutual admiration.
Going into the American Grand Prix Lewis is 66 points clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and 73 ahead of his own team mate Nico Rosberg with four races remaining. The points gulf make it conceivable that the 30-year-old could well join the elite club of triple world champions, provided he wins in Austin, and Vettel fails to take second place.
Now that could be a winning combination for all concerned!
Inside Line by Peter Burns who has over 30 years experience in the global motorsport industry including 17 years in Formula One with McLaren as Senior Marketing Manager working with drivers including Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Martin Brundle, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.
Peter was involved in the pioneering days of F1 sports marketing with the market leaders. This included developing the relationships with the sponsors, creating McLaren’s Grand Prix corporate hospitality to entertain the sponsors and provide insight into the sport and the race weekend experience, plus some great promotional events including the Spice Girls and the Cirque du Soleil.
“Motorsport is all about passion, excitement, adrenaline and precision. The more you learn about the sport the more you want to be involved, which is a powerful combination when mixed with business objectives.”
Peter has also worked with the Motorsport Industry Association and at the Dubai Autodrome as sales and marketing executive manager in the days of Speedcar and GP2 Asia. Peter is currently based in Asia working on driver safety training with FleetSafe Asia and motorsport marketing with Asia Motorsport Development.