FORMULA ONE BACK TO US.
by Larry Roberts
March 20, 1998
At the beginning of every racing season, rumors begin to fly that the international Grand Prix series for Formula One cars will return to the U.S. within a year or two. This season is no different and while most American auto racing fans could care less whether or not these international racing stars and their high-tech cars make the trek to our shores, there is a hard core of American racing enthusiasts who were glued to their TV sets last year at odd hours to watch Michael Schumacher run his Ferrari into the side of Jacques Villeneuve's Williams in an attempt to knock the soon-to-be world driving champion off the road and out of contention.
It didn't work and Schumacher succeeded only in knocking himself our of contention as millions of enthusiasts watched - and I was one of them.
I also watched the first U.S. Formula One Grand Prix of the current era at the now-defunct Riverside Raceway in 1960 but that time I saw it in person. It was a boring race, unfortunately, and the event never came back to California.
Over the successive three decades, the U.S Grand Prix for Formula One cars has been held in various locations around the country. New York's Watkins Glen; the streets of downtown Long Beach in California; a casino parking lot in Las Vegas; they've all been the site of Grand Prix races. But over the years, the races have become more of an oddity to most American fans that an object of veneration. When the U.S. Grand Prix was held in Phoenix a few years ago and it was a huge money loser for the city. At the same time that the Formula One race was being held there, an mounted ostrich race was being run at the county fair in a nearby town and it actually out pulled the American running of the most prestigious auto race in the world in spectatorship.
But in other parts of the world, Formula One races draw hundreds of thousands of fans through the gate and millions more watch them on world-wide television. And therein lies the major problem in bring Formula One racing to this country. British entrepreneur Bernie Ecclestone virtually owns Grand Prix racing and has reserved all TV rights - including its advertising revenue - for himself and his organization. Because of this, American track owners and promoters must charge exorbitant rates for tickets to see the races. While spectator tickets to Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) races for ostensibly the same cars and caliber of driving talent cost in the vicinity of $100 per weekend, the same ticket to a Formula One race here would cost up to four times that amount. In America, there's simply too much competition for sports entertainment money and all but the most devoted Formula One fans will see it as a rip-off.
But hope springs eternal for these devotees as they read in buff magazines that Ecclestone seems interested in bring his show here again in a few years. He and Long Beach promoter Chris Pook are looking for an agreeable site were American corporate sponsorship could be called upon to underwrite the entire multi-million dollar event. If this happens, a promoter could drop the ticket prices down to a reasonable amount and insure a good turnout.
Several locations are under review, among them Long Beach itself, the infield of the Indianapolis Speedway, the new track at Las Vegas if it were expanded into a road circuit, and even San Francisco's Treasure Island, site of the 1939-1940 World's Fair. But the odds-on favorite is the venerable Road Atlanta circuit in Atlanta Georgia. It's been recently renovated and upgraded by its new owner who has enough auto racing political pull as well as the money to bring it off.
But to make his U.S. Grand Prix a success, he'd better make sure that there are no ostrich races being held the same weekend.