AUSTIN — One fan received tickets for Father’s Day, and one came to see Lewis Hamilton race. Another made the 1,000-mile trip from Georgia to fulfill a lifetime dream.
NASCAR is considered the predominant motorsport in the United States, but this weekend’s race provided a glimpse of why some are convinced that Formula One’s widening reach, spurred by a popular Netflix documentary series that is attracting casual fans, will continue to expand stateside.
“We just turned it on one day, and we just started watching it,” Ohio native Sam George said of the sport, referencing him and his wife. “We just turned it on, and we thought the skill set was amazing, and that was it. We got hooked.”
Sunday’s festivities at the lone U.S. event this year were characteristically Texas.
Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders strolled down the track; the smell of smoked meats wafted through Lonestar Land near Turn 13; and Megan Thee Stallion blared from the Mercedes garage — before the Houston rapper posed for photos by the starting grid before the race.
For a sport that draws large international crowds as it traverses the globe, the 2021 U.S. Grand Prix lured new and old American fans for its first running since 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s event and shortly after Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” began converting professional athletes, casual fans and those apathetic to sports into devotees.
“I’m really a drag-racing guy by heart, but watching on Netflix, really seeing behind the scenes, the skill of the Formula One drivers really kind of cultivated [my interest in] the sport,” said Derek Kennedy, who came from Seattle to attend his first F1 race Sunday after he started watching the series in 2019. “As I followed it on Netflix, I really started tracking the drivers and I wanted to really see them in person, so I made that dream a part of my bucket list.”
Many fans who spoke to The Washington Post cited “Drive to Survive” for either drawing them to the sport or convincing them to attend an event after years following from afar.
George said he and his wife have been “massive” F1 fans for eight years. He noted that “Drive to Survive” eventually split their allegiances, pushing his wife to favor Red Bull Racing, its team principal, Christian Horner, and its top driver, Max Verstappen, while he remains loyal to Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel. Sunday was his first race in person, after their children bought them tickets for Father’s Day, and he is planning to attend more.
“One of the reasons I actually love [Formula One] … is the engineers have to come up with some really creative ways to hold downforce, not just per track [but] in the middle of the races. You may have to change the tires, there’s different strategies, and there’s a lot of thought that goes into it,” George said. “It’s brilliant, and you just don’t get that when you get in a Chevy and turn left.”
They witnessed Verstappen edge Hamilton for first place Sunday, doubling his points lead in the standings as the drivers’ somewhat quarrelsome championship chase nears its conclusion. The racers’ rivalry could be a central theme of the next season of “Drive to Survive,” which was renewed for a fourth season in August.
The show, which has occasionally been accused of overdramatizing the realities that it captures, is seen as a driving force behind Formula One’s growth in the United States among the sport’s leaders, too. While Netflix declined to share the show’s viewership figures, a spokesperson said the series “has grown in popularity over time, with the most recent season attracting the largest audience to date.”
“I think there’s a variety of different contributors,” said John Suchenski, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions. “A lot of people have asked about the Netflix series, and while there’s no way to quantify what audience Netflix brought in, it’s clearly helping.”
ESPN initially aired Formula One between 1984 and 1997. It rekindled that partnership in 2018 as F1 looked to expand American interest in and awareness of the sport and as ESPN sought to replace an expired IndyCar Series partnership.
Since then, the broadcaster has seen a surge in viewership that Suchenski struggles to compare with those in other sports. That trend has continued this season, when F1 races on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 916,000 viewers through the first 15 races, a 51 percent increase over the 2020 season average (608,000).
“We’ve seen a very positive progression over the last four seasons where we’ve been able each year to grow that audience by double digits — particularly this season,” Suchenski said. He added that the U.S. Open tennis tournament saw a similar trajectory before the pandemic. “But to see four consecutive years of double-digit growth, I don’t know if I could single out something that compares to that.”
Suchenski sees other factors, too.
He said he believes ESPN has made the sport more accessible to American fans who have become accustomed to finding races on its platforms on Sundays and, when they do, they’ve increasingly seen more content: more races, more race-day coverage and a Spanish-language offering.
Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali credits both Netflix and ESPN for extending the sport’s reach in the United States, which he considers critical to its growth.
“The U.S. market is crucial for us because being a world platform, we believe the potential for the biggest growth is in the area of the U.S. For sure, [‘Drive to Survive’] has been huge in terms of positive feedback with a younger generation that were not really so interested in sport so much as the narrative of Formula One,” he said.
Formula One has been here before.
Sunday’s race was its ninth in Austin after Circuit of The Americas landed a 10-year contract to host races starting in 2012.
That followed a sometimes rocky eight-year stint in Indianapolis that ended in 2007 with then-F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone casting doubt on the sport’s future in America — despite continued efforts to bring back the U.S. Grand Prix. Previous races were held in Detroit, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Watkins Glen, N.Y., hosted races for nearly 20 years starting in 1961.
Formula One and its U.S.-based owner, Liberty Media, have pushed to ensure the sport has a more lasting place in American culture.
The 2022 Formula One calendar will include a second American event in Miami in May, and Domenicali sees “huge potential” for a third, which reportedly could take place in Las Vegas.
Those developments accompany reports that Michael Andretti, one of auto racing’s most successful drivers and son of 1978 Formula One champion Mario Andretti, is nearing a deal to purchase the Alfa Romeo team and could insert IndyCar star Colton Herta as F1′s only American driver. Formula One currently has one American-owned team, Haas F1, which sits last in the standings.
On Sunday, after fans spilled onto the track for postrace celebrations and before children ran in front of traffic to chase a white SUV carrying star driver Daniel Ricciardo as he departed, drivers said F1′s growth felt more apparent than before.
“It’s been crazy, just away from the circuit, even in the hotel every morning, [fans were] waiting there. I feel like they just never sleep,” said Lando Norris, a McLaren Racing driver from Britain. “I guess ‘Drive to Survive’ has made a massive difference from that aspect. … We had a lot of fans last time, [but] I feel like there’s a lot more now than there were in 2019.”
Said Ricciardo, his Australian-born McLaren teammate: “There’s a few races that I treat like a second home, but this is certainly one of them,” he said, describing Austin as the “busiest it’s ever been” during U.S. Grand Prix weekend. “Just seeing up the hill, just the sea of people in the crowd. It’s one of the cooler ones, so I hope we keep coming back again and again.”
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