After decades of trying, Formula One may finally be growing in America

For over 70 years, Formula One has been a premier global sport, with opulent, multi-day races held in countries across the world.

Formula One’s events are wildly popular — everywhere, that is, except for the United States. But that could be changing sooner than most think.

European roots

Since its founding, Formula One has been an international organization.

The first world championship was held in 1950 at Silverstone in the United Kingdom. The winning driver, Italian racer Giuseppe Farina, drove a supercharged Alfa Romeo in front of 120,000 cheering spectators — including England’s reigning monarch, King George VI.

Italian racer Giuseppe Farina wins the world's first Formula One Grand Prix in 1950.
Italian racer Giuseppe Farina wins the world's first Formula One Grand Prix in 1950.

That European race set the stage for Formula One’s global presence, excluding America.

Headwinds in America

Logistically, it’s hard to be a Formula One fan in America. Most of the races take place in Europe, so watching live events often means waking up at the crack of dawn. The U.S. also has its own motor sports to watch like IndyCar and NASCAR, which has been around since the 1940s.

Peter Habicht is the founder of Formula One's largest fan group in America, located in San Francisco. The group has about 2,500 members.

“We have a difficult time following a lot of the European races because they go on at about five in the morning, so it’s a challenging proposition to get a group together, usually at a sports bar, to watch a live start of a race,” said Habicht.

Unlike basketball or football, Formula One racing provides very few American drivers to cheer on: The last American to win a race was Mario Andretti, and that was at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1978.

“The sport, under prior stewardship, began to move wherever the money was the highest," said Leo Hindery, InterMedia Partners managing partner and a former race car driver.

"And that left Formula One in places like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Shanghai, none of which is bad for the sport except for in the process of doing that, they neglected to maintain a footprint here in the United States,” said Hindery, a Formula One promoter.

In 2005, the U.S. Grand Prix didn't turn out as Formula One might have hoped. Media reports at the time called it a disaster. At the very last minute, fourteen cars were forced to withdraw due to safety concerns. Most fans left the event feeling disappointed and cheated of their money. The race they’d come to see didn’t deliver.

Fans show their anger after the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix F1 race in Indianapolis.
Fans show their anger after the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix F1 race in Indianapolis.

“It was a low point, for sure, in American Formula One history,” said Habicht.

Improving relations with the US

Still, the future of Formula One in America may be getting brighter. Competitor NASCAR has had an undeniably rough few years, which could be a boon for Formula One. More importantly, Formula One has had a significant change in leadership: In early 2017, it was acquired by Liberty Media, a U.S. company, for $8 billion.

Formula One’s new CEO, Chase Carey, has high hopes for the sport in America, telling CNBC at the time of the acquisition that he wanted to make the races feel more like Super Bowl events with mobile content, and behind-the-scenes access available for fans.

“Put an organization in place that lets us make these events everything they can be, reaches out across digital media that we're not connecting to today [and] build a marketing organization that connects to fans [and] enables fans to connect to the sport,” said Carey.

One year later and expansion in America is already happening: a new Miami street circuit Grand Prix will be added to the calendar in 2019. The race would be in addition to the U.S. Grand Prix. Hindery predicted there will be a race in the Northeast, possibly New Jersey, within the next two to three years as well.

America's untapped market

There’s a lot of money to be gained from ticket sales, advertisers and sponsors in America. U.S. consumers shelled out $56 billion to attend sporting events in 2016, according to a study by CreditCards.com.

Fans greet racer Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Great Britain during the United States Formula One Grand Prix in 2017.
Fans greet racer Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Great Britain during the United States Formula One Grand Prix in 2017.

“You have 325 million people in the United States which, just in sheer numbers, is an audience you shouldn’t leave behind,” explained Hindery.

Formula One could use the economic boost. In 2012, FinanceAsia, a Hong Kong-based financial news publication, reported Formula One's valuation was $9.1 billion. That means over the four-year period between that valuation and the subsequent $8 billion purchase, it lost 12 percent of its value.

However, it’s not a sure thing that Formula One will catch on in the States. U.S. Grand Prix attendance fell in 2017 by 4.4 percent from the year prior. And there are no American drivers racing in Formula One this year.

But if there’s ever a time for Formula One to capture America’s hearts, it’s now. With NASCAR struggling and new American F1 leadership, it’s possible the pastime can make a permanent mark on U.S. soil.


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