How the USA fell in love with Formula 1

After years of trying, it seems Formula 1 has finally struck gold in the USA


Ever since the invention of the car in 1886, the United States of America has loved the automobile, and that love has been engrained in the country’s culture with the iconic Route 66 and the Model T Ford the world’s first affordable motorcar.

Pretty soon, Americans started racing their cars, with the first Indy 500 taking place in 1911, followed by the inaugural Daytona 500 less than 50 years later.

In 1959, Formula 1 arrived on American shores for the first American Grand Prix held at Sebring, with Bruce McLaren taking victory as his Cooper teammate Jack Brabham pushed his car over the line to win his first world championship, which was also the first for a rear-engined car.

Two years later, the race moved to Watkins Glen, where it would stay for 19 years before being dropped because of financial woes.

Despite several venues trying and failing to become the sport’s American home, it wasn’t until the early 2010s that Formula 1 struck gold in the USA.

United States Grand Prix – Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, General view of the circuit | REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Formula 1 struggles to find an American home 

Watkins Glen’s departure didn’t necessarily mean the end of Formula 1 in America, far from it, as the sport held two-three races in the USA during the early 1980s.

Venues such as Long Beach did manage to stamp their footprint on the sport, whilst races in Detroit and Las Vegas were loathed by fans and drivers alike due to poor attendance, cramped facilities and, above all, dull layouts that made driving a chore rather than a pleasure.

In 1989, the sport decided to try its luck in the desert, building a circuit around the streets of Phoenix. The maiden race held on June 4 in baking hot conditions would set the tone for Phoenix’s three-year F1 experiment, which would end when members of FISA elected to cancel the city’s contract in October of 1991.

Nine years after leaving Phoenix on a whimper, Formula 1 arrived at the Brickyard hopeful that the biggest stage in American motorsport would change the sport’s perception in the country and for a time, it worked with huge crowds packing the stands for the first two races.

But the sport suffered grave damage to its image in the states when only six Bridgestone shod cars started the 2005 United States Grand Prix after a slew of punctures forced the 14 Michelin shod runners to withdraw, infuriating the fans who threw beer cans onto the track.

Enter COTA

Following the events of 2005, the Brickyard would host two more United States Grand Prix before falling off the calendar after Bernie Ecclestone, and circuit owner Tony George were unable to agree on a fee for a proposed 2008 race,

That same year event promoter and motorsport fan Tavo Hellmund sketched out his idea of what a dream Grand Prix circuit in Austin would look like incorporating some of the sport’s finest corners into one circuit.

Hellmund, a family friend of Ecclestone, also enlisted the input of 500cc world champion Kevin Schwantz to design some of the corners, with track designer Hermann Tilke hired to design the circuit.

Although there had been teething problems, the circuit passed FIA inspections two months before the sport’s arrival. The inaugural race was a sporting and commercial success, attracting 265,000 spectators throughout the weekend.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in action during 2021 United States Grand Prix qualifying | REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Formula 1 finally hits the jackpot in the USA

Although Austin’s weekend attendance remained steady in the years after, it wasn’t until the Atlanta-based Liberty Media group purchase of the sport from Ecclestone in 2017 when Formula 1 really began making traction in America.

Two years after Liberty’s purchase, Netflix’s Drive To Survive premiered, attracting a wave of fans into the sport who didn’t necessarily come from a motor-racing background, making team principals and drivers such as Guenther Steiner and Daniel Ricciardo overnight stars. 

The growth of the series was felt most in America as the first United States Grand Prix since COVID-19 restrictions were eased was attended by 400,000 fans during the weekend, making it one of the highest attended Grand Prix weekends in the sport’s history.

Austin’s success helped pave the way for expansion in the United States, with Miami hosting its first Grand Prix the following year, whilst Las Vegas will return to the calendar in mid-November 2023 for a much-lauded street race held around the city’s biggest landmarks.

How long will the love affair last?

Austin’s success and the celebratory interest surrounding Miami have sparked interest from other US cities who are now keen to host a Grand Prix.

One of the cities that have been rumored to be interested includes New York City, with the city’s mayor, Eric Adams submitting a bid for a race in the Randall’s Island area; however, this bid was rejected by Liberty Media.

The last piece of the puzzle has been the absence of an American driver on the grid, but Williams Driver Academy member Logan Sargeant who lies third in the Formula 2 championship and in the hunt for b’s place at Williams is tantalizingly close to ending that seven year wait for an American driver.

Andretti Autosport driver Colton Herta at the 2021 Indianapolis 500 at | Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

IndyCar star Colton Herta has also been linked with a Grand Prix birth after being tipped to drive for AlphaTauri in 2023 and an Andretti-owned Sauber team in 2022 before having his super licence rejected.

Herta’s rejection by the FIA sparked anger amongst the IndyCar community, who accused the sport of accepting American money but not American talent. 

Liberty Media and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff also drew the ire of Mario Andretti over the summer after Andretti Global’s entry into Formula 1 was seemingly rejected due to the sport and the teams’ resistance to expanding the grid.

This anger may not frighten the sport’s talking heads all that much at the moment, but the sport has had popularity bubbles burst on them before, particularly in Japan during the late 80s to early-mid 90s when Suzuka sold out for seven consecutive years.

But for the time being, Formula 1 can enjoy its newfound popularity in the United States, and with an ever-bigger crowd expected for this weekend’s race, it seems that the sport will only get more popular in a country which was previously been ambivalent towards it.

Ed Spencer
Ed Spencer
FIA accredited journalist
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