Formula One’s new American owners are speaking boldly about expanding the sport’s reach in the United States, even adding a second race in the next few years.
Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein likes what he hears, telling the American-Statesman on Tuesday that another U.S. event should eventually build more interest in the United States Grand Prix, even if the Austin race might suffer a bit initially.
“In the long run, it will bring more attention to the sport and our race,” Epstein said. “A second U.S. race would keep the sport in front of people for a longer period.
“One of the drawbacks of F1 in America is most races (on the schedule) start at 7 a.m. or even earlier. If you add a race in our time zone, it will grow the fan base, and that’s good for all of us.”
Right now on the 20-race calendar, only the U.S. Grand Prix and events in Mexico City, Montreal and Brazil are televised live when most Americans are awake.
“We’d love to see one or two more races in the U.S. in that afternoon window,” said NBC president of sports programming Jon Miller, whose network televises F1. “The more races here, the better visibility and media coverage the sport would get. I don’t think that would hurt the Austin race, I think it would enhance it.”
Liberty Media, a giant firm that counts the Atlanta Braves among its holdings, completed a multi-billion dollar takeover of Formula One this week and named long-time Fox News Corp executive Chase Carey as CEO. He replaces Bernie Ecclestone, who had ruled the sport for four decades.
High on Carey’s wish list to improve the sport’s limited appeal in the States is the addition of a street-course race in a major U.S. market like New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Las Vegas.
While Epstein, who spent time with Carey during USGP weekend, welcomes additional American exposure, he has doubts about the street-course format.
“Races are very expensive,” Epstein said. “It would take $60 million to $90 million to set up a street course, and the logistics are extremely difficult.
“Street races tend to be very boring. There’s not much opportunity to overtake. A fan can’t watch many turns. From COTA, you get to see as many as 10 turns. On a street course, you see the car go by once and then it’s gone.”
Carey said that while sports like Major League Baseball have 80-plus people working on sponsorships, Formula One has just one person — and nobody working on marketing.
“The sport has clearly been underserved,” Carey told The New York Times. “It doesn’t do anything digitally. There’s no marketing. It doesn’t tell any stories. We have great drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, an 18-year-old who broke out. We have wonderful stars, incredible cars. We have to create vehicles to allow fans to connect to them.”
Epstein agrees with Carey’s criticisms and offers some suggestions for addressing them.
“I’d like to see our drivers, the cars themselves and the sport in general be more accessible,” he said. “I’d install a year-round F1 garage experience, a touring experience where you bring the kids, families. We need to expose them to the sport in a real up-close and educational way.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get the product in front of people. Once somebody is exposed to F1, they like it. The challenge is delivering it to them.”
Former ESPN marketing chief Sean Bratches, F1’s new commercial chief, said there will be emphasis on race weekends morphing into race weeks and adding more entertainment options. The goal: a collection of mini-Super Bowls.
“Austin and COTA have moved to a festival-style atmosphere with a lot of high-end acts,” said NBC F1 announcer Leigh Diffey. “You see that in Melbourne (Australia) and Montreal. Singapore has top-tier international acts, but not many other places.”
Epstein, who brought in Taylor Swift and Usher among other artists last year, said plans call for more big names at COTA’s sixth U.S. Grand Prix from Oct. 20-22.
“That’s the model we’re delivering, and we plan to keep expanding,” he said.
F1’s nomadic U.S. trek
Formula One has struggled to gain a foothold in America. The United States Grand Prix dates all the way back to 1908, but the race had a 42-year lapse from 1917-58. Since its return, the USGP has endured several more stops and starts. Here’s a look at the oft-bumpy road:
1959: Sebring (Fla.)
1960: Riverside (Calif.)
1961-80: Watkins Glen (N.Y.)
1981-88: not held
1992-99: not held
2008-11: not held
2012-17: Austin (COTA)
Note: In addition, there were spinoff F1 races in the U.S. at Long Beach (Calif.), 1976-83; Las Vegas, 1981-82; Detroit, 1982-87; and even Dallas, 1984.