The Americans Are Coming (To F1 That Is)

Well maybe that is a little misleading. It is really just one American (speaking only of drivers) and his name is Alexander Rossi. He is from Auburn, California and is 22 years old. This year he is in the role of reserve driver in the service of the Caterham F1 Team. This usually means that you don’t do much on race weekend (more than likely I am incorrect about this fact, but you know what I mean), certainly no driving.

However, there is an exception to this rule, in the case of new drivers getting some time behind the wheel during Friday’s free practice. This is so the team can evaluate their driving skill, what development might be in order, assess how accurate their feedback is, etc.  This will be the case for Mr. Rossi this weekend during the Canadian GP.

Alexander Rossi and Formula 1 - A line from Gordon Gekko, "You had what it took to get in my office, do you have what it takes to stay?" comes to mind.

Alexander Rossi and Formula 1 – A line from Gordon Gekko, “You had what it took to get in my office, do you have what it takes to stay?” comes to mind.

It has been some time since F1 took a chance on an American. Scott Speed (yes that really is his name) was the last American to race in F1. Speed raced for Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team. In the season and a half that he was part of the F1 circus, besides being able to not stall the car leaving the garage, he didn’t really make that much of an impression. As harsh as that is to say, it is true, but then again F1 is not very forgiving is it? Speed was canned for, I might have to check my facts on this, one Sebastian Vettel. We all know the rest of that story now don’t we???

Back to the newest American, lets look at Mr. Rossi’s profile.

Previous series:
Formula Renault 3.5 Series
GP3 Series
GP2 Asia Series
International Formula Master
Formula BMW Europe
Formula BMW USA/Americas
Skip Barber Race Series
Formula TR 2000 Pro Series
S. Barber Western Regional

Championship Titles-
Formula BMW World Final
Formula BMW Americas
S. Barber Western Regional

This looks impressive enough, lets just for fun compare these to say, Valterri Bottas who currently drivers for the Williams F1 team alone side Pastor Maldonado:

Previous series:
Formula One testing
GP3 Series
Formula 3 Euro Series
British Formula Three
Formula Renault Eurocup
Formula Renault NEC
FRUK Winter Series

Championship Titles-
GP3 Series
Formula Renault Eurocup
Formula Renault 2.0 NEC

I’m not really knowledgable in all these junior formulas, but looking at these two drivers and some of the other drivers in F1 currently, most have raced in Formula Renault, and Formula BMW, GP2 and GP3. Rossi and Bottas do not look too dissimilar to each other, which means that Mr. Rossi at least on paper appears to have what it takes to make a real go at F1.

Now let’s get right to the point of this post. Finally. I’m American right? (I am). Alexander Rossi is American, right? (He is). I’m in America, right? (Trust me, I live here). I should be really excited, right? Here’s the thing, though, I’m just not. Now lets find out why, and to do that we need a little history lesson.

I promise it will be short (sort of). We need to start with a number, and the number is 157. Which is how many American drivers have raced in F1 as far as I can work out. Seems incredible doesn’t it? I did not believe it myself at first. For the record, the UK is first with 159 race drivers, and Italy is third at 101. That means the U.S. is second on the all time list. Now for the reality check. Because the Indy 500 was part of the World Championship in the 50’s & 60’s many of these American drivers have competed in at least one race that was considered part of F1. So probably 150 of the 157 don’t really count for the purpose of this exercise. Here are some of the names that I found. Jerry Hoyt, Gus Hutchinson, Bill Holland, Bill Homeier, George Connor, Ray Crawford, Len Ducan, Walt Fulkner, Al Herman, Danny Ongais, there are many many more. Have you heard of any of these drivers? Neither have I.

There are some notable exceptions. Mario Andretti, a World Champion [1978], Phil Hill, also a World Champion [1961]. Eddie Cheever, Mark Donohue, Richie Gunther, Dan Gurney. Of course most people my age remember Michael Andretti, Mario’s son and as mentioned previously, the last American to race in F1 was Scott Speed (yes, that’s his real name, I promise). I am sure that I have missed a few more, but you get the point.

Mario Andretti as I remember him back in the day. America's last meaningful Driver in F1.

