It has been four years since Formula One has held a race in this country, and to say that the stakes are high for Sunday’s United States Grand Prix would be an understatement. The race will be run on a brand new, state-of-the-art race course built for Formula One in Austin, Texas. The race promoters and the executives at the new Circuit of The Americas track hope they can impress everyone enough to become home to the most prestigious racing series in the U.S. for many years to come.
Formula One followers are very excited that the series is back in this country, and they hope it is for good this time. Earlier this week, I spoke with SPEED’s lead broadcaster Bob Varsha about the return of Formula One to the United States and his thoughts on the new Circuit of The Americas and Austin.
JW: How important is it to have F1 back in the United States?
Varsha: If you are the world’s most popular racing series, then you must have a successful stop in the United States. F1 has a 20-race season that begins in Australia and ends in Brazil with stops in such exotic locales as Bahrain, Monaco, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. That is why it attracts such a large international audience. Look, the United States had a long love affair with F1 from 1969 through the mid 1980s when they had two stops: one in Watkins Glenn, the other on the streets of Long Beach.
Once the series started to more around the country, four cities—Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas and then finally Phoenix—could not seem to make it work despite great civic efforts. Without a home track, F1 left the United States in 1992, and it did not look like they were coming back.
In 2000, F1 came back to this country and ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a modified road course. They gave it a try at the Brickyard, but after seven years once again F1 left the U.S. But now I really think that the team behind the race in Austin has a winning combination. A cosmopolitan city and a race course built to F1 specifications.
JW: What do you think of Austin as the home to the United States Grand Prix?
Varsha: I think the choice was brilliant because Austin is a very international city. They have a rich musical history known worldwide, a great international film festival, and they embrace new ideas. It is the Silicon Valley of the Southwest, and F1 is at the top of racing's high-tech movement. Everything they do in this series is high-tech and cutting edge.
You have to be impressed with the amount of tickets the city sold. They will have a sellout with over 120,000 fans coming from as many as 45 countries. It is centrally located so F1 fans from both South and North America can get here without too many travel issues. So in the end it comes down to the city and the race promoters, and clearly both get high marks for their work to bring F1 back to this country.
JW: What about the new Circuit of The Americas?
Varsha: We finally have a true F1 track that the drivers will be very happy to race on. Right now it is a one-of-a-kind facility. It really is something. When fans see it on TV, they will understand why this is a finely crafted F1 course. The builders have taken quite a few things from some of the great tracks in Europe and crafted them into this course. The over 120,000 fans on hand Sunday will be able to do something that can't be done on most race courses around the world. They will be able to see nearly 75 percent of the race from their seats—not just 10 or 20 seconds of the race at a time.
Also, Circuit of The Americas is set up so it can be configured for any type of racing as well as concerts and even soccer so this is quite a sports complex.
JW: What about F1 makes it so unique?
Varsha: Well you have some of the most well-known auto manufacturers in the world led by Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Cosworth. All who invest millions of dollars in building one-of-a-kind race car, so in F1 there is nothing that is off the rack. Each car is handcrafted and built to meet the demands of the teams and their drivers.
The drivers are from all over the world. And, because of the success of this series, guys like Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso, along with at least a dozen others, are national heroes in their respective countries. Plus F1 drivers are like rock stars with fans in every corner of the globe.
With a 20-race season that plays out on six continents, F1 is by far one of the most expensive sports in the world to be a part of as a car owner or investor. F1 also demands a great deal of money from its race venues, so to stage an F1 event is quite expensive. So much so that some of the older and more established race courses are battling to stay part of the series. There is also the cost of tickets that have gone up over the years, so there is a hope that they have not priced themselves out of some markets.
F1, like so many sports, is at a crossroads, but as someone who has followed this sport for over a decade, I am very confident the folks running F1 will work their problems out and keep this wonderful series alive for many years to come.
I also think that Austin will soon become one of the favorite stops on the F1 schedule after this weekend.
*All quotes in this story were obtained firsthand via a phone interview with Bob Varsha set up by the SPEED network.