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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

September 5, 1997

So you're surfing the TV cable on Sunday night and you come across some announcers with British accents giving a blow-by-blow of a race. All the cars seem to look a lot like the cars that run at races on big tracks all over the country. But as you watch, you realize it's not an oval, and you don't recognize the names of any of the drivers. As a matter of fact, even their first names are strange.

Eventually, it dawns on you that you're watching an international Formula One race that took place yesterday in a European country and is being rebroadcast on tape for the American public. And if you keep watching, you won't be alone: the number of viewers world-wide are counted in the billions and given that television revenue rights and sponsorship money depends on the number of people glued to their sets, you can understand why Formula One racing is a very big deal.

The analogy to cars that race in our Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) events is a good one but with a couple of differences. Both are purpose-built and not based on any kind of production car. Both are powered by very high-tech engines that are turbocharged to put out extremely large amounts of horsepower (upwards of 800 to 900). Both bodies are very aerodynamic (if a wing or spoiler gets bent or knocked off, the car has no chance of winning) and the tires are wide, slick and low-profile.

But the rules for Formula One are less restrictive: turbocharger boost is higher and hence the engine puts out more power. The tires can be wider and so the Formula one cars hold the road a bit better.

Formula One races are held on 17 different weekends throughout the year and in as many different countries - no country hosts more than one Formula One race per year. This makes a hectic schedule; The Argentine Grand Prix race is followed two weeks later by the San Morino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. The Japanese Grand Prix precedes the Spanish Grand Prix (half a world away) by only two weeks as well. The 11 teams involved must pack up tons of tools, spares, equipment and personnel necessary to compete, fly to the new race site, get set up and have the cars and drivers on the grid, ready for qualifying, the day before the race.

In view of the global prestige and potential broadcast revenue generated by Formula One races, governments vie with each other to have one held in their country. Recently, South Korea beat out Malaysia for a date late in the '98 season. This comes despite the fact that Proton (a Malaysian auto and truck maker that is the largest in Southeast Asia) currently owns Lotus, has the financial wherewithal to bring back Lotus as a Formula One contender and is now bidding on all or even a part of the front-running Benetton Formula One team.

Ironically, the U.S. hasn't had a Formula One race of its own for several years. The last one was held in the streets of Phoenix and was so badly mismanaged that a camel race held on the same day at a nearby county fair out-drew the world championship race in number of spectators in attendance. If Americans want to view a Formula One race in North America, they have to travel to Canada in the middle of the year.

It wasn't always so, however. A couple of decades past, the U.S. Formula One Grand Prix was a regular event at Watkins Glen in New York.

There are no Americans representing our country among the 11 nationalities on the Formula One roster and this hasn't always been true either. Our own Mario Andretti was Formula One Grand Prix World Champion in 1978 driving for Lotus and 17 years prior to that, Californian Phil Hill won the championship driving for Ferrari.

Will we ever see a U.S. Formula One race in this country again? I doubt it. CART puts on just as many races with almost as nationally diverse a driver's roster. Its cars are almost as fast and they mix road circuit racing with events on superspeedways. Cart does a good job.

But it sure would be nice to see the Stars and Stripes on the Formula One winner's podium at Watkins Glen or Indianapolis.