Mario Andretti as I remember him back in the day. America’s last meaningful Driver in F1.

So for all intents and purposes America has not had a meaningful driver to follow in F1 since Andretti Sr. in the seventies and early eighties. That is 30 years folks, and this is the point I want to drive home. For my entire experience as an American fan of F1, casual when I was a kid and psycho-crazed fan-a-tic as an adult, there has never been American drivers competing regularly in F1. As far as I can tell (I’m just a blogger, but I am an American so I do know a thing or two about the place that I call home) this is a probably the reason why F1 has struggled in the US, despite the best efforts of the organizers.

I don’t have any real data to support this hypothesis, but I feel it when I discuss F1 with anyone who will listen. This conversation usually lasts about two minutes and then comes the look and I know I have lost them at which point I often hear, “Any Americans in F1?” or “But it’s so confusing,” at which point I want to say, “Fast cars going around a track, the one that completes X amount of laps first is the winner, what is so confusing about that?” At which point they say,  “I don’t know, its too hard to follow the drivers, I tried to watch it but I just could’t figure it out.” At which point I say “Well try harder,” and the conversation goes south and I just made another enemy of F1, way to go John-Pierre. The first point they make is telling. No American drivers in F1.

Bernie Ecclestone and company have been trying to crack the riddle of America for a long time now and so far nothing. It should be easy. One only has to consider these few points: F1 is fast cars, America if anything else is a car culture and with the open roads we love going fast. Is there any other racing that is more technology driven than F1? Answer: No. Didn’t a little place in Northern California start the tech industry? Another example that F1 and America should be a good fit: celebrity culture. Our history in the movies, music and everything over the top, how could F1 not be a match made in good ol’ U-S of A heaven? Yet still, as of 2012 F1 has not gained any traction in the U.S. although everyone associated with F1, the promoters, the car manufacturers, the corporate sponsors, the teams and the drivers all proclaim that this is extremely important for F1 to survive.

Mario in his office, the beautifully liveried Lotus 79 that gave America its last Championship.

Mario in his office, the beautifully liveried Lotus 79 that gave America its last Championship.

We now have a world class racing facility in Austin, Texas, The Circuit of the Americas (nice name don’t you think?) And at a time when Bernie is trying to swing another race in the States and recently there is talk of yet a third, one would have to wonder why there has not been any real effort to address this driver issue. Now let me say, I do believe Red Bull has a young drivers program here in America and the famous Skip Barber organization also caters to young drivers, there must be others, but this is not enough, and has not done enough.

This is where I come back to Mr. Rossi. For F1 to succeed in America there needs to be an American in the sport, simple as that. Make that a few Americans in the sport, and they can’t just drive around on Sunday at the back of the back. And they can’t race in F1 for a couple of years, get chewed up and then shown the door and lost in the ex-F1 driver market. They need to, well, they need to win. Period. Sadly, this will not happen. Not because Mr. Rossi does not have the skill-set for it, for he has already shown that indeed he does. I would make this claim against not just an American driver, but any driver that is coming into F1.

Sure, Rossi might turn out to be a proficient pilot and might even go on to reach a few podiums, although the odds are against him, as they are against all new drivers. It is so hard to drive at this level that most just don’t have what it takes, no matter where they come from. That Rossi has made it this far is an anomaly quite frankly, and very impressive. I hope it leads to more success. Why are there not more Alexander Rossi’s? Or better yet, more Mario Andretti’s?  Here’s how it looks to this non-racing professional: the infrastucture to support young drivers on a path to F1 in the States simply does not exist.

In Europe the pathway for F1 is defined like this: Karts – lots of Karting, Formula BMW, Formula Renault. Off to one of the several British Formulas for a year or two. If you show raw pace and a good understanding for set-up, then up to GP3 and then on to GP2 and some real Formula 1 style cars, and races that follow a number of F1 Grand Prix on the calendar. And if you can make it there and the stars align, you have the sponsorship and you are at the exact right place at the exact right time, well…… It’s show time. F1 Baby.

Scott Speed. Living the F1 dream, right up to the point that F1 said wake up time to go...

