With roughly half a billion viewers tuning in for each race, Formula 1 is one of the world's most popular televised sports. But, despite the prestige, the 67-year history, and charismatic champions like Sebastian Vettel, the circuit remains relatively low profile in the United States, where NASCAR and IndyCar are far more popular. The reason for this may have less to do with culture – though it's hard to picture F1's effete multibillionaire boss Bernie Ecclestone knocking back brews with Tony Stewart – and more to do with time zones and differences in hours. American enthusiasts who want to watch F1 races in Monaco, Spain, or even Abu Dhabi have to keep strange hours. Bad timing significantly increases the barrier to entry for new fans. Now that F1 is arriving in Austin, Texas, where the U.S. Grand Prix kicks off on Sunday, motor sports fanatics can try out a different type of competition without having to set an alarm.
All-American Austin is an unlikely market for a European phenomenon to try to establish a foothold, but F1's Lone Star stateside debut last year was a major success for the league. Austin's new Circuit of the Americas track was built specifically for Formula 1 and represents the beginning of the naturalization process. F1 isn't being subtle about its desire to stick around. Four-time Constructors' Championship winner Red Bull Racing has partnered with Infiniti – a brand best known in the U.S. – and the league auctioned off broadcasting rights to NBC earlier this year.
It is also an open secret in racing circles that the F1 powers-that-be are recruiting American drivers and a similarly known unknown that plans are in motion for a new race in New Jersey. "I think the U.S. market is massively important for Formula 1," Infiniti Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner told 'Men's Journal.' "I think there's a few prospects that look interesting, and it'd be great to see a U.S. driver running at the front of Formula 1. . . . I think that would finally really engage the U.S. market."
If Americans see a hint of manifest destiny in F1's ambitious plans for North American expansion, soundbites from drivers like U.S. Grand Prix winner Lewis Hamilton do nothing to undermine that impression.
"The more I go to the States, the more I meet people who are crazy-passionate about [F1]. I'd say more people than we probably realize love the sport," he recently told Sky Sports. "Obviously, most have grown up with NASCAR, with F1 new to many U.S. motorsport fans, so it could take some time. But its popularity will grow, and it will succeed in America."
If F1 does begin to catch on in the United States, its success won't be surprising. With a reputation that revolves around fast cars, beautiful women, unabashedly macho drivers, and rabid fans, the whole thing seemed pretty damn American to begin with. And there is no such thing as too much competition when it comes to racing or ratings.
More information: Race weekend in Austin kicks off on Friday, November 15, with practice races and concerts. NBC Sports broadcasts coverage of the U.S. Grand Prix from 1 pm Friday through the evening of Sunday, November 17.