Landing Spot in America Is Elusive for Formula One

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FORMULA ONE racing, the most sophisticated and expensive of all motor sports, but one that has had only mixed success in the United States, returns to this country in two weeks after a five-year absence.

The series, which awards the World Drivers and Constructors championships, has struggled to find a permanent home in the United States. There are several reasons for this, but a principal one has been lack of a suitable circuit in a good-sized metropolitan area.

That part of the problem may be solved by the Circuit of the Americas, a new 3.4-mile, 20-turn course outside Austin, the Texas state capital. . On Nov. 18 the track will host the next-to-last race of the season -- quite possibly the race where the tight 2012 championship will be decided.

The failure of the Formula One series to settle into a permanent home for its stop in the United States is not a result of indifference to auto racing here. There are at least a dozen varieties of motor sports extant in the United States, some of them having been contested for more than a century.

According to the National Speedway Directory, there are more than 1,300 racing facilities in the country, with events for vehicles of all descriptions.

The Austin track has a 10-year contract to stage a Formula One race, and its investors hope to make a small, but nevertheless permanent, dent in a part of the country dominated by Nascar.

In addition to Austin, there are plans for a second championship event in the United States starting in 2014. Called the Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial, it is to be held on a 3.2-mile street circuit straddling the New Jersey cities of Weehawken and West New York, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Originally scheduled for June 2013, the race was postponed for what promoters called "ongoing construction issues."

When the international drivers championship was inaugurated in 1950, it was unlikely that many Americans took note. At the time, racing in the United States was almost exclusively limited to oval tracks, and what transpired in Europe was of little interest. Formula One -- the name of the regulations that governed the championship, from the French Formule Un, in the official language of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile -- was a term known to hardly anyone in this country.

In that first season, five years after World War II ended, it was a European-oriented series of six well-established races and the Indianapolis 500, which ran under different rules but was included in the points calculation to give some credence to the title. (Indianapolis proved to be a sort of motorized asterisk; in the 11 years its results counted, only one European driver took part and did not score a point.)

The circuits present at the beginning were in Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Monaco. That might have made the new series international, but its world covered, in real terms, little more than the roughly 700 miles from London to Milan.

Now in its seventh decade, the championship has graduated to a 20-race season that includes stops in Abu Dhabi, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and eight races in Europe.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to find a permanent home in the United States. Sebring, Fla., was the first in 1959, and after that came Riverside, Calif., and then Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The Watkins Glen setting was much loved by drivers, teams and spectators, but it was not a financial success. And it was not a favorite of the man who has controlled the sport as head of the Formula One Constructors Association, Bernard Ecclestone.

Watkins Glen declared bankruptcy after the 1980 season, and for the last three decades Formula One racing has wandered the country, some years with two events, some with none. There have been races in Long Beach, Calif.; Detroit; Dallas; and Phoenix, and even the parking lot of a Las Vegas casino.

The race eventually landed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2000, where a cramped road circuit that used a portion of the Speedway oval was created along with pit and garage improvements. The event remained there for seven years, in an increasingly acrimonious -- and financially unsuccessful -- atmosphere. At Indianapolis, the Formula One race was only the third-biggest event at the track, behind the annual 500-mile race and Nascar's 400-mile stock car event.

The 2007 race was the last one in the United States until now.

The principal elements of the Austin complex are done -- the circuit, the grandstands, the garage area and the pits. The expected crowd of 120,000, according to the promoters, may find it somewhat dusty, and the access roads are reported to be inadequate, but some grass and additional asphalt can cure this. The Austin investors, who include B. J. McCombs, the former San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Vikings owner, have 10 years to plant and pave. 

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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