Scott Speed. Living the F1 dream, right up to the point that F1 said wake up time to go…

Let’s now look at similar racing disciplines based in the U.S. We’ve got INDY CAR, and its feeder series INDY LIGHTS, the ALMS, and the GRAND AM Rolex series. Although the cars are very different the style of racing is very similar. One would think American drivers would abound in these American series. Wrong! Looking just at the INDY series, 25 from 35 drivers are not from the U.S. That means just over 70% of the grid is from somewhere else. It is similar in the ALMS series and while GRAND AM has more American drivers, the numbers are still out of wack. Something is broken folks. There are not enough feeder series for young U.S. drivers to learn this discipline.

By comparison, for NASCAR, a completely different kind of racing, there is a clear pathway in the U.S. It looks something like this. After all of the kiddy stuff, you have quarter midgets, then, sprint cars. After that it is Midgets again. Then if you’re good enough there is the National Truck Series. If you can make it there, it is on to entry level stock car in the Busch series, and if you are really good, then off to the ultimate challenge, NASCAR itself. Note: I might have some of this out of order or missed something, the point being for American drivers that want to compete in oval racing, there is a well traveled road to get there. And no surprise, the vast majority of NASCAR drivers are American.

There you have it. It turns out there is a very clear reason why America does not send any drivers to F1 on a regular basis except for the occasional Scott Speed (don’t say it) and now Alexander Rossi. Sad but true.

I would love to support an American driver in F1, similar to my supporting Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies in Moto GP. These are American motorcycle riders competing on the world stage and they can hold their own against Europe’s best. Until America gets serious about creating a number of feeder series options a la Europe to help cultivate talent and nurture the natural talent that we have here in the States, nothing is going to change that dramatically. I would like nothing more than for some homegrown American drivers to mix it up with y’all from other places around world, with the names that I still have a hard time pronouncing, just as long as they don’t get in the way of the guy from Oviedo.  Ha Ha…

-jp-  (got to see an American race in 77′ at the Long Beach GP, the aforementioned Mario Andretti, he won)

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3 Comments on “The Americans Are Coming (To F1 That Is)

  1. The problem isn’t that there isn’t a clear ladder to a major open-wheel racing series in America, the problem is a lack of interest and knowledge. In Europe or South America, kids either want to be soccer player or a racing driver. In America, kids want to be in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, etc. Our best athletes aren’t going into motor racing. For sure, there is clear ladder to IndyCar via the “Road To Indy” ladder system (karting, Skip Barber, US F2000, Mazda Pro Series, Indy Lights). Let’s face it, anyone (or any parent) going through this ladder system is well aware of F1. The problem is getting across the pond known as the Atlantic Ocean which is another layer of difficulty. Imagine sending your teenage kid to another country and then trying to navigate and make the contacts and sponsors to keep your kid on the ladder to F1 from half a world away, several time zones away. For sure it can’t be easy. Bottom line is America’s parents needs to take their the kids to WKA or IKF races instead of AYSO or Little League games if we are to increase our odds of developing a winning F1 driver or two.

    • hey Andy
      these are great points and they focus the light a little differently on the subject. i am going to think about what you have pointed out for a bit and then re-engage. thnx for contributing to the discussion. jp

      ok, I’m back
      great points as i said before. i completely agree with all of them. but part of me still gets the impression that we are still missing something here in states. i don’t know if most young drivers feel F1 is unattainable or if it is a money issue, or if the idea of going across the pound makes most parents say forget that, not worth it. but from my perspective america does not even get close to the point of producing race drivers that if they did cross the pound would be able to compete at the level that is needed to get t F1. Rossi is obviously an exception.

      this conversation is quite a large one, i could write two more posts on the subject easily, suffice to say there are probably many more reasons to the question i have posed and it is not as simple as i make it out to be. that being said, the ball is in our court to find a solution to this problem. it could be that America just does not want to do anything about it. but i say that is B*S* because what american racer does not want to perform at the highest level and they have done so on many occasions, especially in F1, just not recently.

      your thoughts are welcomed and appreciated and they have made me think there is quite a bit more to the issue of this absence of American drivers in F1. thanks for that. jp

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