ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 40 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Foreign Invasion

  by Roger Horton, England

Roger Horton joined the flocks of foreigners who invaded the capital of American motor racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The expectations are different, and the cultural shock was equal to both sides, but in the end it was all about racing - the one language everyone understands

It was hard to know in the end what to make of it all. The F1 circus breezed into Indianapolis, took it over briefly, and then left: on to Japan, on to perhaps a championship deciding race and a new World Champion. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is now old news until at least next year, and then all the same arguments will probably spark up again.

Many IMS insiders resented - some bitterly - that their sacred Oval had been changed to suit the 'foreign' invaders, who care little for the many traditions on which the Speedways is built. The sight of one of the Speedway's great 'landmarks' - the Gasoline Alley sign - covered over for the duration of F1's visit - drew an involuntary exclamation from one IMS employee, as we entered the Paddock for the first time on Wednesday afternoon. For others, the pain was almost physical.

There was much talking over the Indy race weekend, but maybe not as much listening as there should have been. So many people seemed to have had an entrenched position, the visiting international media seemed, on the whole, impressed with what they saw, and how could they not be? Some of the locals, though, were determined not to be impressed with F1 whatever happened.

Max Mosley, president of the FIA, gave the whole facility a ringing endorsement. "It's absolutely top-class and it's been a wonderful surprise to us to see how good they have managed to build it," Mosley told a press conference on the Friday of the Grand Prix weekend. "I think it's an extraordinary achievement." High praise indeed, although the cynics among those present were not disappointed, when within minutes he was able use his high praise to damn by comparison the luckless Silverstone circuit, which currently can do no right in the eyes of the sport's power brokers.

Later, F1's ultimate power broker, Bernie Ecclestone, gave IMS a final ringing endorsement. "I would just like to thank Tony (George) formally for bringing Formula One back to the US. Without him we wouldn't be here. That's 100 percent sure. We'll stay here for as long as he wants us."

There are politics all through motor sports and there was more than enough was swirling around during this event to keep everyone amused and most reporters busy. Politics around here means the CART/IRL split, and if ever you have two groups from the same country speaking different languages, this is it. It was the CART guys who were taking the hits, with first Bobby Rahal, the current CEO of CART, being announced as the new team principle of Jaguar Racing, and at a news conference held at the headquarters of the IRL no less. Then it was the reigning CART champion Juan Montoya confirming his move to F1 with Williams.

With Mercedes's recent decision to wind up their CART engine programme, and the yet to be confirmed defection of Barry Green to Formula One with the BAR team, and it's obvious that there is a major movement of talent out of the series. By contrast, most observers seemed to agree that the success of the F1 race at Indy had only strengthened Speedway owner and IRL founder, Tony George, in his domestic battles with CART.

Success, though, is a relative thing. IMS officials were pleasantly surprised that the race was a sell out, and there are strong indications that ticket demand next year will again be strong. In a country of such ethnic diversity, it is no surprise that there were enough Americans of European origin with an interest in what is still mainly a European sport. It was the fact that so many would travel from all parts of the such a large country to get their F1 fix, that confounded the critics who suggested that the race would be a flop.

There was one thing, though, all factions were agreed on: if Formula One is ever going to compete - America wide - with established American motor sports, and especially NASCAR, then an American driver is a must. Without one, the chances of getting long-term coverage on a major American terrestrial TV network are slim.

Jaguar chairman and current CEO, Neil Ressler, admitted prior to the race at IMS that Ford had no firm programme to promote an American driver into F1, although he did state that he had asked the incoming Bobby Rahal to look into including an American amongst the drivers to be tested in Europe for the Stewart F3 team later in the year. "If an American comes and is best, he gets the drive. That's it," Ressler said.

This seems a strange situation, given the huge potential benefit that would accrue to Ford (and Jaguar) if the presence of an American driver boosted general interest in F1 in America to anything like the level it enjoys in Europe. The Mercedes driver development programme in the late Eighties may not have seen one of its graduates race for the company in F1, but the presence of two of its graduates, Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, on the grids has boosted interest in Germany to huge levels, and Mercedes have reaped a tremendous reward from that.

NASCAR driver Jeff Burton, a self-confessed Formula One fan, had some interesting comments on how F1 drivers should try and win over American fans, when he attended a joint press conference with Ferrari at the Speedway prior to the race. "I think American fans like to see a competitive spirit," Burton said. "Not every race is going to be side by side, or a nose to tail battle. American fans like it when drivers show emotion, they like it when drivers don't like each other, they enjoy it when the teams have rivalries.

