NEW YORK — It isn't easy being a Formula One fan in the Western Hemisphere. Race start times are set to maximise European television audiences, leading to some awkward viewing slots for fans in North and South America. That's just one of the reasons the sport has been unable to make a larger dent in the U.S. market.
That's also the reason I found myself at Feile (pronounced, "fay-la"), an Irish pub a block from Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. I joined the Formula 1 in NYC group for their Malaysian Grand Prix watch party both as a way to see the race (my hotel did not offer NBCSN) and to meet some of America's biggest F1 fans.
Despite the early-morning call time, the bar was crowded and lively 15 minutes before the start. As at any grand prix, people were dressed in a variety of team colours, from Mercedes and Ferrari to McLaren and Lotus. I even spotted a Brawn GP cap.
The ringleader of this happy band, which is billed as "the largest and most diverse F1 Meetup group in the world," is Jae Chung, a 46-year-old with racing experience in the Skip Barber program and back in his native Korea.
Wearing a Mercedes shirt and a big smile, he flitted around for the first part of the race, stopping to chat here and there, before settling into a seat in the middle of the long, packed bar.
Feile offers an excellent viewing setup, with multiple televisions in your line of sight no matter where you are sitting and a massive projection screen at one end. They even tune a few TVs to the Spanish-language broadcast, rather than NBC, so no one misses any action during commercial breaks (a technique familiar from Canada, where we switch between English and French channels).
The group started back in 2008, growing out of another, smaller group that used to meet in Times Square, according to Chung. About 15 people showed up at the nearby Australian bar for the first gathering, and the watch party bounced from bar to bar for a few years as it slowly grew and different establishments found it was not profitable to open at crazy hours for a small group.
Four or five years ago, Chung and Seshu Bommineni, a 34-year-old Ferrari fan and one of his co-organisers, stumbled upon Feile, which had just opened. Chung said the manager at the time was excited for any new business and welcomed the watch party with open arms.
The group watches every race live, no matter the start time, and now boasts more than 2,000 members, of whom approximately 40 or 50 were present in the early hours on Sunday morning.
Despite the time, the bar was full of energy, with people cheering everything from the start of the formation lap to Nico Rosberg's overtakes as he charged back up the field to Daniel Ricciardo's first win in two years.
When Ricciardo crossed the finish line, a few guys in the back of the pub imitated his now-famous "shoey" celebration, pouring beer into their shoes and sipping from them, with the other patrons cheering them on.
According to Bommineni, though, this was actually a rather tame party. For Sunday morning races, they regularly draw 60 to 80 people, he said, and 150 to 200 for those rare afternoon grands prix when the F1 circus crosses the pond to race in Montreal, Austin, Mexico City or Sao Paolo.
If F1 is ever going to grab a significant chunk of the American market, these are the types of fans the sport will have to nurture and replicate—the ones willing to watch races at 8 a.m. on Sunday mornings from Monaco or Italy, as well as those watching races from Japan or China in the middle of the night.
The challenge for F1 and the sport's soon-to-be owners, Liberty Media, is to find a way to get new American fans in the first place. You can't just snap your fingers and expect people to start waking up for 3 a.m. race starts and chugging beer out of their sweaty shoes.
In addition to timing, geography is a big part of the challenge. Seeing a race live, in person, is one of the best ways to hook new fans, and Europeans have relatively easy access to multiple grands prix every year.
If you live in New York, though, the closest race is the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, about a six-hour drive. Austin, home of the U.S. Grand Prix, is 25 hours by car. For potential fans in Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the U.S., not only are the start times even worse, but they are looking at a 20-hour drive to Austin.
So, realistically, most people in the country have to take a flight to see a race. Add a plane ticket to a weekend pass for the grand prix and exorbitant hotel prices, and you have a very expensive weekend. With the homegrown IndyCar and NASCAR series offering more races at more convenient times and locations, it's no wonder F1 has struggled to gain traction.
But groups like Formula 1 in NYC offer hope. When I decided to watch the race with them, I wasn't sure what to expect, given the early start. Would anyone show up? Would the bar be serving food and drinks?
Clearly, I underestimated New York and the passion of this group. Maybe with new American owners there will be an increased focus on cultivating American fans.
Europe is F1's heartland, but the U.S. offers massive opportunities for growth. Chung, Bommineni and their group show that it is possible—especially if you have the luxury of getting some extra sleep on Sunday afternoons.
Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICE, FourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter: