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Uphill battle

F1's Ecclestone bemoans soft interest in series

Posted: Friday January 26, 2007 5:40PM; Updated: Friday January 26, 2007 6:31PM
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Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone is mulling expanding the series' presence in America by adding another race.
Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone is mulling expanding the series' presence in America by adding another race.
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LONDON -- Despite rumors to the contrary, the United States Grand Prix appears as if it may continue to call the Indianapolis Motor Speedway home after the one-year current extension to its contract expires after the race this June.

In a rare one-on-one interview in his Formula One headquarters in London, Bernie Ecclestone, the series' president and CEO, recently told SI.com that despite talks with other possible venues, Indianapolis is still high on his list to continue.

"[Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO] Tony [George] did a good job for us. He's done everything we asked. First class, zero complaints."

Then the 76-year old Briton dangled the possibility of running two races in the U.S. for the state-of-the art single-seaters: "Maybe we wouldn't need to make a change, maybe add a race. Other places are looking at us," he said.

Las Vegas (where Formula One once raced) and Chicago groups have approached him. A return to the streets of Long Beach, which was the site of the U.S. Grand Prix West from 1976 to '83, is not in the picture he said.

For now he favors street races where viewers can instantly identify the local landmarks where they are being run.

Another roadblock for many U.S. venues is the large sanction fee, on top of track preparation. That isn't likely to change soon. Ecclestone, also called Formula One's el Supremo, balks at the idea of offering any discounts to get the series kickstarted in the U.S. "Why should we race in America for certainly half the fee we get in other parts of the world," he asked rhetorically.

The price tag for such a new event is eye popping. Ecclestone explained it will take a governmental entity to pay by the following analogy.

"The people in China want to be part of the rest of the world. They're prepared to do things to make it happen. Look what they've done for us. It's the government that puts the money up.

Do you think [the] American government is going to put the money up? An entrepreneur is not going to take the risk to spend $200 million if ...  he's not going to get his money back."

Promoters used to make a profit from the race in the days the U.S. Grand Prix was run at a permanent road circuit at Watkins Glen, N.Y. from '61 to '80. As the race moved from Long Beach to Las Vegas to Detroit to Dallas and Phoenix, it became too expensive for an individual promoter to support. In 2000 the race found a home at the road circuit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Despite its appearance at one of the country's most visible tracks and its popularity around the world, Formula One has never garnered the television numbers in the United States.

"Really and truly I don't believe Formula One is ever going to be big in America until we get national television,so that whole World Championship is on one channel like Fox or ABC. The people we are with now (SpeedTV) do a bloody good job for us, but are limited as to how many households they reach," explained Ecclestone.

In a pointed comment he added "We get the same ratings as Champ Car and IRL. Short of two million. That's nothing. More people in Malta watch [Formula One]."

Last year, contract negotiations with Indianapolis did not seriously get underway until the race was run, so it's likely that no further news will be available until later this June.