Born in the USA

We’re going to New Jersey, huzzah! But will the Jersey Shore Grand Prix be all it’s cracked up to be? A desperately tired and desperately (more so) poor Michael takes a brief look at what it means for Formula One in the US of A.

Do excuse me for being a little quiet over the past month or so. As I’ve mentioned before, Box Of Neutrals isn’t actually able to pay me – unless you consider the unsightly and highly illegal ‘Peter McGinley Dollars’ a form of currency. I prefer Australian dollars so, alas, real world matters had taken hold of my life for a while. But I’m back now, for a little while, and have been welcomed with some exciting news! This week has provided us with confirmation of the long-awaited deal to have the circus we call Formula One set up shop in New York. Huzzah!
It’s no secret that Bernie Ecclestone has wanted a Grand Prix in New York for years now. Nay, he’s wanted a (stable) race in America for years. Indianapolis briefly filled that role until the farcical 2005 American Grand Prix. While I found the race hilarious, the Americans didn’t – and within two years asked us in no uncertain terms to leave them alone.
Time have changed, however – though mostly from our end. Formula One teams – particularly the works teams and team sponsors who recognise the USA as an enormous market – have been desperate for a return. Last year, a deal was sorted out between Bernie and promoter Full Throttle Productions to have F1 return to the States. In Austin. Which is in Texas.
Hardly the most obvious choice for a European-centric racing series. But nonetheless, Formula One returns to America.
There are, of course, issues to be faced in America. Formula One has historically had a problem promoting itself there, for one. We chatted to America enthusiast and F1 encyclopaedia Peter Windsor last year after his failed attempt to build an all-American team about the problem that is Formula One USA. He pointed to the sport being unaccustomed to having to work hard to reach an audience, as well as showing little or no care to appeal to American viewers. There are no American drivers on the current grid, for example.
Statistics highlight the instability of Formula One racing in America. The American Grand Prix has been held at nine different venues before Austin, with the average tenure of each location being around five years. The only exception is Watkins Glen, which rain for 19 between 1961 and 1980.
In its time away, the sport has had a chance to reflect on how to tackle such a problem as racing in the US. Its biggest idea has been to market the Austin race to neighbouring Mexico, where the category is considerably more popular, particularly with the advent of Sergio Perez as a promising rookie driver. However, the teams and promoters are also aware that they cannot let their guards down, and need to push this event – hard. We’ve already seen a handful of events – Red Bull has been running street demos with David Coulthard in Austin, while Lewis Hamilton swapped cars with NASCAR racer Tony Stewart to lap Watkins Glen. Next year, we’ll undoubtedly see the promotion machine really fire up in the lead up to the race.
However, the Austin promoters now have to deal with a hurdle rather unexpected. They now have to compete with their Union rivals for attention. And the northerners have, most definitely, stolen the show. The plans for ‘Monaco on the Hudson’ are threatening to overshadow the build up to the race at the under-construction Circuit of the Americas.
You will have undoubtedly noticed the attention being paid to the New Jersey race. A circuit by the Hudson, with the frankly magnificent New York City skyline as a backdrop will be a real jewel in Bernie’s crown. A second Monte Carlo. Genius.
James Allen recently wrote in his blog, along with one of his regular readers and occasional comment posters, about the challenges and opportunities that come with holding the race in New Jersey. The conclusion he reached, as did just about every other Formula One analyst, American politician and even passerby, is that the event is ripe for commercial exploitation. Record levels of sponsors will flock to the event, keen to have their name associated with the next glamorous event. Corporate hospitality sales for the round will surely be amongst the highest of any race. The ‘Monaco of the Hudson’ moniker isn’t one used lightly. Just as Monaco is a venue used by companies to woo investors and so forth as much as it’s used to race shiny cars, so too will New Jersey be a place used for the ends of big business
The problem? Already Formula One’s highly anticipated Texan experiment is being forgotten. And can you blame… anyone? Sponsors and investors will surely be weighing up the advantages of sitting out for an extra year and holding out for New Jersey in 2013. New Jersey will need to start flexing its muscles early to find the money to set up its temporary circuit – and I mean soon, well before mid-2012. Meanwhile, for months there’s been rumour that the internal management structure in Austin is shaky, and that money isn’t flowing as freely as had been hoped. The dissent from locals has been evident from day one. Management maintains construction is on schedule, but we’ll only know for sure next year.
The risk that Austin is relegated to being the unloved half-brother to New Jersey is one that needs to be addressed. This year, Formula One’s focus in America has been on Austin being the location for racing in the States. No longer can Austin simply claim to be Formula One in America, it now needs to find a new platform with which to promote itself – and it needs to do so fast. While New York and New Jersey can practically promote themselves, Austin needs to work harder to make a name for itself. An impressive economic hub it may be, but as a tourist attraction it pales in comparison.
Despite the promising sounds coming from the Austin camp, and Formula One’s apparent and sudden burst of confidence in itself to crack America, it’s not too late to screw it all up. Again.

 You can follow me on Twitter, if you have nothing better to do: @MichaelLamonato



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