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.
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?
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.
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.
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)