Look Who's at the Brickyard A Grand Prix race drew crowds to Indy as Formula One returned to the United States

October 01, 2000

A brief primer in recent domestic Formula One history: In 1991 a
Grand Prix was held in the streets of Phoenix in the middle of
summer. It was outdrawn--handily--by bird races at the nearby
Chandler Ostrich Festival. No surprise, then, that F/1 did not
return to the U.S. in 1992. In fact F/1 didn't return to the
States until Sunday, when more than 200,000 people (about 20
times the gate at Phoenix and nearly double the largest crowd an
F/1 race has drawn this year) showed up at the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway to witness the convergence of the sport's premier series
and its most hallowed ground.

It's too early to tell whether one sellout crowd means that F/1
is back here for good. "Out of 250 million people I would expect
200,000 people to be really keen that this is taking place," says
Jackie Stewart, the three-time world champion. But it did show
that if done right, a U.S. Grand Prix doesn't have to lay an
ostrich-sized egg. Before the Phoenix fiasco, 42 Grands Prix had
been run in the U.S. but never at a venue in the heart of
open-wheel country.

The trick for F/1, however, is not to attract existing fanatics.
It is to create new fanatics or at least some casual fans. "I'm
sure it's going to be easy to get [U.S. fans] into Formula One at
Indy once a year," says Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve, who
won the Indy 500 in 1995 and currently drives in F/1. "But to get
them to follow the rest of the season is a lot more difficult."

It's especially difficult because it's easier to find reruns of F
Troop than F/1 races on TV in the U.S. This year races are being
shown in America by Fox Sports Net, usually on tape delay. Last
week Formula One Management, which owns the commercial rights to
F/1, refused to let Indianapolis TV stations air any footage from
the track unless they agreed to turn the footage over within
seven days and to show a daily two-minute tape of highlights from
practice and qualifying compiled in its entirety by FOM. That
prompted one station to pull its cameras from the track.

But demand does drive supply, and it's not as if people are
demanding more F/1 coverage. "Basically you are a tremendously
domestic country," says Stewart. "You need American
participation. I would have loved it if Jeff Gordon had come to
Europe before he made the big time over here. He would have been
a potential top-line American Formula One driver."

As it was, the field for the first race on the new Brickyard
setup was made up of 22 non-Americans. Like the famed Monaco
course, part of which sits in the shadow of the Monte Carlo
Casino on the Cote d'Azur, the layout at Indy incorporated the
most recognizable piece of the local landscape, namely the oval
that has hosted the Indianapolis 500 since 1911. The 2.606-mile
circuit consisted of a 12-turn road course segment built on the
infield, Turn 1 and a 3,037-foot-long section of the frontstretch
of the oval track, which F/1 drivers navigate clockwise or, as
most Indy fans remarked, "backward." (The infield road, new
garages with luxury suites on top of them and a 13-story pagoda
in the infield serving as a control tower were constructed over
the past two years at a cost of more than $50 million.)

Reviews were generally positive. While Brazilian Rubens
Barrichello said he didn't find the speed on the course as
impressive as he had expected, Jenson Button, a cheery
20-year-old Brit, declared driving through the banked corners to
be "good fun." The race itself, 15th in the 17-race schedule, was
important in determining whether Mika Hakkinen would become the
first man since Juan Manuel Fangio to win three straight F/1
championships. The 32-year-old Finn had failed to finish the
first two races of the season, while German Michael Schumacher, a
two-time F/1 champ, had won the first three races.

On Sunday, Schumacher jumped to a big lead; then Hakkinen chipped
away at it. He was on the verge of catching Schumacher when his
engine blew on Lap 26, allowing Schumacher to coast to a win by
12.118 seconds and regain the points lead, 88 to 80, with two
races left.

By the end of the weekend there was a definite sense that F/1 had
finally found a home in the U.S. "We were always gypsies in
America," says Max Mosley, president of the sport's governing
body, FIA. "There's not much doubt that [the race] will work. The
question is how many years it will take. In 20 years this will be
a very, very major event. The question is, Will it be a major
event in five [years]?"

The bigger question is whether anyone here will pay attention to
the 16 other races, the ones not held in America. Says Mosley,
"The key to Formula One is the [season] championship, not a
glimpse of cars going round for a moment or two."

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN With his win at Indy, Schumacher regained the points lead with only two races left.