For most racing fans in the U.S., the place to be—or at least to be watching—this weekend is Homestead-Miami Speedway. There, on Sunday afternoon, sometime after Zendaya (a Dancing With the Stars runner-up!) delivers the National Anthem and Toby Keith gives the command to start engines, the final race of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will take place, culminating (almost certainly) with Jimmie Johnson hoisting his sixth championship trophy. For petrol heads everywhere else around the world, however, the focus of attention will be 1,300 miles to the west, in the lovely Hill Country outside of Austin, Tex. There, a couple of hours before Zendaya's "O say can you see," 22 of the world's finest racing drivers will take to the undulating, 20-turn, 3.427-mile Circuit of the Americas (COTA) for the United States Grand Prix, the penultimate event of the 19-race, 19-country 2013 Formula 1 calendar.
The juxtaposition of those two races underscores F1's tenuous position in the United States. Last year's inaugural event at COTA was the first U.S. Grand Prix since 2007, and the reaction from drivers, fans and press was universally positive. ("Last year was incredible," says Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 World Champion from Great Britain, who won the first Austin race. "It immediately became one of my favorite venues.") But whether that success can translate into renewed American interest in the sport—which, while followed passionately by billions of fans across almost every other country on Earth, is largely ignored in the land of the NFL and NASCAR—remains to be seen.
One interested observer thinks there's a chance that F1 can reclaim to at least some degree the foothold (tirehold?) it had in the U.S. back in the 1960s and '70s, when the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York was big news each fall. And he should have a pretty good perspective: He won twice at the Glen back in the day, on his way to three World Championships and 27 career Grand Prix victories.
"They've done a great job," says Jackie Stewart of the Austin organizers. "The track is state-of-the-art, and they've gotten wonderful support. It's an exciting place for Formula 1 to come."
At 73, Sir Jackie is still as trim, stylish and vibrant as he was in his racing prime. And he's still going pretty much flat-out. The voluble Stewart, whose nicknames, Wee Jackie and the Flying Scot, still fit him as well as his bespoke suits, will be in Austin for this weekend's race, his second transatlantic jaunt from his home in Buckinghamshire, England, in the space of a week. (Reminiscent of the 76 crossings he made in 1971, when he was competing in F1 and U.S. sports car races, as well as doing color commentary for ABC Sports and promotional work for Ford.)
Stewart was in New York City last week for the U.S. premiere of Weekend of a Champion, an extraordinary documentary shot at the '71 Monaco Grand Prix by Stewart's longtime friend Roman Polanski. The film, which was shown only a handful of times in '73 and then more or less lost, was recovered recently and reedited by Polanski in collaboration with Stewart's son Mark, a filmmaker, and Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men) and will be released theatrically, beginning Nov. 22 in New York City.
For anyone interested in motor racing, the film is a delight and a revelation—and a wonderful introduction to the glories of F1 just in time for the U.S. Grand Prix. Polanski's camera followed Stewart everywhere around Monte Carlo during that 1971 race weekend, providing a portrait of an international sports star at the height of both his game and his fame. (Stewart would win the race and go on to take his second world championship that season.) With his long hair, swooping sideburns and signature cap, Stewart cuts through the adoring crowds in the principality like a rockstar in a firesuit. But the film also captures the intensity and precision that he brought to his craft. In one marvelous scene, set in a hotel suite in the Hotel de Paris, a bare-chested Stewart uses cups, saucers and a butter pad on a room service table to demonstrate to Polanski how to maneuver a race car through a corner.
The actual racing footage is particularly thrilling—far more dramatic and visceral than anything in Ron Howard's F1 film from this summer, Rush. There are on-board views of Stewart lapping Monaco, and most amazing is the revelation of how far the sport has come in terms of safety. In 1971, the cars whipped through the streets of Monaco inches from stone curbs and stone walls. Photographers stood casually on the sidewalk, behind no barriers, and the pits, filled with people and barrels of gasoline, were completely unprotected.
As Stewart points out in the film, during the late '60s and early '70s, a driver who raced in Formula 1 for five years stood a two-out-of-three chance of dying in an accident. He recalls that he and his wife, Helen, counted 57 friends and acquaintances killed during the course of his career. In response to such appalling statistics and senseless loss, Stewart became the sport's leading safety crusader, working tirelessly (and often against great opposition from entrenched officials and race promoters) to usher in any innovation that could protect the driver. It's worth noting that no driver has died in a Formula 1 race since Aryton Senna in 1994.
"We've got better risk management now than any corporation, sport or activity in the world," says Stewart, who counts his contributions to racing safety as even more personally satisfying than his victories and championships.
The billion-dollar spectacle of modern Formula 1 that will roar into Austin this week is in many ways a far cry from the relatively low-tech action on display in Weekend of a Champion. But, as the star of that film, and that storied era, makes clear, the essence remains the same. "The technology, the money, the politics, all have exploded," says Stewart. "But the animal—the race driver—is still the same. That's the heart of the sport."
Here's hoping that American racing fans take the time to check out the beat of that heart in the heart of Texas on Sunday.