We all know that Formula 1 is a global brand. There are races in Asia. There are teams in Britain. There are drivers from five continents. Formula 1 has always been a representation of motorsport at its highest level, and has been the only international championship to break through and maintain its place in the mainstream media. However, there is a snag. Formula 1 may be a global championship, but it still hasn’t fully registered in one of the most powerful countries in the world. Surprisingly, it is the United States of America that the sport is still struggling to fully engage. There are many reasons why Formula 1 can’t break into America.
America has NASCAR. Although stock car racing’s most prestigious series was conceived at about the same time as F1, it has rocketed ahead of its single seater counterpart in the popularity stakes. It fulfils all the criteria that American sports fans crave: entertainment, close competition, even closer finishes and above all, home-grown winners. It’s a spectacle as much as a sporting event and the entertaining showcases that NASCAR produces on an almost weekly basis provide a large portion of the appeal.
However, one of the more significant differentiators between NASCAR and F1 is that NASCAR is a national competition.
Say you live in Birmingham, AL. Why make the 11 hour drive to the Circuit of the Americas when you can watch two NASCAR races at your local superspeedway in the same year? For many, NASCAR is doorstep motor racing at the highest possible level. It travels nationwide, so everyone gets a chance to be a part of it. On the other hand, Formula 1 makes a passing visit once a year to the Lonestar State. It’s all well and good for the Texans, but it’s understandable why a one-weekend-a-year slot doesn’t get the average American sports fan as revved up as the NASCAR circus does. Essentially, Formula 1’s international appeal means that it struggles to fully engage on a national level, especially with a series as prominent as NASCAR for company.
There could also be a much simpler reason why Formula 1 hasn’t fully taken off in America. With all but three races taking place in Europe and the Far East (including Australia) it requires a sincere amount of devotion to follow the race weekends fully. Would the American motorsport fan wake up at 3 AM on Sunday morning to follow every race? Some will. But the majority are facilitated by the timing of NASCAR meetings. They’re on at prime-time, every time. The subsequent impact on viewing figures swings momentum in NASCAR’s favour, with just over five million households choosing to watch the recent Bank of America 500.
Formula One Management can’t be blamed for this, though. They may consider the United States Grand Prix to be an important race weekend, but the priority lies with maintaining an international calendar that appeals to the sport’s largest audience. This audience is, and always has been Europe. In fact, FOM have started to adjust the start times of some races to reflect the broadcast times of European stations (the two instances this year were in Bahrain and Singapore).
Despite Formula 1’s clear disadvantage in terms of attracting the large American TV audience, there is a slight glimmer of hope. Gene Haas’ upcoming venture into Eurocentric motorsport could revive interest in the championship for a country that hasn’t seen a home-grown driver on the grid since Scott Speed in 2007. Haas’ insistence on bringing an American driver to the team should accentuate the sport’s coverage in the national press, especially when the United States Grand Prix arrives.
In addition, Alexander Rossi’s recent outings with Marussia (he is expected to race for them at Austin in place of Jules Bianchi) have helped to encourage the promotion of Formula 1 within America. These factors probably won’t bring in a radical new wave of US Formula 1 fans, but every racing series relies on publicity to grow. Formula 1 will be getting just that.
Yet, what Formula 1 won’t be getting is the level of sponsorship that the major American sporting associations depend on. In order to fully relate to the fans ‘across the pond’, FOM needs American sponsors. Look at NASCAR, for example. The cars aren’t just brutally powerful racing machines; they’re mobile advertising hoardings that feature layers of stickers dedicated to commercial partners. Now cast back to Formula 1. A large number of constructors are openly known to be in a difficult financial situation, and their cars exemplify this. McLaren’s worrying lack of major sponsorship early in the season highlighted the problems that too many current teams face.
Indeed, it’s a huge risk for American sponsors to pump money into Formula 1. The viewing figures are far from stable, and although NBC posted a 49% increase in viewership for the Japanese Grand Prix there is still a lot of hesitancy from firms who don’t want to risk losing a big investment. True, the US Grand Prix has been drawing in a healthy 250,000 strong weekend attendance since it moved to Austin, but despite evident signs of improvement many American sponsors still recognise NASCAR as the place to showcase their products.
So, where does this leave Formula 1 in the United States? At the moment, FOM can’t do much. NASCAR’s monopolisation of American motorsport is simply too overwhelming, even for the FIA. Formula 1 will always enjoy racing there (it first ventured state-side in 1959) and the demand for tickets will always be there, but the fact remains that the championship will likely never be fully accepted by American sports media. Its popularity may increase, but it will still be a minority sport in the land of opportunity, unless we get a home-grown race winner.It is undoubtedly a frustrating situation for the FIA, but on this occasion there is nothing they can about it.
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