F1 Failed in America Before Because It Didn't Understand its Audience. It Might Be Going Down the Same Path

F1 Failed in America Before Because It Didn't Understand its Audience. It Might Be Going Down the Same Path

Michael Schumacher takes the checkered flag at the controversial 2005 U.S. Grand Prix.

Michael Schumacher takes the checkered flag at the controversial 2005 U.S. Grand Prix.Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP (Getty Images)

Formula 1 is on the cusp of something great here in America. The sport is bigger than it’s ever been before, something that F1 has struggled to achieve in the past, largely thanks to the growth of Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive. But F1’s past in America has been riddled with disaster — and the sport very well could be heading down the same path if it doesn’t reevaluate its priorities in America.

Since the late 1950s, Formula 1 has raced on 11 different tracks around the country, with a 12th to be added in 2023 thanks to the arrival of a Las Vegas event. With few exceptions — notably, Watkins Glen International, Long Beach, and Circuit of the Americas — the tracks here in America have only been good for a handful of races. That has largely come down to the series’ inability to understand the American market.

The Powers That Be in F1 knew that it needed to bring its racing to the people after purpose-built tracks like Watkins Glen tapped out of the F1 world. The thinking then was similar to the current thinking: The easiest way to do that is to build street circuits.

But the slew of street circuits featured on the F1 calendar were — to put it mildly — perplexing. Events were planned in Phoenix, AZ and Dallas, TX but were introduced to the sport in the summer months, making the inaugural events at both tracks a nightmare. The Detroit street circuit was horrifyingly demanding, with drivers competing against the track surface as much as against the cars. And the Caesars Palace Grand Prix, as we all know, took place in a literal parking lot.

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The image of the sport in the United States wasn’t great, but it was further damaged by the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Formula 1 is only just starting to really recover.

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Now, Formula 1 is facing a very similar issue, though perhaps from the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of putting on events in out-of-the-way cities, the sport is building tracks in hotspot cultural destinations like Miami and Las Vegas. It has taken into consideration demographics and climate in a totally different way, and it has created more than just a race — Formula 1 is hosting events.

When I attended the Miami Grand Prix, I was shocked. Ticket prices had quickly jumped into the thousands of dollars and sold out rapidly. At-track concessions were expensive. Many VIP attendees had little idea that there was a race happening; instead, the event became an excuse to take a swanky vacation in South Beach, further driving up hotel prices for average fans. And at the track, all eyes were on the celebrities more than the drivers.

The event starkly contrasted to the U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which I’ve religiously attended since 2014. No, that event has never exactly been cheap, either — but it has always felt attainable.

While I do think Formula 1 can succeed in America with its current format, I think that success is going to be commercial more than anything — and I don’t think it’ll be long lived. Placing events in cultural hubs like Miami and Las Vegas is economically smart, as is charging a high fee for entry and developing VIP packages that run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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But the novelty of a glitzy, expensive event may not last. The folks who can afford the $125,000-per-night hotel room in Miami aren’t going to the Grand Prix because they’re a fan — they’re going for the party. The series isn’t gunning to get more American fans to the track; it’s focused on attracting VIPs. How long can that business model — which is largely based on novelty — sustain itself? Formula 1, for better or for worse, seems determined to find out.