F1 and America – An Interview With James Allen

One of my goals when I started this blog was to address and interpret Formula 1 as an American, perhaps even broaden the tiny American fan base just a little. If I am truthful about the matter, I feel more like a European most of the time just for the simple fact that I even like Formula 1 to begin with. However, this does not stop me from always being on the lookout for any opportunity that will allow me to bring together the two different perspectives of being an American and loving European F1 racing.

This past weekend, Ron Howard’s movie Rush opened here in the U.S., which is a dramatization of the 1976 battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Most of the F1 world and fan base has known about the upcoming movie for some time as it has been reported upon by many bloggers and news services. In addition to the buzz created by the media, Mr. Howard has been showing up at races frequently and has been tweeting up a storm in support of the movie.

I was able to arrange from the publicity firm that handled the movie a pair of tickets to an advance screening and I will be writing about the movie in a future post, not so much a review since there will be plenty of those, but regarding the impact a movie can have on a topic or cause. How the simple act of storytelling can effect a widespread change in perspective and opinion.

When I first heard of the planned F1 movie with Ron Howard as director, I wondered, could this be the boost Formula 1 needs to really establish itself in the U.S.? That question, although important, is really the second question to be asked, the first one is “Why hasn’t the almighty and super-powerful Formula 1 sport made any significant inroads (no pun intended) into the world’s number one marketplace?” This is too big a question for just one measly blogger so I looked for help.

As most of you know by now I commonly borrow, refer to, quote, and just plain steal as much as I can get away with from James Allen’s F1 site. His knowledge, understanding, non-biased approach and insight are invaluable and I would say that if you are an F1 fan and are not going to his site on a regular basis then you are missing out on a large part of the F1 experience. I figured Mr. Allen would be just the person to inform us on this very subject of Formula 1 in America, and happily he graciously received my request and agreed to be interviewed.

Here is Mario Andretti - America's last meaningful F1 driver. He was also a World Champ.       Back in 1978...

Here is Mario Andretti – America’s last meaningful F1 driver. He was also a World Champ. Back in 1978…

Before I dive into the interview let me begin by saying that I want nothing more than for F1 to succeed in the U.S. in a big way. We now have a world class circuit in Austin TX, talk of a street race in New Jersey next year, and recently some rumors about a return of the Long Beach Grand Prix (which by the way I attended when I was just 12 years old with Mario Andretti, Niki Lauda, Jody Schechter, Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite racing there to name a few), but it is still the exception rather then the rule to meet Americans that know what Formula 1 racing is. It is slightly depressing that the highest level of open wheel, open cockpit racing which has been taking my breath away for so many years is not more well known here and I was pleased to be able to interview a Formula One expert about the topic.

I wasted no time and got right to the point with my opening question, in fact I tried to be as blunt as possible, I really wanted to get to the core issue of why it has always been a struggle for Americans to get on board with F1.

AmerF1can.com: F1 has already had a tenure at Indianapolis Speedway and Long Beach, then a long absence from the U.S., and now the sport seems very excited to return to America with a 10 year contract in Austin and now a GP in Mexico (subject to the FIA’s approval) and possibly Long Beach (rumors only). Do you think F1 will be more successful here than it was before, and why?

James Allen: Yes and no. It is more difficult for F1 to cross over into the mainstream now in the U.S. than it ever was, as the TV sports market is saturated and well developed and F1 hasn’t been part of that unlike the NBA, NASCAR etc. However, the advent of the Internet and social media tools means that existing fans in the U.S. can have access to the same real time information, news and data about the sport as the most plugged in fan in the U.K. or Europe and can feed their passion for the sport and share it with friends, possibly bringing new fans to the sport. Also NBC is a stronger rallying point than Speed Channel, so there is scope for strong niche growth, but at this stage niche growth is all it is likely to be, unless you get a U.S. racer who wins races and championships.

Imagine my disappointment with this answer. The word that stands out for me is “niche” and without putting too fine a point on it that means small, or limited, definitely not broad, as in popular. I am not looking for F1 to compete on the level of other American sports such as Football, Basketball, Baseball and especially NASCAR of course, but I do believe F1 could get quite a bit more love from Americans that it currently receives. I know that if the broader American racing audience was somehow more exposed to F1 it would win them over as it has won me over, as it has won over most of the rest of the world. If that’s a possibility why hasn’t it been accomplished?

