F1 – How Can Austin Succeed Where Indy Failed

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh recently made his feelings known about the return of the USGP to Austin, Texas in a phone interview with Autosport. His most poignant statement was “I think Formula 1 is used to being poured into markets that want us badly there…. North America frankly doesn’t need Formula 1, so I think it’s for us to go and prove to North America that this is an interesting sport and spectacle and something that it’s worthwhile them taking an interest in.”

The US is a stick and ball centric society and the only auto racing that gets universally mentioned in mass media is stock cars. Further, we tend to not care about what the rest of the world cares about (soccer for instance). But the only thing Martin came up with in his phone interview to gain traction in the US market was: “Maybe it’s more than one race, maybe it’s two different venues, but I think the teams have got to commit to sending cars over there; perhaps a cavalcade of cars through Times Square or Sunset Boulevard. We have to go to America and market ourselves.”

His idea of parading the cars through New York or LA is a bit silly to me. First and foremost, the event must be a success in Texas for the event itself to gain traction. Then F1 can build on that event to market themselves throughout the States. So how do you make an Austin GP a success? Martin said it best, “We have to go to America and market ourselves.”

First, run a whole heapload of promotion through your manufacturer and sponsor partners in and around Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston in the months leading up to the first event. In the end, it is the sponsors and manufacturers who have continually urged the teams and FOM to get back in the states, so use their interest to aggressively market the GP at the car dealerships and supermarkets where their products are sold. As one who lived in the Indy market for the duration of the USGP’s run there, I can attest that this was not done.

Second, take a realistic view of the local media. Media credentials for F1 are expensive and difficult to get your hands on. For local newspapers, television stations and radio stations, this will be cost prohibitive. FOM should go out of their way to get media credentials into the hands of every major TV station, radio station and newspaper throughout the region and give them great access to the teams and drivers as well as allow them to do reporting from inside the track. That was one huge complaint from the Indianapolis media who had always been welcomed with open arms at IMS to cover the 500 and the Brickyard. Throughout May, they would all be doing live broadcasts from the track. Race morning they would set up and do their morning news from the track and do traffic updates and lot availability updates. But when F1 came to town they were shut out. The first year they set up across the street from the Speedway and the next year they didn’t bother (even though the first year was a huge success with 190,000 in attendance). F1 was just turning away free marketing through the local media.

But one hurdle that F1 faces in the US market is their positioning as an exclusive playground of the rich and famous. That does not sit all that well with the US consumer, nor did it sit well with Toyota who recently justified their departure from F1 saying that they wanted to be involved in much more accessible forms of racing.

Many will argue against the infield course at Indy, but we have far worse circuits on the F1 calendar. Hungary? Bahrain? China? Throw in to the equation that Indy is iconic and world renowned. Indianapolis is a larger city than Austin and has a long history of motorsport and a built in fan base that would ravenously buy tickets for anything at the Brickyard. If F1 fizzled and failed in that environment here in the states, then I think that FOM, FOTA and Austin have their work cut out for them.

Of course, one of the best things that F1 can do to gain traction in Austin and the US is make sure more than 6 cars start the first race. Oh, and also, it would be wise to make sure that Austin does not turn into another Donnington debacle orchestrated by Bernie.

7 comments

  • You’re dead on the money regarding local media. Without them, and without local promotion, the event will fail.

    Is Austin the right market, though? I’m not convinced that Austinites want or need the F1 circus coming to their town. They’re annoyed enough by the SxSW folk. If they wanted a new facility then one near NY or LA would have been more appropriate. A spot somewhere between LA and San Diego would have been ideal.

    Personally, I think the Austin deal will turn out similar to the Donnington affair, although the Austin track will actually get finished. It won’t be finished in time, however, and it will be relegated to a club-racing track or a new IndyCar event in 2013-15. I will be surprised if we see a single F1 race there.

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  • Austin has several things that indianapolis never had. Honest opinion by many – Indianapolis is a very boring city. Besides the track you have nothing there. Plus you do not have the concentration of population as you do in Austin. Lots of arguement about the course there compared to a dedicated track in Austin, lack of proper marketing, all mattered regarding ending of F1 there. Yes there are many auto fans there but most enjoy oval car racing over F1. So those that came were more of a curiosity seekers. Austin will draw a large south american audience, and Bernie is guaranteed to be paid his fee every year through state event funding. Bottom line, this is a business and Bernie won’t let is sit in a place where he is not making $ ultimately we will see but chances of success are much higher in Austin imo. Whatever happens, hope makes the sport better in the country. Plus the track may be used for various motorcycle racing, which is huge there and will bring additional revenue to the owners. And that is te bottom line. Revenue.

  • Watcher,

    Nothing in Indy? Colts, Pacers, fantastic downtown, NCAA Final Four every 4 years, world class convention center, world class airport, 190,000 at the first USGP, 90,000 at the last USGP, 350,000+ at every Indy 500, 200,000+ at every Brickyard. Certainly Indy isn’t NY, Chicago or LA, but then again, Austin isn’t either.

    The concentration of population is an interesting argument. Here is the best breakdown I could come up with. Yes, there is a greater concentration of people located within 3.5 hours from Austin, but of those 6.7 million, how many will come to see a race. 190,000? Probably not. 90,000? Maybe, but probably not.

