Michael Schumacher is filthy rich—and good—but the appeal of his sport is still largely foreign to Americans
On his way to qualifying for the U.S. Grand Prix, the world's highest-paid athlete weaved through the garage not in a Ferrari but on a motorized scooter, stopping only to good-naturedly kick his younger brother, Ralf, in the seat of his pants. Then he went out and kicked the butts of the other 20 F/1 drivers, putting his car on the pole for Sunday's race, which he would dominate before letting his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, pass him on the final turn to win the race. (Afterward Schumacher slyly insisted, "There was no plan," despite the fact that Barrichello had, under Ferrari team orders, done the same for him at the Austrian Grand Prix in May.)
The 33-year-old German can afford to be so generous. He has already won 10 times in 16 F/1 races this year, and he clinched his fifth world driving title—and his third straight—two months ago. If he hasn't already established that he's the greatest racer ever, he's building a pretty fair case for himself.
Yet for all his wizardry on the track and the outrageous fortune he's earned as a result ($40 million in salary alone this year), Schumacher appears unlikely to achieve anything close to the level of megastardom Stateside that he enjoys in Europe. The estimated crowd of 125,000 (some 50,000 fewer than last year) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway suggested that the sport has already peaked in the U.S.
That's just fine with Schumacher, who reveled in his semi-anonymity during F/1's sole U.S. stop. "I love this country, being able to walk around freely and watch people," he says. "They always watch me in other countries, but I like to watch them as well."
Schumacher stopped in California to visit friends for a few days before heading to Indy. While on the West Coast he was amazed that the only people who made a fuss over him were Europeans. ("Mostly cooks," he says.) When he got to Indianapolis, which had been overrun by F/1 fans, that wasn't the case. Three nights before the race, as he sat in the posh Canterbury hotel—outside of which gawkers had gathered—he said, "I would be happy not to become as famous in the States [as I am in Europe]." And with that he took his leave and asked a hotel employee in a tuxedo to show him out the back door.
NASCAR Needs A Head Exam
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted last week that he drove for the better part of two months while suffering the aftereffects of a concussion, the most significant question wasn't, What was Junior thinking? Rather it was, How come no one in NASCAR knew about his condition? According to race officials, the April wreck in which Earnhardt sustained the concussion was one of the hardest hits NASCAR has recorded since it began using telemetry in cars last year.
On Sunday, NASCAR said it would more rigorously check any driver who's involved in a wreck before he's cleared to drive again. Its next step should be to follow the lead of CART and the IRL by employing a single medical team to travel the circuit. ( NASCAR medical teams now vary from track to track.) Having the same doctors see drivers on a regular basis would make it much harder for a driver to hide an injury.
Changing the points system may also deter injured drivers from racing. Because points are awarded to every car in the field, a driver can't afford to miss even a few starts. F/1, CART and the IRL don't award points to half the field, so there's no difference between a bad finish and not starting. Under such a system a driver who knows his ability to perform is compromised is more likely to admit an injury that might cause him to sit out a race. NASCAR likes to boast that its points system rewards consistency. It shouldn't, however, encourage dangerous behavior.