Can Formula 1 capture the imagination of U.S. sports fans?
Formula 1, the world's most popular motor sport, is coming to the New York area
Two-time champ Sebastian Vettel was in the area to drive the course on Monday
Mario Andretti says that stability is key in helping F1 build an American audience
WEEHAWKEN, N.J. -- The scenery outside the window blurs as Sebastian Vettel, the 2010 and 2011 Formula 1 world champion, pushes the Infiniti IPL G37 Coupe toward 100 mph. in a 35-mph zone, drifting onto the wrong side of the road, flouting stop signs, cutting lanes, and generally taking full advantage of the police escorts blocking intersections and keeping the local streets clear.
The 24-year-old German superstar is here to promote the Grand Prix of America, the new F1 race that will run along the Hudson River waterfront through the New Jersey towns of West New York and Weehawken starting in June 2013. Today he's taking several media members on test drives of the 3.2-mile course, which runs along existing public streets from the Port Imperial ferry terminal, up 150 feet along the New Jersey Palisades and back down to the river.
"It will give people a chance to really have a look, see the cars, feel the cars, hear the noise, to feel Formula 1," says Vettel of the circuit's effort to drum up interest stateside, while effortlessly negotiating a series of sharp turns and cutting wide around a cluster of parked vehicles. "That's the best thing you can do, better than talking and stuff like that."
Vettel explains the course is far from finished -- he enjoyed a laugh at the speed bumps along the rocky palisade ascent -- but could see the potential for top-flight racing once complete. "I've been to Manhattan and it's rather flat, but I've not been in New Jersey before," he says. "You have bumps naturally built in and even if you resurface the whole track you still have these bumps -- it's part of the track, it gives the circuit a bit of soul."
As if Vettel's ability to carry a conversation in British-flecked English while hugging downhill turns at 60 mph isn't impressive enough -- fielding questions on the potential of F1's popularity in America and his impending appearance on Letterman ("I know he's a big race fan") -- the finale surely is.
After taking the final hairpin turn and accelerating south toward the ferry terminal -- straightaway speeds are projected to reach more than 200 mph -- Vettel fires up the rear tires and performs several tire-screeching doughnuts to the delight of onlookers, leaving a scorched-rubber aroma that lingers a half-hour later. In the rear-view mirror, he allows a wry but genial grin.
New Jersey may sound like an improbable fit for the fabled open-wheel circuit that includes such exotic locales as Monte Carlo, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur, but F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has long fancied an American foothold for the world's most popular motor sport. Formula 1, which claims more than a billion fans, is the No. 1 sport worldwide in revenue produced per event -- and there's little doubt the world will be watching even if the Grand Prix of America fails to meet the organizers' three-day attendance projections of 100,000.
"I think to have a true world championship, you need to be in America," said David Coulthard, a former F1 driver who is now a BBC commentator and Red Bull Racing team consultant.
The New Jersey race is one of two F1 events set to debut on American soil in the 12 months. The latest incarnation of the United States Grand Prix will take place on Nov. 18 at the brand-new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
"Can the U.S. support two Formula 1 races? I think so," says Mario Andretti, the racing icon who is acting as an ambassador for the the Austin event. "From a prestige standpoint, the U.S. needs to host Formula 1. And I think Formula 1, they know they need the U.S. as well. So many companies that are global are based in the United States support Formula 1."
The only person to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and an F1 world championship, the 72-year-old Andretti is bullish about F1's potential despite America's crowded sports marketplace. He says that stability is the key to long-term success.
"It's about getting fans to look forward to these events for the forseeable future, not to have an event today and tomorrow and then it disappears," Andretti says, a nod to the peripatetic United States Grand Prix, which took place in Watkins Glen, N.Y., from 1961 until 1980, with subsequent events in Long Beach, Calif., Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix. It was last held at Indianapolis in 2007, the race where, coinicdentally, a 19-year-old Vettel made his series debut.
Five years later, Vettel is a global superstar -- the holder of a growing number of "youngest" Formula 1 records -- as the world's most popular form of motor sport readies for a American reapproach.
"I didn't know when I woke up this morning what to expect, but it is truly unique," Vettel said Monday of the New Jersey course, which he compared favorably to the revered Spa track in Belgium but "with less trees, more houses." Lead promoter Leo Hindery, a founding chairman and former CEO of the YES Network, said formalization of the 2013 schedule will take place "later this month" with the New Jersey race taking place directly after the Grand Prix of Canada.
Noting the elevation change, waterside setting and winding city streets, Vettel likened the New Jersey course to the famous Circuit de Monaco, home to F1's most storied tour stop. Yet Formula 1 is very much a TV sport and the instantly recognizable cityscape of Manhattan is what could elevate next year's Grand Prix of America to iconic status.
"Just look around," Vettel said, motioning to the New York skyline, "there's no comparison in the world. Monaco is very special for us, it has a lot of history, etc. But I think this race is going to be very, very great, and very soon will be one of the races that every driver wants to win."