    Indy – 798,000
    Chicago – 2,850,000 – 3 hours
    Columbus – 755,000 – 3 hours
    Cincinnati – 334,000 – 2 hours
    Lousiville – 557,000 – 2 hours
    Lexington – 282,000- 2 hours
    Ft. Wayne – 252,000 – 2 hours
    Total – 5.83+ million within 3 hours

    Austin – 758,000
    Dallas – 1,280,000 – 3.5 hours
    Ft. Worth – 703,000 – 3.5 hours
    Arlington – 374,000 – 3.5 hours
    Houston – 2,240,000 – 3 hours
    San Antonio – 1,350,000 – 2 hours
    Total – 6.7+ million within 3.5 hours

    We will have to see how the major event funding works. I find it difficult to believe that any state could justify spending 25 million per year on an event like this.

    Lack of proper marketing is a bad argument that Bernie came up with. The attendance to the races doesn’t lie. Precious few of the F1 races on the calendar now can top 90,000 and none of them can top 190,000. That is raceday attendance, not a weekend total. Yes, there was a lot of empty seats, but when you have 257,000 seats, its hard to make an F1 size crowd look big. Bernie just couldn’t get over the fact that he was the lesser of the 3 races held at that facility.

    Yes, the chances of long term success in Austin are very high if the state coughs up 25 million every year. As you said, it is about the revenue. IMS started to lose money on F1 races due to lower attendance and Bernie wanted a higher sanction fee so IMS didn’t invite Bernie back. I certainly hope Austin is a success and will probably come down for the race if they get it off the ground, but I can’t help but wonder if we are en route to another Donnington debacle.

  • Mike,

    You are spot on. People can say what they want but in today’s world the only place for an F1 race in the US that has any shot at long term success is Indy. This ridiculous argument about LA or NY is beyond belief. NY couldn’t give a rats arse about anything to do with racing. Cars to them are those yellow things that take you from you townhouse to the theater. Or maybe those really long things that you show up to clubs in. NY is just about the last place on earth F1 could attract a crowd. LA might for a couple of years but my guess is that it would soon be a Long Beach size crowd and in this country that ain’t enough to pay Bernie with.

    Besides it being unprofitable for IMS I suspect the other reason for it’s failure at Indy is jut as you said. Bernie couldn’t stand playing 3rd string. But did the dumb arse really think he was going to outdraw The 500? I suppose he probably did. His arrogance seems to know no bounds.

    For sentimental reasons I know many of us would like to see The Glenn or RA but besides major reconstruction issues to meet FIA F1 standards both are too far out in the boonies for most of the crowd. As I understand it Indy was good enough for the fans but I had heard that the Paddock crowd was helicoptering in from Chicago because there was nothing silky enough for their tender arses in Indy. Where are these people going to stay in Austin? Or will they fly in and out of Dallas everyday?

    As for attracting a Latin American crowd. That’s about as dumb a statement as any on this subject. The Latin Americans that came for the race sure as hell didn’t drive in. So I don’t see how cutting out an hour or so from their flight times is going to make them more likely to show up in Austin. Austin is a nice town but, it’s nothing special and it certainly doesn’t have anything over Indy for a race crowd.

    And Hey Watcher,
    What the hell else are you dong in town besides going to the race? Taking in a show? Going to the zoo? First of all Indy has EVERYTHING Austin has except oddly enough a very liberal core population. Boring City? Pull up your collar your prejudice is showing. You noted that the locals in Austin seem to be perturbed by the country music festival. Institutional Liberals in this country generally do not like racing and I don’t see the locals embracing this race anymore than the country music festival.

    I think this one is DOA and if it does manage to squeak out an initial race my guess is that the whole deal goes belly up before race 3.

  • There are more F1 fans in NY that you’d think. Certainly the general population there couldn’t give two spits for a race, which is why a street race there would never fly. Although, the Monticello Motor Club speculation was interesting, but there was no way that enough funds could be brought to bear to make a GP there a reality. It was close enough to NY to offer the “Paddock crowd” all the swank hotels they could want, yet far enough out for ingress and egress to be less of a logistical nightmare than a street race. I still think that between SD and LA, all other things being equal, would have been the best place for a new facility. Huge car culture, lots of money, great weather. All the ingredients are there except a track and government funding.

    As we’ve seen throughout the world, the new GPs are government funded events. The proposed Austin event follows that trend, which is why I suspect it got the official nod from Bernie. Only a government is willing to throw millions down the drain on a failing event (Turkey) year after year, and I’m a bit annoyed that Texas seems to be willing to follow this doomed path. …but I’m getting dangerously close to politics, so I’ll back off.

  • Great article, with great points.
    I like, trying to, not make F1 about the rich.
    I think if you look at where most F1 races are ran, our middle class, would be considered, well off.
    Two things I would disagree with.
    The Mexican people, (as in, people from Mexico) will come in great numbers. To say, it is only another hour from Mexico to Indy, is not acurate. While there are many direct, cheap flights into Austin and San Antonio. They drive to San Antonio, by the thousands, for Easter, and the sales tax holiday. I am sure they will come for F1.
    Second, I have been to Indy,anyone saying Indy has as much to offer as Austin, has not been to Austin.
    Great resorts in the hill country. Great golf.6th street. San Antonio,( not 2 hours away. more like 1.25), has great resort hotels, TPC golf corse, Alamo, The Riverwalk, The Mission Trail,Sea World, and has also hosted the final four, nba alstar game , and has an NBA team, with 4 championships. (sorry Pacer fans had to throw that in). But most importantly, Texas is full of RACE fans. We are not exclusive anything, we love racing. If you got two of em, thats a race.
    I know Tavo Hellmund, and can tell you first hand. He has spent alot of time, working on this deal. I think he can pull it off. Just wish people would show more support, because I know people bashing his efforts, are nit trying to bring F1, to the U S.