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The Right Formula: Can F1 Racing Rev Up American Fans?

By:  Charles Curtis Mar 3, 2014
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Theoretically, racing fans in the United States should be enamored with Formula One and its jaw-dropping racing machines that can reach speeds of up to 100 mph then decelerate back to zero in just six seconds.

In the race to bring viewers and fans to motorsports, NASCAR is the clear frontrunner stateside. So it's worth pondering: Can F1 gain serious popularity in America?

The answer isn't so simple. It may take multiple races in the U.S. or a team based here, experts say. Having a native driver who's also a contender could also help.

One step has already been taken to help that happen: There's now one race on F1's calendar that belongs to the United States alongside events scattered around the world in locations like Kuala Lumpur, Monte Carlo, Budapest and Sao Paulo.

"Until you have a race in the country, the F1 fans in that country are kind of invisible. Because there’s nothing for them to show up to, nothing to rally around," says Geoff Moore, chief marketing officer at the Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas, which hosts F1's United States Grand Prix.

It's not as if the U.S. had zero fans before Formula One came back to the country. According to Moore, Circuit of the Americas sold 60,000 tickets to the 2013 United States Grand Prix in its first week. But a second race in another location would no doubt help increase interest.

There have been rumblings about possible events in Long Beach, Calif. or New Jersey, though the latter has reportedly struggled with funding, proving a lot needs to fall into place to make an F1 race materialize.

"A lot of the new tracks are in countries where governments pay for or highly subsidize it," Moore says. "[Circuit of the Americas] had to find the right combination of partnership between the state of Texas and the promoters to create this race track under a unique set of circumstances."

Another step in attracting a future audience stateside? As Todd McCandless of Formula1blog.com points out, F1 doesn't do a lot of marketing on its own, so it's on teams and sponsors to promote the sport. The Coca-Cola Company's energy drink, burn, a sponsor of the Lotus F1 team since 2012, is doing just that. The brand is helping produce Human Ignition, a film directed by Bryan Gregg that will look at the future of Formula One. And that’s not all.

"Our involvement includes a host of activities giving bottlers, customers and consumers unique experiences and access to the highly aspirational world of F1," says Prinz Mathew Pinakatt, Coke’s global director of alliances and ventures. "Our disruptive content-driven approach led by experiential and social media marketing allows us to leave a mark on one of the biggest sports in the world."

Fans in the United States also need someone or something to get behind, either in the form of a team based in the country or a driver born here. But, McCandless warns, "It can’t be an also-ran. It needs to be competing at the top end."

It's worth noting there are two up-and-coming natives with strong potential — Alexander Rossi, a reserve driver with Caterham F1 (and whose Twitter bio reads "Made in USA") and Conor Daly, who was born in Indiana and is the son of former Formula One driver Derek Daly.

For now, the United States Grand Prix in Austin is the starting point to help popularize F1 here. And to top it all off, the Circuit of the Americas has the perfect ambassador for its race and the sport's return to the U.S.: Mario Andretti, the racing legend who has driven in Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR.

Andretti gave CoTA the ultimate seal of approval as it was being readied to bring back F1 to the United States. In the summer of 2102, he took a lap around the track in one of the owners' SUVs. Even with workers still putting together the circuit around him (not to mention a foreman who wondered just who was behind the wheel of the vehicle), Moore said Andretti was "stunned" by how beautiful the track was and the quality of the facilities.

Perhaps when the sport gains popularity in the future, we'll go back to that day as the beginning of Formula One taking over the U.S.

"I think it was a moment where people were working so hard to have the track happen, to make it real," Moore recalls. "That was one of those, 'Hey, this is really going to happen' moments."