My original column was going to be about luck. I was about to hit Send when I received two e-mails from the media center of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway regarding the exodus of Formula One from the US. As luck would have it, I think the USGP makes a better topic this month. IMS head honcho, Tony George, went before the microphones at a press conference to explain the breakdown of negotiations with Bernie Ecclestone. I've edited the transcript and inserted a few observations.
Tony George: To my great disappointment, Formula One will not be back in 2008. Bernie and I had several discussions that led us to this decision, but we did agree it was prudent to leave the door open for the future.
Tony's 'never say never' attitude is just him displaying good Midwestern manners. F1 may come back, but probably after Ecclestone has exited the scene.
Q: There is precedent for Bernie to not agree to a contract now, then suddenly add an event to the schedule later in the year. Is there a chance a USGP could still happen in 2008 here, or somewhere else in the country?
TG: I wouldn't have any insight as to whether there will be another round scheduled in the US in 2008. I don't believe there will be, but that would be something arrived at without my being involved.
The IMS was perfect for F1, no other circuit in the country would be silly enough to spend the money Ecclestone demands for upgrades. The IMS makes money on the 500 and NASCAR, so it can afford to have a 'playtime' race. American courts would most likely show Ecclestone what 'costs' really are if he tried to pull one over on the IMS. No one wants another Phoenix or Las Vegas parking lot race.
Q: How far off were the two sides on negotiations? And was the city of Indianapolis willing to offer assistance to bring it back here?
TG: There was no discussion to what financial contributions the city of Indianapolis might bring. Clearly it's a business decision, one we have to consider as an event, and one Bernie has to consider as part of (F1's) business. Money is a factor. There are a number of things I believe need to happen for it to be viable. One, the promoter-in this case Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Formula One-has to provide leadership and a working relationship that includes a national broadcast partner, a title sponsor that will actively embrace and support the event, along with a number of other things. Those are important things that really have been lacking.
We've seen this act before, a sports franchise bleeds a city dry getting a new stadium and tax breaks. In this case, the IMS won't pay up and George is correct that the city won't bother. After the inaugural event, interest in the USGP fell off dramatically, no title sponsor and poor coverage were not the fault of the IMS but of Formula One Management (FOM) and the FIA. Their elitist act may work in other parts of the world, but failed miserably here.
Q: The manufacturers-Honda, Mercedes, Toyota-they really value being in the US. It seems like (Autosport Formula One writer) Nigel Roebuck and his colleagues were hopeful Ecclestone would want to be your partner in this race. Was there any kind of discussion in this?
TG: There was some discussion. In the end, it's not what he was wanting to do. I think the manufacturers are another key element to achieving success. There are six engine manufacturers, five of which see the US as fairly important to their business. It's just a matter of all the elements coming together and being able to support and sustain an event here. In the US, Formula One is not perceived the same way it is around the world-in central Europe, eastern Europe and Asia. But I think the future will depend on recognizing the fact that the US is a bit different, and we're going to have to figure out how to make it work.
F1 likes to say it is manufacturer-oriented. Only Ferrari is recognized as a self-contained entity. The rest are suppliers and F1, more than anything else, is a drivers' championship. F1 will only appeal to a small segment in the US because of the lack of American involvement. Now, if Jeff Gordon was to... nah, he makes enough money already.
TG: What we've seen here the last few years is the core of Formula One fans. I think you could throw a lot at them, they're resilient. The challenge is building on that. We started in 2000 with a successful event. Since then we have been faced with a number of hurdles, which contributed to our inability to get the kind of traction we had hoped. One of the challenges of creating new fans is creating awareness with a consistent, national broadcast exposure. Speed has done a great job, and we've had network coverage from year to year. But when you consider Formula One as a world championship, then you want consistent coverage just like any sport. It's important in the future that if we have it, it comes back with a committed title sponsor.
Most agree attendance was between 100,000 to 140,000. Huge by other tracks' standards, not for the IMS. Many came up from the South America when Montoya was running, Canadians for Villeneuve, and lots of Schumacher fans. This year saw a drop-off that can be traced to those camps. One IMS staffer told me that, considering the size of the US, the few natives who make the journey for what should be a big deal doesn't justify the time and expense.
The debacles here simply made F1 look like a joke and left many wondering: why do they come across as so self-important? Ecclestone's rap on how F1 does not need the US was hollow and unconvincing. He will sign up another country that hasn't banned tobacco advertising and justify it as going where they are welcome. F1 was welcomed here, but not at the expense of Tony George and the dignity and integrity of the IMS.