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LEVEL THE FIELD AT INDY, F1

by Larry Roberts

April 16, 1999

It's common knowledge to Americans that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the site of the 82-year old annual Indy 500. Not so well-known is the decision to resurrect the U.S. Grand Prix for international Formula One cars in a year 2000 at the same track. A multi- million dollar deal has been struck and construction is underway for new grandstands, pits and other necessary upgrades to the 89-year-old facility. A modification is being made to the infield to incorporate the many turns needed to conform to the accepted criteria of Formula One races being held on road circuits. Lap speeds for the upcoming race are estimated to be in the neighborhood of 125 MPH.

But to most of us, that doesn't seem very fast for a big-time race. The speedometers on our family cars read that high and those of us who watch NASCAR Winston Cup races know that those leviathan sedans at Daytona Beach or Darlington are capable of lap speeds close to 200 mph.

Obviously the reason for the slower speeds in Formula One is due to the many turns that are part of Grand Prix racing, in contrast to NASCAR racing, which is mostly run on high-banked ovals that are anywhere from 1.5 miles to 2.5 miles per lap. American spectators are accustomed to and desire races with high lap speeds. At the recent Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) event at the 1.5-mile high-banked track at Homestead, Florida, the average lap speeds ranged from 190 to 201 MPH. And this from cars that are kissing-cousins to Formula One cars.

Recent press releases that have come out of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been touting the Formula One circuit as if it was a home-grown series that is resplendent with American drivers and teams.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The closest we come to having anything "American" in Formula One is Jacques Villeneuve, a Canadian, driving for a team by the name of British American Racing which has little to do with anything American other than investment money. Formula One racing rivals three-cushion billiards as a TV favorite in this country, and the obvious purpose of the constant stream of information that's currently coming from the Speedway regarding Formula One is to whip up media enthusiasm for the series, which will then be transferred by osmosis to the U.S. Grand Prix when it rolls into The Brickyard.

But according to reports, the executives at The Speedway are worried about the fact that there's a limited number of American fans who are attracted to road racing in general and high-class single-seaters turning right as well as left in particular. President Tony George also likened Formula One racing to CART events on road circuits stating that there isn't much passing or lead-changing in either series. The worry can be translated into the perceived possibility of a shortage of paying American spectators (who can forget the Formula One fiasco at Phoenix in 1990) as well as U.S. TV viewer interest.

But there's a perfectly plausible answer to this multi-faceted dilemma and it's so simple that one wonders why it hadn't been thought of when negotiations first began. The answer is to run the U.S. Grand Prix for Formula One cars on the 2.5 mile oval, but in a in a counterclockwise direction as is common with racing events in the rest of the world. There would be lots of the high-speed passing that's so dear to the hearts of Americans and every section of the race would be continuously televised. Race enthusiasts around the world would be exposed to their favorite Grand Prix drivers performing on the world's most famous track. And being run in the opposite direction of American events, it would be difficult to compare lap times between Formula One cars and other organizations that use the same track, which might be an embarrassment to either of them.

It's too late for the inaugural U.S. Grand Prix to be switched to another venue, but if the road circuit is a flop, I hope the powers-that-be remember that America's racing roots run deep in its oval tracks.