F1 Racing Surges Ahead in Popularity in the States
Formula 1 racing currently rides at an all-time high of popularity in the United States, the likes of which may not have been seen since the days of Mario Andretti. The growth of spectator interest in the sport has already led to renewed investment in F1’s presence in the US, best exemplified by the opening of a new circuit event in Miami for the 2022 season.
While the U.S. boasts many popular and active competitive racing scenes, the growth of F1 is particularly good news for competitive racing as a whole. If the current trend holds true, we should see a boom in new road circuits, development racing league participation, and a rise in road track style karting for people of all ages. Ferocious speed is back in a big way in the States, and it’s no longer content to just go around in an oval.
F1 Is Back by Design, Not by Accident
After a decade and a half of indifference, American spectators now find themselves hooked on Formula 1 racing once more
Like the guy who visits a fancy craft beer bar and complains that he can’t order a Bud Light, there was this sense that Americans just “didn’t get it” when it came to F1 racing. You can hardly blame them. It’s historically easier to root for a team that feels like the hometown heroes. Yet, there hasn’t been an American driver since 2015. Haas, the only American-based team currently operating, has run drivers from Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Norway, but never the States.
F1 racing had also been regarded as physically inaccessible since Indianapolis’ famed Brickyard track ended its relationship with the racing series (somewhat in disgrace). With the opening of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas in 2012 and the new introduction of Miami’s Autodrome circuit for 2022, that’s no longer the case.
However, these factors can be seen symptoms rather than the real affliction: for the past 30 years F1 lacked elbow grease when it came to marketing and promotion. However, since Liberty Media purchased Formula 1 for $4.6 billion in 2017 (a move widely regarded as insanely risky at the time), the entertainment conglomerate has taken concerted steps to bring F1 back into the North American cultural consciousness. That, combined with the increased visibility of the teams — and all the drama that comes with it — has contributed to a sudden and unexpected boom in interest for the sport.
But what’s in Liberty’s secret sauce? The following factors can be considered most crucial when it comes to the sport’s dramatic comeback in the past few years.
A New Venue Gives F1 a Place to Stay in America
While the Americans’ interest, on average, for F1 has waxed and waned over the years, it would be safe to say that our ability to actually host races has been historically off the mark
With the exception of the storied Grand Prix West circuit at Long Beach (which abandoned F1 in favor of Indy after 1983 to move away from the eye-popping costs), every other circuit in the country arguably marks a black eye on the history of the sport in the Americas.
- The excitement of Watkins Glen turned ugly after two back-to-back driver fatalities in ’73/’74 FIA World Championships
- Detroit seemed promising as a venue in the ’82-’88 F1 circuits, but difficulty maintaining the track and financial troubles put an end to that period in open wheel racing
- Las Vegas was well-loved by drivers and teams during the ’81/’82 season, but failed to draw crowds to the stands (but gets its comeback chance in 2023!)
- Phoenix would fail spectacularly both in its circuit design and its ability to garner attendance
- And, of course, the less said about the Dallas course, which literally fell apart underneath the drivers during its first and only run in ’84, the better
An Infamous End to F1’s Run in Indy
All of the U.S.’s past F1 tracks culminated in an event that, until recently, was hailed as the obituary of F1’s prospects in America: the painfully embarrassing 2005 United States Grand Prix incident.
Problems with tires and what was regarded as an overly fast run into turn 13 meant that 14 cars were stuck in the garage since they could not race safely. Just six cars took to the field. The race was so unsatisfactory to watch that most fans left early, with many openly booing and throwing beer bottles onto the track. Michael Schumacer nabbed his only win of that season that day, but was so embarrassed by the hamstrung competition that he opted not to even spray the victory champagne over the crowd.
F1 would last two more years at Indianapolis before quietly fading into a non-presence in America for four consecutive seasons.
Austin Offers a New Home for F1 Racing in the U.S.
