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Tire Protest Deflates Hopes of Formula 1 Racing in U.S.

June 21, 2005|Shav Glick and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

Formula One racing might be all the rage on the streets of Monaco, a hit in cities from Istanbul to Sao Paulo, but a bizarre event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the weekend reaffirmed that Europe's glitzy, upper-crust sport cannot seem to win in a land where NASCAR reigns supreme.

The so-called F1 Fiasco was the talk of the racing world Monday, igniting outrage and finger-pointing among backers of the successful international circuit and Americans who want to see it succeed here. As cars circled the track for their warmup lap in the U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday, 14 of 20 drivers abruptly pulled off in protest over a tire-safety dispute.

A crowd of 150,000 and an international television audience were left to watch six remaining cars buzz around the course for an hour and a half. Fans who remained in the grandstand until the end -- thousands went home -- vented their frustration by throwing debris and booing the eventual winner, superstar Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher called the experience strange. Race officials were furious. "You had a debacle," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago consulting firm. "That's very unfortunate when you're a sport that is trying to break out, as Formula One is trying to do in the United States."

This public relations pratfall served to underscore the differences between Formula One and wildly popular NASCAR.

Formula One cars are low-slung and sleek, widely believed to be the most technologically advanced in all of racing. They speed along winding courses in exotic locales.

NASCAR features modified Fords, Chevrolets and Dodges whose lineage can be traced to the hot rods that bootleggers once drove. They race on ovals in places such as Martinsville, Va., and Talladega, Ala.

On the same day that Formula One allowed a boycott to mar its image, NASCAR was showing an unceasing hunger to market to the public, selling the naming rights to its Michigan race, the Batman Begins 400.

"You have to be culturally relevant," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "The NASCAR product is a little more core to the U.S. fan."

Formula One racing does not face this problem in other parts of the world, where it ranks shoulder to shoulder with soccer in popularity. Crowds flock to events throughout Europe, South America and Asia. Schumacher is among the most recognized of all athletes.

Yet, much like soccer, the international circuit has struggled to gain a foothold in this country since arriving at Sebring, Fla., in 1959. Each year since 2000, when Formula One races were inaugurated at a special winding track on the Indianapolis infield, crowds have steadily declined.

With only one stop on American soil, the sport has been accused of behaving arrogantly, declining to promote itself aggressively and refusing to make its drivers accessible to media and fans.

"I've got to think these guys just don't get it," said Jim Liberatore, the outgoing president of Speed Channel.

Even track officials at Indianapolis have complained. In 2000, Mari Hulman George, the chairman of the board and mother of Speedway President Tony George, tried to enter her private suite for the U.S. Grand Prix and was told she lacked the proper credentials.

"I own this place," she reportedly said. To which a Formula One security guard replied: "Not today you don't."

Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire who owns the rights to the circuit and serves as its controlling figure, did not help matters last week when he mused about Indy car driver Danica Patrick, the rookie who placed fourth in the recent Indianapolis 500.

"She did a good job, didn't she? Super. Didn't think she'd be able to make it like that," Ecclestone told a gathering of reporters. He added: "You know, I've got one of these wonderful ideas that women should all be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

Although that comment might not have endeared him to American fans, the Formula One chief seems to appreciate the potential for marketing his sport in the U.S. and was distraught by what happened Sunday.

"I'm furious with the stupidity," he told British reporters, adding later: "We were just starting to build a great image in the U.S.A. on television and with the fans, and that just went out the window."

The controversy centered on Michelin, which supplied tires to 14 of the 20 entrants. After one driver crashed and another spun out in practice, the company declared that its tires could not withstand the high speeds being driven through Turn 13.

With correspondence flying between Michelin and Formula One officials, the manufacturer asked whether it could send different tires to its drivers. But that would have violated Formula One rules.

In another proposal, Michelin asked whether the speedway might add a chicane, or a tight series of turns, to cut down speeds entering Turn 13. Again, the request was denied.

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