Here is Scott Speed -  The last American to make it to the holy grail that is F1.  It didn't go so  well...

Here is Scott Speed – The last American to make it to the holy grail that is F1. It didn’t go so well…

AF1: Whenever the issue of America is covered by the F1 media it is stated how important this market is to F1, it’s teams, the manufacturers and the business of F1. Is this really the case and if so, why has F1 not been able to solve the American riddle?

JA: Yes, it is the world’s number one market place still and that means that the sponsors, manufacturers etc want to activate in that market. It’s tough because it’s so niche, but being able to invite guests to races, show them what you are doing in F1 and use that as an opener to try to do some business with them is fundamental to F1 sponsorship. Mercedes want to sell more cars in the U.S.; it’s Ferrari’s top market etc.

This has always been a point of interest for me. I am willing to bet that every American knows what a Ferrari is, and excepting people that are not that into cars generally, Ferrari’s have a certain affect, a certain appeal, a certain wow factor. Yet as true as this is, it is also true that if I asked these same people (and trust me I have on several occasions) which Ferrari driver they favor most in F1, they would say, “F1? What is that?” or something similar. So again there seems to be a disconnect between one of the most recognizable brands in the world and the racing discipline that it has competed in every single year since the beginning of the modern F1 era in 1950.

On the other hand NASCAR, which does not need any introduction, has all but consumed the American motor sports fan base. There are several other types of racing currently in the U.S.; the American Le Mans Series, the IRL, the Rolex Grand Am series, several different GT or Sports Formulas and a lot of Porsche Cup leagues. Yet there is no denying that NASCAR and all of its iterations, junior levels and trucks have totally dominated here in America. Strangely enough Mr. Allen does not see this as an obstacle to F1 succeeding here in America.

AF1: Obviously NASCAR racing, based primarily on an oval track, and the American manufacturers Chevy, Ford and Dodge are very popular here, does this help or hurt the F1 cause?

JA: I don’t think it has any effect. It’s motor sport, so that’s good, but it’s so different from F1, that it’s barely a crossover.

I was a bit surprised by his answer, but I’m not the expert here so I will take his word for it and be glad that David does not have to go up against Goliath in this respect. The bad news of course is that there is no crossover, so Formula 1 needs to find a different kind of racing fan. In short, F1 needs to start from scratch and develop its own following, its own type of fan. It would seem that just having a Ferrari, a Mercedes, or a BMW in the sport is not enough. F1 needs to go back to the drawing board on this one and come up with a new plan.

Mr. Allen previously mentioned Social Media and how this could very well be a avenue that could provide the chance for American fans to get involved in F1 in a more meaningful way. Here is his answer short and to the point.

AF1: Do you think social media can play a role in the effort to make F1 more popular in the States? If so, why aren’t the fans and brands utilizing it more?

JA: The existing fans are using the Internet and social media to get real time information about the sport and be just as plugged in as Europeans; social media also creates an easy entry point for new fans. The brands are still working out how to use it and how to reach the wider audience.

Alexander Rossi is a resevere driver for the Caterham F1Team. and America's next great hope. Time will only tell...

Alexander Rossi is a reserve driver for the Caterham F1 Team and America’s next great hope. Only time will tell…

I remain perplexed that companies like McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and especially the youth lifestyle company Red Bull have not used the tools of the Internet and social media to connect with or help create the American F1 audience. Then again, much larger companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are still trying to figure out the road map and how to monetize social media fans as well. Perhaps if the audience were bigger the brands would prioritize it more … but we need the brand’s marketing power to make the audience bigger. A conundrum.

Staying with this idea of F1 having to reinvent itself, I asked the simple question of perception, F1’s image or lack of it and what F1 should focus on.

AF1: In your opinion what can F1 do to help its image in the U.S.?

 JA: Talk up the hybrid technology, the glamour, the style etc. But the only thing that will make a real difference is an American driver of Vettel, Alonso or Hamilton’s caliber.

This response hits upon two issues that I had already targeted for discussion.

AF1:  Americans love cars and Americans love technology and are often at the forefront of it with Apple, Blackberry, Facebook, Instagram, Tesla, and many other high-tech companies successful here. What is the missing link that Americans are not already super-fans of the most high-tech kind of driving there is?

