Formula 1 and the United States have had a tumultuous relationship. I was one of around 100,000 people that got caught in the middle in 2005, when safety concerns led to one of the most memorable races of the modern era – as the race went on with only 6 cars on the historic track. But this story starts before all that, around 2001, when my father and I first started watching these amazing cars, and got hooked on the circus that is Formula 1.
Having essentially been born at a drag strip and living in Texas, NHRA drag racing and NASCAR made up the bulk of my racing consciousness. Sure there was an occasional Indy or Cart race on the screen, but John Force, Kenny Bernstein, and Dale Earnhardt occupied our minds and my walls throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
Around 2001, our interest in NASCAR began to wane as the cars grew into amorphous blobs and the drivers into sponsor-quoting robots. Sheer curiosity led us into checking out Formula 1 racing on Speedvision, and over the weekends a passion for the sport developed as we came to realize the complexity of the cars, the relationships between rival teams and drivers, and the stunning ability it took to create and pilot such magnificent machines.
Of course, this was during the reign of the great red force known as Schumacher, so I quickly favored the black and silver McLarens with their lightning quick pace, maddening fragility, and stone-faced Finn Kimi Raikonnen (who remains my favorite on the grid).
Fast forward to 2005. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, the time seemed right to gather a few friends and road trip to Indy to see, and hear, the spectacle in person. We piled into the car in the wee hours of the morning and drove straight through to Indiana, arriving on Saturday before the race on Sunday. Our Sunday-only tickets ran $95 (a steal in terms of F1 races I’m told), and granted us seats in the historic covered grandstands in Indy’s turn 1, and the infamous F1 turn 13.
We arrived early and were treated to a brief Porsche Cup race that whet our appetite for the aural assault that was to come. Soon, 20,000 RPM V10s roared through the cavernous front straight between the pit building and bleachers, an ear-splitting scream while only at idle. One by one the drivers left from the pit lane on reconnaissance laps and released the full fury of the 3.0 liter beasts. Our videos from the day are littered with maniacal laughter as Schumacher, Montoya, Trulli, Alonso and the rest flowed by on their way to the grid.
The atmosphere was calm but anxious as our section waited breathlessly for the clock to tick down and the final preparations to end. From our perspective (just past the pit entrance) it was nearly impossible to see what was taking place on the grid. Soon the teams cleared away and the cars began the formation lap. Cheers rang out and air horns blew, and before we knew it the cars were rounding the last corner from the infield just up the track from us. Then it happened.
Wait – where are they going?
It’s kind of funny in retrospect. This was a mere 5 years ago, yet none of us had any idea what was happening as all but 6 cars pulled into the garages and closed the doors. There was no Facebook. No Twitter. My phone could only call or send a text, so I called my dad (during the long breaks between each car) and learned about the Michelin runners’ protest.
The atmosphere at the track, which had been a bit subdued from the start, now turned extremely sour. People around us booed as the cars drove by, and began to file out in disgust. Who was responsible for this? Couldn’t the track have been changed? Surely something could have been done to prevent such an absolute debacle?
We spent the remainder of the race roaming the front straight, spending several laps standing at the fence as Michael and Reubens paraded by, taking note that the Ferraris could be identified purely on the much sharper, clearer note of their exhaust compared to the Jordan and Minardi entries.
We made our way to the section opposite the podium for the post-race charade of trophy presentation, and booed like mad when Tiago Monteiro sprayed the champagne in celebration of a hollow third in a miserable car. Then we left, wondering just exactly what was going through the minds of the organizers when they decided to let something like this happen.
Integrity is key
In the end, the steps taken by both the teams and the FIA are a perfect portrayal of what makes this a sport I dearly love. Changing the track based on problems that one tire manufacturer had would have completely undermined the integrity of the series, as, in the end, Bridgestone came prepared to compete while their rival did not.
In the years since, I’ve come to appreciate this day for several reasons. First, it’s not every college road trip you see an event with ramifications spanning the globe that will likely never happen again – even if it did make for a crappy day at the racetrack.
The other realization has come while watching other series. The commitment to the integrity of the sport shown that day is something not seen elsewhere. NASCAR and NHRA have trampled over their respective histories in recent years with complicated points resets and bizarre rules packages to manufacture drama. While F1 certainly has made changes to better the show, it remains a true world championship where the best in the world can show their strengths through innovation and perseverance.
A chance to start over
In 2010, the announcement came out that a new, purpose-built track for F1 was coming to America. The news was only sweetened by the fact it was coming to Austin, mere hours down the interstate from home. Circuit of the Americas represents a completely new level of commitment to the sport in this country, and for many of us who were there in 2005, a chance to start anew.
In an hour or so my trip back to the F1 world begins. I fully expect the logistics around the track to be a nightmare, the nightlife on 6th Street to be electric, and the racing to be fantastic. Let’s try this again, F1, and let the past be just that.
Check back next week (after I recover) for part 2..