There’s been talk about Formula 1 wanting to crack America for years, and it would be disingenuous to suggest there hasn’t been a very solid fanbase here for a long time. But there’s something different happening now.
It’s always seemed to me that F1 has been overshadowed by other American sports to such an extent that it stunts its growth. I remember working for ESPN when I first started out, and regularly getting frustrated by what I viewed as a lack of interest and investment in the F1 site, because its traffic numbers put it right at the very top of the sport’s online outlets.
But teams were still giving priority to traditional media, and ESPN was happy to leave it just ticking over, even though I was convinced it could have a huge ownership of the media landscape with what represented a minute investment by its standards.
The problem was, F1 just didn’t move the needle enough in the U.S. Priorities were (rightly at the time) on NFL, the NBA, baseball and hockey, and compared to those numbers and viewers, F1 was not worth the effort.
Whether you’re a sports fan or not, you’re aware of those four sports in America. But once you start talking about others that less are culturally ingrained, you’ve got a much tougher sell.
But by building a bespoke circuit for F1 in a city without major league sports teams at the time, Austin has started to make F1 part of its identity. And from there, awareness of the sport has been able to grow. It was slow and steady, but there’s no denying a combination of the Netflix influence and then a year off in 2020 added up to the massive explosion in popularity this year.
At the previous edition of the race at Circuit of The Americas, the first season of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” was out and clearly having an impact, but attendance growth wasn’t enormous at that point. With more series having been released during the pandemic, the sport hit the mainstream conscience in the same way NBA did away from the U.S. with “The Last Dance.”
After a year off due to COVID-19, the appetite from fans wanting to come to the United States Grand Prix was huge, and as soon as that became clear to the race organizers, they could prepare.
“The key was being able to sell the tickets out by June,” COTA chairman Bobby Epstein told RACER. “So then we knew what budget we had to work with. So you’re really able to do stuff. When you don’t know until weeks before, you can’t create some of this, so we had the budget to go all out.
“It’s a combination of pure demand – a lot of it created by Netflix – existing fans, and the fact that this event continues to grow every year as a destination event itself. I think we’ve got an absolute meeting of all those points, that came together to make it huge this year.”
It’s fair to point out that a crowd of 400,000 over a race weekend created new issues. There were complaints of water selling out early, and disrupted shuttles due to a number cancellations from contracted bus companies. So there are still things to improve, but that’s what COTA has been so good at doing: growing the event year-after-year beyond the simple metric of spectator numbers.
Multiple new fan areas and entertainment options were included, with additional grandstands in turn leading to fresh general admission sections being opened up. And for those involved, the scale of the event really hit home.
“Man, I left the weekend insanely impressed with how much F1 has grown,” Pato O’Ward said after carrying out hot laps for McLaren at COTA. “I mean, it’s always been very big, but I have never, ever seen a road course race that full. It gave me (Indy) 500 vibes. Just insane amounts of people, and a lot of people just wanting to be there because it’s such an exclusive experience.
“So from that aspect, I’m still shocked. I was amazed at the number of people that went there, and the number of people that actually know Formula 1 now. Like, everyone knows what it is. I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
That’s some compliment. The Indy 500 is part of the America’s sporting culture. That’s the race that people do know, and now Austin is starting to achieve recognition with F1. The list of celebrities in attendance was only really rivaled by Monaco, and that in itself highlights the sport’s standing.
An attempt from Martin Brundle to interview Megan Thee Stallion on the grid has been going viral after he was rudely pushed aside and criticized by her entourage (but it must be said, not by the artist herself who seemed happy to answer a question until being served a pretty poor one). And the instant reaction from the F1 community has been that celebrities attending need to show more respect and understand who the broadcasters are and what they’re doing.
But that’s missing the point. Megan Thee Stallion is platinum-selling artist with more Twitter followers than Lewis Hamilton. I’ll admit, I didn’t know who she was either, but that’s on me, because she is more well-known by many people around the world than any F1 driver is.
And someone like that is attending the USGP because it’s a place they want to be seen. It’s not necessarily that they’re race fans, but it’s the fact there is a massive event going on that is going to provide them with global exposure. And in turn, they expose the sport to a totally different audience.
Ben Stiller, Shaquille O’Neal dwarfing drivers on the podium and doing a DJ set, Logan Paul threatening to fight Daniil Kvyat – all of these names are then getting coverage in totally different mainstream places for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual sport itself.
But it does tell hundreds of millions of people that a massive event took place in Austin, Texas, and it looked like a lot of fun. If celebrities want to go, then they probably want to go as well.
And then they’ll see there will be another similar event in Miami in May that could be a lot of fun too. And if they can’t make those, Vegas might have one soon. It’s a very exciting time.
The ball is well and truly rolling for F1 in the United States, even if it isn’t a sport with a ball. And that’s going to mean more racing and more coverage tailored to fans here. So if you were already part of that solid existing fanbase, you should be excited, too.