 JA: Good question. Probably because it’s not a U.S. invention. Also it’s a different kind of automotive technology from what the U.S. automotive scene has been about. Up to now. If F1 pushes down the hybrid route, it can do some good for the wider industry, but again it will need partnerships with U.S. firms to achieve that.

Mr. Allen seems to know Americans at least as well as they know themselves. My compatriots like American things or at least things that have been widely adopted in the U.S. The United States is the world’s largest hybrid market with nearly 3 million hybrid automobiles and SUVs sold through August 2013 — but this accounts for only a little over 1% of total vehicle sales. So even though the Tesla company is enjoying newly found profits and the four-door version is a common sight here in Los Angeles, Americans in general are not on board with the hybrid systems which will have more and more relevance in F1 in the coming years. Perhaps Americans will be more interested in racing with hybrid technology than the current outdated V8s, but I don’t think it will be enough. I still think that cars designed and raced on the cutting edge of technology should interest Americans more, but history does not bear this out.

AF1:  Does F1 need to have an American driver to succeed here in the States and as you see it, is that a realistic option with only a small number of American drivers involved in F1 currently? In your opinion, why aren’t there more American drivers or American teams?

JA: Yes, F1 needs to have an American driver to succeed in the States. There aren’t more U.S. drivers because the US has its own strong motor sport categories and a young driver with talent and backing will see a pathway there, whereas coming to Europe and trying to get to F1 the pathway looks difficult and filled with risk.

This last answer can be seen no other way than defeating. I must admit I knew the answer before I even asked it, and Mr. Allen confirms what most of us in the States that follow F1 passionately already know. America needs a driver in F1 to succeed on any meaningful level. The teams, the sponsors, F1 itself must know this to be true, and as Mr. Allen states there is very little opportunity for American drivers to succeed in F1. So here is the paradox, F1 needs America and know exactly what it needs to succeed here but without a competitive pathway for young drivers it will never achieve it. I’m reminded of how Los Angeles truly needs a comprehensive mass transit or subway system but at this point can never build something that could compete with the freeways in popularity. It’s just too late to get a foothold.

If everything goes according to plan F1 will race on the  streets of New Jersey great, but why have Red Bull that is everywhere not advanced F1's cause in   America?

If everything goes according to plan F1 will race on the streets of New Jersey, GREAT, but why have companies like Red Bull not advanced F1’s cause in America?

Lastly I brought up Ron Howard’s movie Rush which surely Mr. Allen has already seen and asked if he thought this would generate a positive effect for Formula 1, create a buzz and spark some interest in people that are not familiar with this kind of racing.

AF1: Ron Howard’s “Rush” will open later this month to moviegoers and taking into account his ability to tell a compelling story, will a movie such as this provide enough of an impact on American audiences that we will see a renewed interest in the sport?

JA: Possibly. But it will be niche. I’m not sure how many cinemas it is opening in but it’s not going to be huge.

Fitting, would you not agree? That my last question of the interview would cycle back to “niche” and “not going to be huge.” That being said I don’t think it’s completely dire; maybe F1 is performing exactly as it should here in the States, a niche sport with a niche audience. Maybe F1 is not for everyone, as much as I want it to be, as much as the teams, the sponsors, and F1 itself would like it to be. Maybe F1 is more like French burgundy, very exclusive and not concerned with anything but itself. Not concerned whether it is liked or not, only that it is the best in the world and that is quite enough.

I am not by any means done investigating America’s on again/off again relationship with F1. Many of the most famous love stories of all time never came to fruition due to circumstance and timing; Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa, Shakespeare’s Othello and Desdemona, the Phantom and his beloved Christine to name a few. Sometimes you just have to appreciate what you have and let it go. But you’ll hear from me about the movie Rush and it’s possible impact on the sport. I’m keeping an eye on NBC’s wider and more complete coverage of F1 on their own sports channel and lastly I hope to interview some prominent American drivers and get their take on this issue and why America has not produced more drivers that can make it to F1.

I would like to thank James Allen for allowing this blogger the opportunity to play journalist if only for a short time. Your insight and thoughts are always of great interest regarding this sport that has captured the hearts and minds of so many fans, with maybe a few Americans still to follow.

