Op-Ed: 5 things the Austin F1 promoters should start doing now

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As enthusiastic as I am about the return of Formula 1 to the United States in 2012, I can’t help being a bit concerned about the race’s promise — and fate.

F1 is an after-thought sport in America, and as many fans as the promoters of the USGP in Austin, Texas think will come from Central and South America, I can’t imagine the race succeeding without significant, serious support from motorsports fans in the U.S.

And there just aren’t that many F1 fans. I think the race broadcasts here only have a few hundred thousand viewers. Now, if they all went to Austin, great. But that isn’t going to happen.

No. F1 needs to be a bigger sport in the U.S. And it needs to be starting in two years. It doesn’t have to hit its high point that first race, but the seeds for growth will need to be well rooted. Here’s five things the promoters (maybe with some help from F1) ought to begin doing to root those seeds — right now.

1. “Partner” with ESPN. This one could be tough because F1 runs on Fox Sports. But I think to reach the broadest possible audience, F1 needs to be more than a part of the “racing” link on ESPN’s website. It needs to be part of Sportscenter. I’m not sure how this can happen because of the “conflict” with Fox, but F1 needs to get backers at ESPN. And I do mean “backers.” ESPN is subtle, but it definitely highlights sports that it also broadcasts — it doesn’t go overboard because its audience would notice, but it certainly favors coverage of sports that run on its channels.

Lacking the ability to get more exposure via ESPN, go to Fox but get a big push. One that maybe includes Fox News, as well. CNN and its partner at Sports Illustrated is a possibility, too. And if the American version of Top Gear takes off (big if), stick yourselves on it at every chance possible.

Just find a mainstream media partner. Fast.

2. Don’t forget bloggers and social networking. (And, full-on self-serving plug, maybe reach out to one of the Internet’s biggest F1 blogs that happens to be based in America — heck, just up the “road,” so to speak, in Missouri. Yes, folks, this one. Self-serving plug over.)

Seriously, though, there is a huge amount of “space” that F1 fails to occupy in the new media universe. Why not, as the newest race, embrace the “newest” media. Include them in basic outreach. Maybe provide them so special peaks that are specialized enough that the mainstream press, especially the Austin American-Statesman — which is doing some seriously good coverage, and probably deserves to be on this list under its own number — wouldn’t be interested. Give us the highly tuned specs about the circuit. Talk to us about computer modeling. Just reach out, build the excitement among the fans who are serious enough to spend time online following F1. (And, figure that a U.S.-based one is most likely to reach or be able to reach the fans who could actually come to the track in 2012. Second, sneak moment of self-serving over.)

3. Partner with a racing school to develop an American driver. I really do believe that having an American driver will be key to both the race’s future and F1’s future in America. So it is in the USGP’s promoters’ best interest to help develop that talent. I hear those Jim Russell guys are pretty good, for instance. But actively help build open-wheel racers. Provide scholarships. Hold races. Back a Southwest series. And have a race as part of the F1 weekend.

4. Get a spokesman who can be the face of the project. This one is tricky because it needs to be a person with wide recognition but also an F1 tie. Mario Andretti jumps immediately to mind. I’m not talking Scott “Scoot” Speed or one of the younger Andrettis. It has to be a person that will ring a bell with folks who aren’t even casual viewers.

At the same time, I recognize that such a person misses the “next” generation of fans. So get an “extreme” sports star — maybe it’s Ken Block or Travis Pastrana — to also promote the race, and how cool it is, to younger fans.

Don’t use someone from NASCAR, though. I know that will be the temptation. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

5. Start promoting F1. Do everything above, but also start finding ways to get the race weekends we’re having now and in 2011 on Americans’ radar screens. Having a clock counting down to the next race on the USGP website is not enough. Maybe start small with race parties in Austin. Then do them elsewhere. Bring information to other series events, if possible. (Surely there will be some partnership with American Le Mans, etc. Get to their events pronto!)

But for this race to succeed, Americans can’t just be excited about this one race. They have to be excited about Formula 1.

And there is a long way to go before that’s a reality.

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