With the opening of the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) course in Austin, Texas, 2012 meant the return of an FIA-specification road-style course worthy of hosting F1 over the long term.
COTA would host F1 in the U.S. for the first time since ’07 in an event that would draw moderate attendance but big TV numbers. The race would also prove a popular stop for drivers. It was a boost to the local economy, as well, with Austin boasting over $2.8 million in alcohol sales alone from events associated with the race.
It would be almost ten years before COTA had the privilege of hosting F1 again, but by that point the seeds of the sports’ popularity had been planted. With F1 proven as a ratings draw — and a viable institution to hitch your sponsorship wagon to — Liberty Media and F1 teams would bet big on the U.S. as a viable host for major circuit events. F1’s return to COTA in 2021 would see a sold out crowd and record-breaking viewership. F1 officials then quickly sealed a deal for at least five more years of races in Austin.
The circuit’s popularity has reached such heights that there will be an unprecedented event this year: two races on U.S. soil. Miami joined Austin in having the privilege to host a Grand Prix race during the 2022 season. The 3.36 mile course wound around the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and produced an estimated average speed of 135 mph, selling out the grandstands and earning plenty of viewers.
Shockingly, 2023 will see a third U.S. venue added to the circuit: none other than Las Vegas! There’s actually complaints of possible oversaturation of F1 events in one country. Adding in the races to be held in Mexico City and Montreal, that will make 2023 the first time ever that five races will be held in North America in the same season.
In light of these developments, America’s interest in hosting F1 races has pulled a complete 180° compared to a few years ago. Sold out crowds and attempts to book rooms 20 months in advance show just how far interest and infrastructure for F1 has grown.
An Obsessive Pursuit of Competition by Design
Having the fastest and most expensive cars on the planet to race competitively (at least in a circuit), Formula One engineering teams have always sat at the peak of automotive innovation.
We have F1’s technical geniuses to thank for many features now seen in production vehicles, including ground effects, computer controlled active suspensions (later banned), paddle shifters, and the growing use of wind tunnels during the design and testing phase. Innovations developed have also led to unexpected improvements in society: better coordination in patient transport, more energy-efficient appliances, and improvements to digital networking infrastructure.
After cutting-edge technologies honed in the early 1990 F1 seasons led to insurmountable advantages, subsequent rule changes have generally shifted towards the goal of forcing technology compromises. These make races more competitive and more exciting, while lowering barriers to entry for teams. These rule changes began in the 1960s but really took root in 1994 when computer-controlled traction and adaptive suspension systems were banned.
2021 was a landmark year, seeing a slew of engineering-focused rule changes all designed to invite closer racing. A cost cap was introduced, raising the ability for newer or less well-heeled teams to rise up in competitiveness.
2022’s racing season sees a dramatic overhaul in the engineering of vehicles, with the collective intent to make overtaking easier. The massive amounts of downforce created by the vehicles generates “turbulence” in the air behind them. Turbulence hurts the ability to overtake, as cars riding in this zone don’t get the undisturbed air they need to create downforce of their own. “Dirty air” reduces the odds of drivers to overtake and jostle for position: a hallmark of boring races. In an era where drame generates more viewers than single-team dominance, F1 officials are loathe to have one person or team lead for too long. In these tight races, victories often come down to pit stops or even the movements of the safety car.
F1’s recent rules force teams to think creatively while keeping the audience’s desire for close, competitive, and entertaining races firmly in mind.
A Renewed Commitment to Promotion on Our Side of the Pond
More opportunities to see racing on our soil and carefully engineered rulesets undoubtedly helped F1’s recent surge in traction, but without a doubt the biggest chunk of credit goes to the new ownership.
Liberty Media’s decision to buy out F1 entirely in 2017 was seen as, to use a technical term “batsh*t insane” by many in both the sport and financial world. The deal was actually made with Liberty only fronting $301 million in cash, but former owners Delta Topco carried a staggering $4.1 billion in debt to various banks, meaning the purchase threw Liberty into the deep end of a venture that was bleeding red year-over-year. There was also a perceived ceiling on the sport’s appeal; already popular in Europe and the Middle East, and repeatedly passed over by the American crowd, it had nowhere to grow.