-jp- (a niche blogger in a niche sport)

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17 Comments on “F1 and America – An Interview With James Allen

  1. It’s strange to think of the world of F1 as niche, but then again Americans probably wouldn’t ever think their much loved NASCAR would be hidden away on a channel only available by expensive subscription here in the UK.

    It’s a bit similar with MotoGP I believe. If I read things right Nicky Hayden is still about as well known as you get, but not many people would know who he was outside of the sports fanbase.

    Though we have been blessed with a good few handy F1 drivers since Hunt (Mansell, Hill, Coulthard, Hamilton, Button, personally I rate Di Resta too in an underpowered car…) In motorcycle racing, well, it’s been a while since Barry Sheene won! There have been a good few title winning Americans since then!

    I think sometimes it is worthwhile to embrace your sport as niche, if you can meet like-minded fans it becomes a bit of a secret society of greatness, keeps it special.

    I like to think of it in terms of when your favourite underground/indie/urban musician goes all mainstream and becomes a bit rubbish 🙂

    Will look forward to your thoughts on the Hunt film, I will have no chance to see it at the cinema and must wait patiently for the blue-ray release ( local cinema was knocked down years ago and local legal wranglings mean it is nowhere near being built – still!) so want to see what as many other people think of it as possible.

    I think it looks awesome but not as good as the Senna documentary which I adored. Did you see that? What did you think?

    Thanks for such an interesting blog post!

    • hey Lisa

      thanks for the comments. one of the few things i enjoyed more than writing about F1 and the like is talking F1, moto gp, DMT, etc with like minded race fans, especially when they are well informed as it looks to be the case with you. It is very true what you say about Nicky Haden here in the US. even thought he is an american and although there are always and have always been americans in MotoGP the sport is still under appreciated here.

      your analogy about a indie/underground band is well taken. my wife was a dj for a popular college station and you can’t imagine how many times i have heard exactly what you described in regards to when a band goes south. Lol.

      PS as much as i want F1 to become more popular, i also enjoy the exclusivity of being in that secret club that is F1. 😉 jp.

      • Thanks for taking the time to read and reply!

        The great thing about your post was the way you then analyzed every q&a, allowing for plenty of conversation on the subject!

        My MotoGP knowledge remains sound but my F1 isn’t what it once was! My time really engrossed in the sport was the Senna era, I kept up to date for a long time after that until we had changes to where it was broadcast from free on BBC to filled with ads on ITV, then back to BBC and now they share with Sky(premium satellite content over here!)

        Here’s a few numbers to help you judge motorsport viewers in the U.S. compared to the UK…
        Soaps/Major news/sport events eg. world cup football can still pull big viewers, but yesterday, a regular day, the top tv show was watched by 3.54m.

        F1 in Singapore got 4million on raceday, MotoGP’s big home round at Silverstone had just under 1m viewers (actual figure is unobtainable but higher as many like to watch with 1hr delay on Eurosport as they prefer the commentators, but will be lower next year as BBC were outbid by cable rival BT Sport, so will be £15 a month more for most!) and IndyCar at Baltimore got 12,000 views on cable channel ESPN.

        I Know the USA has a much bigger population to work with, but I think that gives a good handle on what is niche here!

      • hey Lisa
        i just wanted to respond to something you said about the coverage of F1 in the UK. i recall the dust up when sky took over half of the F1 calendar from the BBC and the discussion concerning free vs. pay to watch. and i thought this is also a reason that F1 has always been a leap for americans. our free sports is football, baseball, basketball (although for the serious fan you can purchase a packaged and see every game and all the teams that are not in you city or market. F1 has always been something that you had to pay extra for and on top of that the coverage was horrible, nothing like the BBC or Sky. i don’t know how many europeans were lost in that transition but what ever the number is it is too many in my opinion. but this is the way all sport networks are carrying their product, and when something is considered a product then it becomes how much can We (the powers that be) get for our product. -jp-

      • You hit the nail on the head there! Too much value in making money and not enough investment amid that greed in making sure people can actually watch- without breaking the bank!

        Our new BT sport deal here comes with a promise of excellent, detailed MotoGP coverage, but at a price! Thanks Dorna!

        Wouldn’t mind some of your free football though, I would never want to shell out to follow my team for Sky, prices too high, not keen on the Rupert Murdoch empire of media either!

