Last chance to realise an American dream

Success of Sunday's US Grand Prix is crucial in efforts to make Indianapolis a fixture in Formula One calendar
Click to follow

Looking back it was one of the few really major errors of judgement in Bernie Ecclestone's Midas career, letting Long Beach switch from running a Formula One grand prix to IndyCars back in 1983.

Looking back it was one of the few really major errors of judgement in Bernie Ecclestone's Midas career, letting Long Beach switch from running a Formula One grand prix to IndyCars back in 1983.

A year earlier the United States had been awash with grands prix. The much-loved Watkins Glen had faded, but the US GP West at Long Beach came in April, the US GP East in Detroit in June and the US GP in Las Vegas in September. But then the Long Beach promoter, Chris Pook, told Ecclestone at the 1983 race that, if they did not agree financial terms, he would go with IndyCars. When Ecclestone was still arguing the following Monday, Pook went ahead with his deal with CART, the IndyCar organisers. It signalled the beginning of the end for F1 in the United States.

Now Ecclestone is on the verge of making amends for that lapse. Until the argument between CART and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) split America's domestic single-seaters into two categories - IndyCars and the gung-ho but downbeat International Racing League (IRL) - the Indianapolis 500 was the jewel in the crown. So at a time when CART is bent on expanding its own shrinking market by staging races outside its homeland (and so into F1 territory), staging a GP at Indianapolis was a major coup.

Tony George, the main man at IMS, has already supplemented his still-impressive Indy 500 earnings by staging a race for America's premier motorsport series NASCAR. The two-tonne saloon cars pound round at 200mph in their own Brickyard 400. The success or otherwise of this bold new venture will depend on how much the Hoosier spectators who habitually flock to the 500 come to appreciate the nuances of F1.

George says he does not expect instant miracles. "We'll have to go through an education process with fans, because not all of them will understand what F1 is all about to begin with," he says. And to those who accuse him of selling out the birthright of the place they call "The Brickyard", he says: "People worried about that when we staged the first NASCAR race, and I really don't think it's gonna be something to get concerned about. It's not as if we won't have the 500 as normal. The grand prix will just be something new, something that adds even more to the Indianapolis name."

Now F1's future in America rests on a 4.1km track which uses the first two banked corners of the famed oval, allied to a tricky infield section and a change of direction, from anti-clockwise to clockwise. Conceptually the idea is brilliant and already George reports a sell out of the 200,000 tickets.

But here's the rub. Hoosiers, like all US motorsport fans, like the big numbers. Even the IRL cars average 230mph over a lap of the oval; predictions of 124mph from the F1 cars may not be sufficient to entice the curious back for a second look in 2001. An average lap speed of 85mph did not do the trick on Detroit's streets, where a local journalist wrote: "Eighty-five miles an hour? Hell, we got boys that can boost a car and do that on a Saturday night!"

This one had better work. Ecclestone's last try was Phoenix, but far from rising from the ashes the US GP added to the pile. All anyone recalls of three unsuccessful years was when upstart Jean Alesi re-passed Ayrton Senna for the lead in 1990. A local ostrich race reportedly attracted a bigger crowd one year, five times larger than the grand prix's. When a crowd figure of 35,000 was mooted, one local scribe responded: "If 35,000 were here, then a lot of people came disguised as empty seats."

The Glen had been F1's first real home, and was steeped in history that included the notorious dwellers of The Bog, a place where many a spectator car and even on one occasion a Greyhound bus fell victim to their drunken partying. Often it threw up unusual results, none more emotional than a young Emerson Fittipaldi's first win for Lotus in 1970 which cemented a posthumous World Championship for the team leader Jochen Rindt, killed the previous month at Monza.

Long Beach had a decadent, downbeat charm of its own. Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix did not have the right stuff, while tacky Caesar's Palace in Vegas was as out of place as a hooker in a convent.

If Indianapolis does not cut it, F1's future in the world's leading economy will be bleak. George believes United States needs F1, as much as F1 needs the United States. He is optimistic. "I'm not sure this is the last chance. I think a race in San Francisco might have worked, or somewhere like Miami. But to my mind Indianapolis is the logical place for F1. Indianapolis is a great brand name, and so is Formula One. The two will work very well together.

"Over here we have very strong domestic racing championships, such as Indy Racing League or NASCAR, and they are very popular and very well established," he says. "But F1 is a unique series and we believe it's very important that America has a grand prix. And if F1 is always advertising itself as a World Championship, how can it not come to the United States?"

After The Glen and Long Beach, the US GP became a hobo, bumming ride after ride to nowhere. Whether Ecclestone and George's new gravy train can make it respectable again remains to be seen.