But Liberty was not dissuaded. Their gamble paid off, to, but not because of sheer luck. Rather, Liberty Media owner Greg Maffei immediately began to demonstrate how much he understood what modern audiences craved.
Consider, for one, that the former owner Bernie Ecclestone has held his position since the 1970s — over 50 years! Ecclestone forbade teams from posting content on their own social media accounts, and he always took the position of looking to the sport as a tradition first and a form of entertainment second.
Liberty, on the other hand, not only permitted teams’ content creation but encouraged it! They embraced a digital-first strategy, prioritizing Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the official F1 website as go-to sources of daily interest. The strategy bolstered views and made TV contracts all the more juicy thanks to increased viewership. With so many people talking about the races, they had become a real “thing” to discuss — something you don’t want to miss!
Without a doubt, though, the Netflix series Drive to Survive had the biggest role in ushering F1 into U.S. consciousness. “The beauty of the series is that someone can sit down, watch any given three episodes, and they can come out completely literate about what makes the sport tick,” said long-time racing fan Andy Deljuidice of Rhode Island.
Andy has been watching F1 racing since he was 10, during the heyday of Michael Schumacher’s championship dominance. He says that, while some diehard racing fans get annoyed at the newcomers, F1’s skyrocketing popularity means nothing but good things for the sports’ development and longevity.
“It has been cool to see how everyone can get into the strategy of what you need to win a race.”
He also notes that more interest is good because it means more viewers and more money, which means better racing.
Fans, new and old, undeniably appreciate the access they now have to the drivers and teams. Being able to see the new vehicle for the season come together during the testing phase, for example, drives up hype in much the same way that spring training and early exhibition games allow MLB or NFL fans to see new recruits in action.
The new content also allows driver personalities to be showcased front and center. That drama has been a key component in encouraging spectator engagement. Besides, F1’s off-track drama has always had the makings of good television. It’s only recently that this potential has been on full display. Previously, these stories were relegated to rumors or rare moments of journalistic access, when they can catch drivers and team members at their most candid. Now, everyone can tune in or read the buzz online, with the drivers and teams helping keep interest fed.
The net effect of rising attention has seen F1 events sell out on both sides of the pond. Expansion of the race calendar and a greater presence in the U.S. will hopefully mean the start of a sustainable long-term trend
But even if interest in F1 turns out to be a fleeting fad for young American audiences, the sport as a whole will continue to survive thanks to its storied legacy. Moving into the 76th year of F1 racing, the teams — and the deeply entrenched automotive brands behind them — remain focused on one thing: being a part of the story for the most prestigious form of competitive motorsports on the planet.
The Next Generation of Formula Circuit Champions?
One of the most telling effects of a sport’s popularity admittedly take decades to materialize: whether it can inspire the next generation of young talent. Rising interest in sports like golf, tennis, and baseball inevitably feeds development for the spot. Tomorrow’s future champions need to get their start today.
Lack of access to the needed facilities has been a barrier, but that’s rapidly changing. Road-course influenced karting tracks are a major component in driver development abroad. Yet, in the U.S., few kart tracks have the proper design or the infrastructure to facilitate serious competitive skill.
“The United States’ youth karting scene isn’t as developed as it is on the other side of the pond,” writes one outlet. “Many European drivers are groomed from a young age in karting circuits”
Fortunately, those in the southeast have options! Whether you are an adult racing enthusiast looking for a taste of road circuit style racing or you have a youngster aspiring to be the next Lewis Hamilton, Atlanta Motorsports Park offers one of the few karting courses capable of delivering
Book a day at the track, or join our competitive leagues to climb the ladder, and maybe some day see your name on social media! Remember that tomorrow’s champions start training today.