  2. My view from the North- yes Canada. I have followed all major racing including F1 since the late 70’s and Gilles Villeneuve days. But the truth is up until the mid 90’s when Tony George f*@#ked it all up, Indy Cars and CART were far more entertaining to watch. With the spectacle of the Indy 500, and the variety of street, road and oval racing, the product in the end was a more complete racing series. That being said, in the mid 90’s, with the formation of the IRL and the confusion it created, NASCAR capitalized on the fan base where F1 should have stepped in… but didn’t! IRL and CART lost about 75% of their attendance, TV spots, star drivers, sponsors and revenue. (And yes I am still bitter towards Tony) Had F1 stepped in at this time it could have buried the IRL and grew in North America but I fear the high cost of hosting fees scared away many venues that could fill the stands with NASCAR fans instead of CART fans. Who do we blame for the hosting fees? Someone even more greedy than Tony George?
    Some people (fans???) are just ignorant, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “I just went to an F1 race in Toronto”? “Really, you mean Indy Car?” ” isn’t it the same thing?” Niche is the right word for F1 in North American. But….
    Attendance is down, way down, in NASCAR and Indy Car. Economic Recovery is doing better and now is the next best time to jump two feet into the U.S. with not one or two but three F1 races. New Jersey, Texas and Long Beach. (Geographically it’s not much different than having three races in Europe) (BTW Keep Montreal on the calender too) To gain this all important market sacrifices have to be made to build up a fan base. Have the U.S. trifecta or grand slam and crown a mini U.S. champion. Drop a couple of markets (not selling well) for a few years and push the US races to get the fan base up. The rest will take care of itself. If the product is good, (and Bernie can counter the US brain washing that NASCAR will inevitably try to sell), the fans will come. If the product is bad, they won’t, and some of us in that “Niche” category know that the product is still pretty good.
    Just my view form the North.

    • Hey Doug

      so very true about Tony George. he was so bad at running the family business that he was removed from the board of directors for the either the Indy 500 or the IRL or both (i can’t remember which). great point about the missed opportunity back when CART folded. i also think the spec car in IRL has hurt that series. sports car does well b/c it is ford vs. bmw vs. mazda vs. porsche vs aston, etc…

      and you are right about the time is now to make a real push in this market. If alexander rossi and derek daly’s son conor make it to F1 Bernie should pull out all the stops to support them, no question…

      if America could pull off the trifecta as you put it and Montreal for 10 years and have the two americans in the sport, that would be a great starting point. we shall see. in the mean time i am going to be blogging my little f1 heart out… LOL…. 😉

  3. Pingback: Recommended reading: Why viewers are so imoprtant to Motorsport | survival of the fastest

  4. Pingback: Time to think positive – Schumacher – a sporting genius. | survival of the fastest

      • No problem, though I’ve been having a blogging holiday I’ve been reading all your reports on Schumacher to keep up with the news.

        i obviously pressed a wrong key somewhere though as the ping was supposed to be for your front/ home page so others can follow your news on it too, off to fix that!

        Hope you had a great holidays and Happy New Year to you too, hopefully with some good news (especially as we approach Schumi’s birthday soon I believe).

      • L.
        yes had really good holiday. quite a bit easier now that my twins are almost 2ysrs. BTW very nicely said in “Time To Think Positive.” for the record i was a Damon Hill and Miki Hakkenin fan so i was in the not so fawned of Michael catagory. that being said how could anyone me included not recognize what he did for the sport and what a great diver he was. and how exciting it was to watch him race. 🙂

      • Glad to hear you had a good holiday, by boy is almost three, I think he will have the worlds biggest strop when I take the tree down on twelfth night, he liked it more than the whole ‘Santa’ thing!

        I wanted Damon Hill to win back in the day, shouting at Schumacher and at the t.v. as he blew everyone’s dreams off the track but when you look back, you get a better appreciation of the drive and will to win that made him want to be the best at any cost.

        With retirement we also saw a lot more of the ‘other’ Schumacher, a husband, a dad and a safety campaigner. I’m glad so many realise THAT is the individual that his family and sports fans are hoping will pull through and I am glad those words came across well, hopefully as some positive food for thought for anyone who stumbles across it while news hunting and just don’t get it.

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