The challenges F1 faces in Amerca — right now

If you’re reading this, chances are pretty solid that you’re a big Formula 1 and/or motorsports fan or know someone who is (and that person sent you our way).

You’re not who I am about to talk about; it is the other 310 million Americans I have in my focus.

Formula 1 is just a few months from returning to U.S. shores. It is a few hours from re-starting its 2012 season. (If you are a real fan, it already has re-started with practice earlier on Friday.)

F1 is back, in a couple of different ways, in other words.

Bad timing.

As F1 comes back from its summer break, I might be tempted to say: worst timing. Here’s what is going against F1 when it comes to getting the attention of the 310 million Americans who don’t know that Felipe Massa is on borrowed time with Ferrari:

  • A little sport known as college football also has just (ahem) kicked off. The sport is even, sort of, invading F1’s home base: Notre Dame (go Irish!) and Navy clash Saturday morning … in Ireland.
  • Right on college football’s heels comes America’s now “national past time”: pro football. The preseason already has begun. And yes, this means Grace is now wearing something Pittsburgh Steelers every day. Pro football is one of TV’s biggest draws (and, importantly, still a draw for advertisers because sports are something that everyone wants to watch live; no recording, unless it is absolutely necessary).
  • NASCAR’s race for the cup thing… I’m kidding. (Well, mostly. I’m sure it draws away eyes that otherwise might find pleasure in cars that turn right.)
  • America’s old national past time, baseball, is closing in on the post-season. If I’m not mistaken, this year the playoff has been expanded: more teams, more fans watching post-season ball.

For all of these alternative sports, the past month has seen growing coverage — right down to who will play quarterback for the Fighting Irish — while F1 has been under its forced hiatus. News was slim, people. Well, slim for F1. It was a bounty for all the other sports.

And that means that those 310 million non-F1 fans have lots of other, probably nearer and dearer to their hearts, sports on which to lavish time, thought, concern and, yes, money. Potentially impacting the U.S. Grand Prix, in particular, baseball’s Texas Rangers are leading the AL West standings. If you’re a Rangers fan, and the team makes it to the postseason, where will you spend your (potentially) limited dollars? Fortunately for the grand prix, the state doesn’t have any good pro football teams. (Zing! No, I kid.)

Now, when I write that F1 faces this competitive challenge “right now,” I mean it. This weekend, heck today — Friday — when F1 could be getting new fans, it is turning its key during about the worst-possible weekend. (Why not get started last weekend, before college football?) However, I don’t mean that I think the grand prix will be impacted this year. The newness, the intent PR and outreach, all will make for a successful race (I’m 99.9% sure, and you can judge if that’s on a 100% or 212% scale).

It’s the future that I wonder about; it’s the future we often wonder about here at F1B. Is F1 doing what it takes to become more than just the nicheiest of sports? Can the USGP count on the same 120,000 or so people come back year after year? I don’t think so, and so F1 remains at this crossroads it seems to have been at since… the last debacle of a USGP? Before? Maybe since Mario Andretti was claiming an F1 title?

Perhaps having to think back to Mario is the clearest point, one that says, “Stop hoping F1 will be featured every night on Sportscenter. Not. Going. To. Happen.”

The trouble with that thinking is it got us to a point where we didn’t have F1 in America for years and only rarely have it on a major network. That seems a tenuous spot for us U.S. F1 fans, and one that doesn’t stand much chance of changing this of all weekends.

But I suppose it is one we’re used to by now.

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