"To capture the American fans I just think you have to be emotional and be yourself, if you're mad say you're mad, if you're happy say you're happy. What American fans don't have is a true understanding of how technical it is, which as far as I am concerned, is what is cool about F1 racing compared to what we do. I think the American fans need to look at that, and understand that rather than just say, well they didn't go side by side. Well, we don't go side by side as much as they act like we do either.

"I'm really glad to see F1 racing in the states, it's the biggest form of motor sports in the world and we need them here."

Emotion, team rivalries, agro and aggression - Formula One has these qualities in spades, but can the message be got across, and if so by whom, is the big question for the future. As Eddie Irvine stated in America: "Formula One is about suspense, in Indy cars it's more overtaking. Every five minutes there's a hit."

And just how many hits there are is clearly underlined by a quick flick through any NASCAR television show. Just about all the re-runs are spent analysing crash after crash. If this is racing American style, and if that's all there is to it, then Formula One will never catch on in the United States big time. Fortunately, the 220,000 odd fans who turned up at the Speedway on race day, saw a race where driver skills were paramount, and even the most cynical critic can't have failed to have been impressed with the technology on show.

Like it or not, most American series are not at the leading of technology, and the cars that run in NASCAR are pretty medieval by F1 standards, even if the detailed engineering is first class. But the NASCAR fans don't care about the technology; they are into the entertainment, and if that means constant crashing and bashing, you can be sure that's what NASCAR will dish up. Queried on this, one long time observer of the American scene said: "A race with no crashes, that just bores some of the fans."

Different strokes for different folks.

If the type of racing American race fans will support is in some dispute, the fact that Indianapolis is the undoubted centre of American motor sport is beyond question. Indianapolis is a racing town, pure and simple. If pure racing is your passion, then a trip to the Indiana State Fairground on the Friday evening before the Grand Prix was the only place to be.

The track is dirt, the cars have their engines in the front, and they look like they have been stuck in a technical time warp for fifty years. But, stand trackside at the start, as some thirty of these Silver Bullet cars come power sliding through turn four, in a blur of speed and noise, and you get to understand how their big brothers became legends at Indy in the Fifties. They also made me wish I was safely in the stands with the spectators, and not just yards from the racing line.

"Never turn your back on a racing car under green," said my host, repeating some very sound advice he had received in his early years covering racing at the Speedway. I tried not to, as we made our way back to the infield, but if racing is in your blood, then these guys can make it run faster. On the edge is still on the edge however you pronounce it.

This type of racing is part of American folklore. Drivers like A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti raced these same cars on this same track. The Indy 500 is still the big show, and they are all looking for a ticket to get in. This is American racing at the grass root level, where the whole family gets to work on the car, and drivers get changed in the open air without a motor home in sight. A car will set you back some $60,000 and a thirteen-race budget for the season is around $125,000.

It's still a big jump from this level of racing to even an IRL type budget, where a car with a good engine will cost at least a million dollars. These racers, though, are Tony George's constituents and supporters in his battle with CART. Understand them, and you understand the Speedway's president's reasons for splitting open wheel racing in America.

Small wonder that George's stepson, Ed Carpenter, races in this series; indeed, he led this race for some eighty laps until contact with the wall intervened, spoiling perhaps what would have been a pretty good double 'win' for the family over the weekend.

If these racers dream of racing at the Indy 500, F1 superstar and Grand Prix winner Michael Schumacher harbours no such ambitions. Speaking after taking the pole for Sunday's race, the double World Champion made his opinion crystal clear. "No, simply no," he reacted to a question on whether he would like to compete in the Indy 500. "No, because for me it's simply too dangerous. I can't imagine to come here for the Indy 500 and to risk my life."

If that comment caused a ripple at a place where drivers flirt with the walls at high speeds on a daily basis in the month of May, no one I spoke to was prepared to make it an issue. Surprisingly, perhaps, many of those racers on the dirt have also watched F1 racing, and any driver that can race like Schumacher on a track like Spa-Francorchamps in the pouring rain has earned their respect.

At the end of the day, Ed Carpenter, Jeff Burton and Michael Schumacher are all racers. At Indianapolis, they and their fans got together and watched some racing. And didn't we all get something from it, when Formula One came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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