The United States has produced exactly two Formula One World Champion drivers, the last in 1978. That's not technically true - Mario Andretti is a citizen, but originally an immigrant from Italy. Sooo not exactly "produced" per se... when you really get down to brass tacks, Phil Hill is our lone born and bred F1 champ'een, all the way back in 1961 (and also partner to Bruce McLaren in the stupefyingly awesome Ford GT40 of the late 60s, recounted in the book Go Like Hell, which you should find and read ASAP).
With the Circus coming to Austin next year (and does saying that out loud still blow your mind, or what), who do we have to root for? Aside from the potential hotshot Mexican rookie Sergio Perez driving for Sauber, there's not even a Canadian in the field. The last American behind the "wheel" of an F1 car was Scott Speed from 2005-2007, who's now going roundy-round in the NASCAR Nationwide feeder series.
Photo courtesy Team Lotus
We need a hero
(I encourage opening this link and at least letting it play in the background as you continue to read, but to try not thinking about Kevin Bacon). Or at least a hero in hero training.
I don't know a whole lot about Alexander Rossi just yet, aside from the fact he's 19 years old, is originally from California, is the only American to hold a valid FIA Super License, which is required for competition in Formula One, and has just been named to the Team Lotus driver development program. That last part is pretty significant.
Photo courtesy www.alexanderrossi.com
Formula One teams maintain driver development programs as more or less farm teams for promising young talent. The program gives the young drivers the chance to have access to machinery, trainers, other drivers, and all the accoutrement of an F1 driver, while still competing in races (in Rossi's case, it's GP3). It's an essential stepping-stone to land one of the most coveted seats on all of racingdom. He's one of seven in the program, ostensibly vying for one of three currently occupied seats.
Is the kid our only hope? He certainly shows promise. A cursory review of his Wikipedia page
reveals a not unimpressive competitive history dating back to 2005 (meaning he was 13 when he began putting in the hot laps). He was reportedly tapped to be one of the drivers for the aborted US F1 team last season. He also has a good name
, which considering Scott Speed's track record, might not be such an obvious asset, but he presently lives in Italy, nullifying any potential cosmically mandated surname related tomfoolery. But he has loads of seat time in open wheeled cars, a solid win percentage and an apparent desire to be an F1 driver - not just a professional one. You could be a professional driver anywhere, but the fact this kid is committed to F1 is reason to be hopeful.
Here's the most basic, elemental formula for rejuvenated fandom for Formula One in the United States - American Driver + American Race = Interest (Revenue). The teams also know that having a local native in the cockpit drums up revenues and sponsorships, banking on the cumulative media coverage of holding the first F1 race in the United States in five years and also having the first American driver in just as long. No one is decreeing yet that Rossi will have a drive in 2012, but given the musical chairs nature of backmarker rosters (and sadly, team Lotus is still very much a backmarker, albeit an improving one), you should not be too surprised to see him driving at least the one race.
In the short term at least, Rossi's placement on the development team means whenever there's coverage of F1 on these shores, he'll be talked about. There will be footage of his last GP3 race or his testing with Lotus, discussions about his development or potential. It'll mean there's one more connection between the American audience and the sport. It's not panacea for the many obstacles that remain in terms of long-term success, but it's definitely a better starting place than previously. This is an exceptionally good thing.
But let's hope bigger. Let's hope the kid finds speed and victories this year, and curries favor with the Team Lotus bosses or otherwise suitably impresses one of the other teams, and ends up a full-time driver in 2012. Then we take the next logical, if hopeful step... with the race in Austin for the next 10 years at least, maybe we will begin to see more young kids, from karting aces to autocross wizards, begin to show some interest in the fine art of slicing an earthbound fighter plane through the corners and have access to the resources to support that ambition.
Maybe it'll be my kid.