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.