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Road Warriors

The Grand Prix racing circuit is one of the world's top sporting events. But is America ready for it?
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

The most technologically advanced racing cars in the world also happen to be the most dangerous. Powerful enough to accelerate to 100 mph from nothing in four seconds and brake from 200 to 100 mph in half that time, Formula 1 cars until recently ran on a compound similar to rocket fuel. Drivers pilot them around serpentine tracks on tires with the consistency of bubble gum while experiencing astronaut-level G-forces. It's no mystery the mortality rate of Formula 1 racers ranks with smoke jumpers and bullfighters.

Perhaps because each race may be their last, the best drivers earn as much as $50 million annually, and they're followed from racetrack to racetrack and continent to continent by some of the world's most beautiful women. Power, danger, money and sex: if the programming geniuses at Fox or NBC could put such testosterone-fueled entertainment opposite CBS's "Survivor," they'd do it in a minute.  

Yet Americans have never really taken to Formula 1. It returns to this country for the first time in nine years on September 24 with the United States Grand Prix, to be held on a road track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the rest of the world, only soccer's World Cup and the Olympics are more popular; according to the Swiss-based Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the sport's governing body, an average audience of 500 million watches each of the season's 17 races. Television coverage is available in more than 200 countries.  

Those are impressive numbers, but irrelevant to Americans, who seem to delight in ignoring the athletic passions of the rest of the world. In no other arena are Americans so parochial. Pluck a frat boy and his microbrew from the ESPN Zone and set him down in a London flat with a TV remote, and see how long it takes for his face to contort like a bad beer commercial. Snooker? Cricket? Darts?  

While the rest of the world is fixated on Formula 1, we're watching stock car racing. With its roots in the law-evading escapades of bootleggers racing through the Carolina mountains, you'd expect the NASCAR circuit to be far more exciting and romantic than it actually is. Tweaked-up engines are fitted with the husks of Plymouths, Fords and Chevrolets, and drivers careen around oval tracks locked in an endless left turn. The draw is that the cars are theoretically street-legal, something you could perhaps put together with enough cash and free weekends. But any resemblance to a vehicle you might actually be driving would be purely ornamental.  

In Formula 1, drivers must change gears on their multimillion-dollar machines more than 100 times a lap on some circuits, and the high-tech command center inside each team's pit resembles a NORAD base. While NASCAR teams hand-time their cars with stopwatches from press-box level, Formula 1 uses a fiber-optic system of radio transmitters run by prestigious Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer to instantaneously transmit information to race officials and television viewers. Cars emanating impulses on assigned frequencies pass over sensors embedded in the track, enabling monitors to chart the progress of each driver. Television cameras can automatically find a car simply by having a producer punch its number into a computer. This is sport at its technological apex.  

It sounds like the latest development out of Silicon Valley, but Formula 1 is nothing if not European. The heart of the sport beats in the British design studios of performance car manufacturers, while its soul lingers on the Ferrari testing track in Fiorano, Italy. The quintessential F1 event is the Grand Prix of Monaco, with cars speeding through the narrow streets of the principality as European royalty looks on. For years, F1 cars bore the national colors of their manufacturers: Italian red, French blue, British racing green.  

Formula 1's seminal images involve the sleek, cigar-shaped, incredibly dangerous vehicles of the 1950s and '60s, with open engines and airfoils that could have been lifted from Fokker triplanes. Their oval grills grinning out at the world like wildcats, they were piloted by heroes with names like Stirling and Jackie, Juan Manuel and Jochen.  

It's nothing like that anymore, of course. A Grand Prix race, held anywhere from Japan to Argentina, brings the roar of hundreds of thousands of horsepower, the neon flash of 180-mph cars disguised as billboards, the flashbulbs incessantly popping at celebrities, the rows of staggeringly beautiful women specially outfitted in tight skirts or bodysuits for the occasion by one or another of the competing cigarette companies, six of which have Formula 1 title sponsorships.  

Here in Montreal in mid-June, for example, George Harrison is blowing air kisses at aging Beatles fans while congratulating Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Michael Schumacher for winning a pole position. Paul Newman sits idly by, gawked at by a row of Marlboro's blondes. Not far away, a downtown strip bar attempts to lure customers inside with the tape-recorded roar of a Formula 1 engine emanating from a miniature race car parked in the street. "Sex and cars, they go well together," the doorman will be quoted saying in the newspaper the next morning.  

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