For my first entry, I decided to just go for broke and write a treatise on the state of Formula 1 fandom in America. It's long, covers a number of subjects and is probably stiflingly pedantic. Oh, it's so long and rambling you say. Blogs are supposed to be short, quippy and go directly. To. The. Point. In the future I'll be brief and include lots of Youtube links. Scout's honor. So let's just get out of the way. Imagine... imagine this being read to you in the voice of James May. There. Isn't that better? On to the show.
And here we find ourselves, about a month away from the 2011 Formula 1 season. I always wonder at the beginning of a season if and how I might coerce, entrap or otherwise bludgeon a new friend or family member into joining the Formula 1 party crew. Which is basically me. Neither a party or a crew. I digress. Last season was arguably one of the most brutally contested in recent memory. Down to the final race. Epic and exciting stuff! America exerted a collective yawn, scratched and rolled over.
As a relative latecomer to the F1 party thanks to ignorance and lack of access, but eventually by way of enthusiasm for things that make a lot of noise and go fast, I think the ambivalence it has faced in America over the past few decades is honestly not easily explained away. To set the tone here, we should probably admit our context of the sport is skewed, thanks to our equally skewed perspective of Europeans, arguably the most religious followers of the sport. There's generally a perception that every European lives and breathes the exhaust fumes of 18,000 RPM V8s. Having lived in England, I think I have some degree authority to say that ain't quite the truth. Per capita there are undoubtedly more F1 fans in Europe than the States, but the level of antipathy or downright loathing is proportionately about the same as we see directed toward NASCAR here, or really any other popular sport. Even in Italy, outside of Monza, Rome and Maranello, you'll have a fun time with the GPS finding any sort of F1 memorabilia retailer. Maybe my limited experience is too limited or maybe I'm just flat out wrong, but it seems around the world, Formula 1 is just a segment of a sporting culture as dense and diverse as we know here in the States. It's not the be all, end all of sporting events. That would be soccer… I mean football. Still, F1 thrives everywhere but here. And that's interesting.
Racing is racing in the same way a ball game is a ball game. That's to say, the similarities often end right there at the name of the game. Each series has its own (daunting) learning curve, history, personalities and idiosyncrasies. That doesn't stop half the world from figuring out how the hell cricket is played. I do think F1 is set apart from the majority of sports, however, simply because at least at this point in its history, it's still more about the competition and the tools of competition than the associated, often fabricated drama. Not that there isn't (Webber vs Vettel comes to mind), just to a lesser degree. There still seems to be some of that gentlemanly, brotherhood of warriors vibe hanging around the paddock. Or maybe Bernie simply doesn't want to include that element into the product package? And he holds those reins with a Shaolin monk's deathgrip.
I personally know NASCAR fans who don't actually watch races. I don't think they really care about the driving so much as the personalities of the drivers, their stories, their conflicts. Again, no disrespect, but they wear the gear and live the lifestyle, and maybe tune in to the post-race recap or any number of programs that offer analysis of the races after the fact... but that more significantly run down the minutiae of the drivers' lives and whatever conflicts are simmering in the conflict cauldron. If you were bored, I have no doubt you could distill an entire NASCAR season into a daily soap opera. Let's not even acknowledge NASCAR romance book clubs, other than to whisper of their existence and tremble with fear. Don't misunderstand this perspective as necessarily disparaging of NASCAR. It's true of any old sporting or entertainment product. Obviously we don't see F1 in that light simply because it's not high visibility here. Visible at all, really. And again, while I'm sure there's some really interesting stuff happening off the grid and behind the scenes, it's just not promoted as an element of the overall entertainment package. Maybe that's due to the simple fact that Formula 1 by its nature appeals more to the hardcore racing fan, the techie, the gearhead, the Stig wannabe, and less to the drama junkie? OK, there's that Max Mosley thing. You can have Max Mosley. Backing away from that argument... and moving on.
I don't think it's even that complicated, though. The politics and the drama and the legal issues and the rabble rabble rabble of the worshipping and/or loathing masses. On these shores, Formula 1 is probably quite a lot like soccer in the eyes of the public at large. As the staid old argument goes, Americans just can't relate at a cultural level. No American drivers. No American teams. No American cars. No American races. Elitist Europeans, bah and humbug to you. The reason this site exists and we're here reading and writing about F1 is in response to the elimination of one of those so-called stumbling blocks. Provided the Mayans and George Lucas are wrong, Austin, Texas will be home to the American Grand Prix starting 2012. So goes the proximity argument. The other relatability issues are a bit trickier though, or at least slightly more intricate sociological arguments. For example, the chances of a factory Ford, Chrysler or GM team is as remote a possibility as Porsche entering NASCAR, and the ironically named Scott Speed was our last contender in the cockpit. The argument... Are we really that nationalistic? Yeah, probably.
