Op-Ed: To succeed with its USGP, F1 should copy NASCAR

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Two things, first off.

One. Summing up the point of this post into a neat little headline, I think, sounds a bit more crazy or provocative than I think it really is. So if you’re about to lose it over the headline, hold on.

Two, for the sake of this argument, I’m assuming this Austin-based USGP has the track, the needed infrastructure and all the facilities it will need come 2012. If not, all bets are off.

Among the many cries of concern about the USGP in Austin has been one very simple one, summed up by a few F1B readers quite simply: “Dallas 1984.”

We all agree. This renewed USGP cannot go the way of Dallas.

By extension, I think it is fair to say that this new USGP cannot go the way of any of the previous races in America. While there were successes, don’t get me wrong, if they truly had succeeded, those races — Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Detroit, Indy — would still have a place on the calendar.

What then, will it take for this F1 race to be a long-term success in the U.S.? It must be on the minds of organizers, who’ve inked a 10-year deal with Formula 1.

Like it or not, what it will take begins and ends with America’s No. 1 motorsport: NASCAR.

NASCAR’s had the formula, if you will, to build a series that, while it may have hit a peak and now struggles to stay at the top of the sports heap, is among the big sports in America, along with football, basketball and baseball. There are college business courses dedicated to the “business of NASCAR.” There are articles in business publications about the lessons that can be learned from NASCAR’s rise.

By most accounts, NASCAR succeeded based on a plan to be “fan-friendly.” I’d even go so far as to call it “fan-first.” That’s included the good — open pit lanes, accessible drivers with big personalities — and the bad — one word, Digger.

But it isn’t just letting fans into the pits. It has been a much more concerted, focused development of fan engagement and, yes, education. Perhaps the stripped-down, bare bones nature of NASCAR technology makes it a bit easier to explain than F1, but the general consensus is that NASCAR did a great job as it went from Southern fringe sport to national obsession of teaching fans (and prospective fans) about what they were watching.

Understanding = enjoyment. For proof, take your average European to a baseball game or your typical American to a cricket… match? Do you call them matches? (Get the point?)

Your basic NASCAR fans knows about bump drafting and dirtying the air. And let’s not even get started on the meaning of “loose.”

Does the average F1 fan understand F-ducts and trick diffusers and how the smaller front tires are affecting understeer? I’m not so sure.

Educating fans will be critical, especially since F1 is not top of everyone’s minds. And because it isn’t in our national DNA. Most Americans know who Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds are as “home run kings.” Do they know who Aryton Senna was? Do they even know Michael Schumacher?

Making sure the grand prix is an absolute slam-dunk of a good time for fans is another must. Again, NASCAR is the model. Just think about it, during the mid-2000s, NASCAR races were among the most-attended sporting events in America. They must have been doing something right.

Is it the culture of a NASCAR race vs. the culture of an F1 event that’s the problem? Maybe. At Monza last year, there certainly were fans sleeping on the grounds. But not many. Not in a “infield” party crowd way. It was “go to the track, leave the track, go back to the track.” In some ways, the event was disjointed. Monaco, perhaps, is a better comparison, where there is so much happening around the race but also right on top of where the race happens.

Austin has the potential for such consistent, race-related activities, from morning to night.

F1 is going to have to do a major build-up to this race, as well. Unlike NASCAR, which is a near year-round series here in America, we’re talking about one long weekend. F1 will have to overcome a major hurdle: when the races start. It has to build a fan base for this race among people willing to get up and watch qualifying and the race at 5, 6, or 7 a.m. (That’s right, I’m partially agreeing with Bernie Ecclestone that race start times are important.)

Like NASCAR did by pushing its way onto Fox and getting constant coverage on ESPN (not to mention Speed!), F1 will have to find ways to be in front of potential fans’ eyes far more than it is now. I’d be so bold as to suggest that F1 would be smart, perhaps, to fund a channel to compete with Speed so it could get a higher profile, a channel where it wasn’t lost among Pinks and Bullrun.

F1 will need to be more than just a “once a year” event for fans to really succeeded, in other words. Heck, maybe partnering with a big, and very charismatic F1-related blog that’s based in America wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Besides emulating NASCAR, F1 also will have to deal with being in NASCAR’s shadow. While in other parts of the world, the competition for fans is BTCC, DTM and Australian V8 (and I get the feeling they all are recognized as being “lesser” than F1), here in America there already is a “top tier” racing series. You may not agree that NASCAR should be placed at the same level as F1, but most Americans do. And probably the vast majority of F1’s most likely fans do, as well. And if they don’t? It’s probably because they’d put NASCAR a bit higher.

That’s the other key thing. F1 will need to mirror NASCAR because its fans will have to come from NASCAR. (Indycar, of course, is another place to find fans. But there aren’t as many, plain and simple.) Marketing itself as the “anti-NASCAR” or something similar will just turn off its best potential core fanbase. It will need to find a balance between become NASCAR with open wheels and remaining snooty F1. It will need to make itself interesting and compelling to racing fans here in America. And what those know as racing is NASCAR.

So, the key really is: Can F1 come to know NASCAR, too? It’s future success in America depends on it.


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