A brief primer in recent domestic Formula One history: In 1991 a Grand Prix was held in the streets of Phoenix in the middle of summer. It was outdrawn—handily—by bird races at the nearby Chandler Ostrich Festival. No surprise, then, that F/1 did not return to the U.S. in 1992. In fact F/1 didn't return to the States until Sunday, when more than 200,000 people (about 20 rimes the gate at Phoenix and nearly double the largest crowd an F/1 race has drawn this year) showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to witness the convergence of the sport's premier series and its most hallowed ground.
It's too early to tell whether one sellout crowd means that F/1 is back here for good. "Out of 250 million people I would expect 200,000 people to be really keen that this is taking place," says Jackie Stewart, the three-time world champion. But it did show that if done right, a U.S. Grand Prix doesn't have to lay an ostrich-sized egg. Before the Phoenix fiasco, 42 Grands Prix had been run in the U.S. but never at a venue in the heart of open-wheel country.
The trick for F/1, however, is not to attract existing fanatics. It is to create new fanatics or at least some casual fans. "I'm sure it's going to be easy to get [ U.S. fans] into Formula One at Indy once a year," says Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve, who won the Indy 500 in 1995 and currently drives in F/1. "But to get them to follow the rest of the season is a lot more difficult."
It's especially difficult because it's easier to find reruns of F Troop than F/1 races on TV in the U.S. This year races are being shown in America by Fox Sports Net, usually on tape delay. Last week Formula One Management, which owns the commercial rights to F/1, refused to let Indianapolis TV stations air any footage from the track unless they agreed to turn the footage over within seven days and to show a daily two-minute tape of highlights from practice and qualifying compiled in its entirety by FOM. That prompted one station to pull its cameras from the track.
But demand does drive supply, and it's not as if people are demanding more F/1 coverage. "Basically you are a tremendously domestic country," says Stewart. "You need American participation. I would have loved it if Jeff Gordon had come to Europe before he made the big time over here. He would have been a potential top-line American Formula One driver."
As it was, the field for the first race on the new Brickyard setup was made up of 22 non-Americans. Like the famed Monaco course, part of which sits in the shadow of the Monte Carlo Casino on the C�te d'Azur, the layout at Indy incorporated the most recognizable piece of the local landscape, namely the oval that has hosted the Indianapolis 500 since 1911. The 2.606-mile circuit consisted of a 12-turn road course segment built on the infield, Turn 1 and a 3,037-foot-long section of the frontstretch of the oval track, which F/1 drivers navigate clockwise or, as most Indy fans remarked, "backward." (The infield road, new garages with luxury suites on top of them and a 13-story pagoda in the infield serving as a control tower were constructed over the past two years at a cost of more than $50 million.)
Reviews were generally positive. While Brazilian Rubens Barrichello said he didn't find the speed on the course as impressive as he had expected, Jenson Button, a cheery 20-year-old Brit, declared driving through the banked corners to be "good fun." The race itself, 15th in the 17-race schedule, was important in determining whether Mika Hakkinen would become the first man since Juan Manuel Fangio to win three straight F/1 championships. The 32-year-old Finn had failed to finish the first two races of the season, while German Michael Schumacher, a two-time F/1 champ, had won the first three races.
On Sunday, Schumacher jumped to a big lead; then Hakkinen chipped away at it. He was on the verge of catching Schumacher when his engine blew on Lap 26, allowing Schumacher to coast to a win by 12.118 seconds and regain the points lead, 88 to 80, with two races left.
By the end of the weekend there was a definite sense that F/1 had finally found a home in the U.S. "We were always gypsies in America," says Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing body, FLA. "There's not much doubt that [the race] will work. The question is how many years it will take. In 20 years this will be a very, very major event. The question is, Will it be a major event in five [years]?"
The bigger question is whether anyone here will pay attention to the 16 other races, the ones not held in America. Says Mosley, "The key to Formula One is the [season] championship, not a glimpse of cars going round for a moment or two."