Outside the States, the game we call football is called American football, and aside from the odd crowd of university-aged Yankophiles who take over the city park every Sunday afternoon with their buckets of KFC and black-market Raiders sweatshirts, it's not held in especially high esteem. Too slow, too boring, too many breaks for ads, and not as reliant on skill, technique and finesse as their homegrown version. Back in our quadrant of the planet, American audiences tend to think soccer, aka football, is too low-scoring, too boring and takes itself far too seriously. More importantly, we tend to believe the sport, its players and its fans look down on our culture and mock us for enjoying our "inferior" version of the game. That's the biggie. We don't like being told what to think, what to like or how to be. Collectively, that's probably how the majority of Americans understands the European perspective of our culture, including the supposed superiority of F1 to NASCAR or drag racing. There's a certain undeniable snoot factor that spoils many potential fans before they even have a chance to experience a race. The battle lines are drawn as soon as an F1 fans begins an argument with the words, "F1 is the best racing on the planet and NASCAR is a joke, I win, end of argument... now go home to your sister-wife and your mother-daughter, hillbilly troll."
For at least the first half of its existence, at least until NASCAR learned how to market itself, Formula 1 wasn't the exclusive domain of European playboys and Middle Eastern royalty (pardon the gross generalization). American Dan Gurney and his Eagle cars are legendary. The guy was a phenomenal and frequently winning driver who was, and still is, a hero to American racing fans. No American drivers? Tell that to the authoritative source of all Internet wisdom. So it's not as though there isn't some entry to the sport, at least from a proud historical perspective. Aspirational American F1 drivers are not unicorns. At some point, maybe sooner than later thanks to our new dedicated circuit, we will see another American world champ. And let's be honest - even if you bleed Ford Blue, if you don't hold respect for Ferrari, Lotus (in name, at least), Mercedes and McLaren as racing machines, there's a problem in your brain. That's not an opinion. These aren't esoteric one-off shops like Panoz or even Dallara (who make the Indycar chassis). These are the progenitors of the modern racing car and the modern sports car. Point being, fast cars going being driven quickly is relatable to pretty much anyone who calls themselves even a casual racing fan, regardless of the badge on the machine.
After all those words words words, what is the barrier, the problem, with F1 in the United States? Even the most ardent F1 fan is going to point an angry finger at the intrusive regulations that have sapped a lot of the energy and excitement, as well as danger, from the sport. The march toward Health and Safety Compliance began with its heart in the right place, led in the '70s by World Champion Jackie Stewart, who had essentially tired of seeing his friends die or suffer life-altering accidents. The Great (some might say perfect) Ayrton Senna was the last driver to die on the track, in 1994. The argument is whether or not increased safety means increased blaah. I'll admit, for the past many years, epic battles for position and balls out overtaking, aside from the possibly insane Kobayashi, God bless him, are rare. You're more likely to see races won through chess-like pit tactics than wheel to wheel competition. It happens, but compared to the rubbin' is racin' dictum of NASCAR, I can see how that would be a turn off to folks who expect crashes to be the highlight of a race. More than the drama surrounding drivers' and teams' conflicts, audiences want to see four cars abreast going into a corner knowing full well at least two of them have a better than average chance of exploding. That's good TV, and you could even argue good racing. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Need an analogy? Citizen Kane. Die Hard. Both perfect.
So I haven't answered any questions here, just thought out loud about how we fans of F1 can help others become fans, or at least accept the sport as either entertainment or the positive implications for the Central Texas region. Last season, the global viewing audience for F1 actually grew, from 520 to 527 million. In America… well, how many people have Speed Channel and a DVR? Deep sigh.
Two allegorical anecdotes for you. I was watching a race one Sunday morning when my step-father in-law, who was visiting for the weekend, sat down next to me on the couch. He hadn't watched a car race of any sort in ages and was just curious about what was happening on the screen. He's an accountant and number junkie, and was quickly taken in by the analytical aspects of the race. How many laps could a car run without refueling? How did average speed correlate to tire wear? He's also an avid golfer. What really snagged his interest, at least for that single race, was the pursuit of perfection. He was amazed at the consistency of the lap times, even factoring in traffic. I don't play golf, but he explained that the addictive quality of the game was that same pursuit of perfection. How every variable interacted with one another, from the initial action of gripping the club up to the point the ball lay absolutely motionless on the ground, and how you're playing every moment of the game in anticipation of the next swing being better than the last. Just like every corner of every lap of every race. It's the consistency and the ability of the driver to manage those aspects of the race he can control, and the ability to either anticipate or react to those he can't. So there's that.
This one's a little bit looser, but bear with me. When we first started dating, my wife claimed she hated science fiction. It was the one genre of entertainment she simply couldn't abide. I wasn't necessarily mocked, but I certainly wasn't enthusiastically encouraged in my fandom of all things Trek, Battlestar and Wars. So it was surprising to find Buffy the Vampire Slayer in her DVD collection. Oh, and if you like Buffy (I do now, thanks to my wife.. .we'll get there in a sec), then you'll loooove Firefly. Well, on principle alone I couldn't tolerate a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Seriously? Nope. However, turning her Finger of Self-Righteous Mocking back around, aren't those shows both technically sci-fi? Doesn't that make you a sci-fi fan, I asked my wife. Oh crap… her resignation. And with that, Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who and any number of other seminal sci-fi shows ended up in our Netflix queue. All it took was for her to realize and then admit she was a fan to open the door to a weirder, geekier world. She wasn't alone either. We're halfway through the entire seven year run of Buffy, and it's probably one of the best television shows ever produced. Go ahead, argue with me. The moral is, if all it took for her to become a fan of something she thought she hated was to realize something she already like qualified as that very thing (and be big enough to openly admit it), and for me to just give something a chance watch a couple of hours of a show I couldn't tolerate simply on the basis of its name, then there's hope for Formula 1 in America.