Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Star Spangled Grand Prix



There is nearly as much geography as there is history in the
chequered saga of the United States Grand Prix. The 2012 event in
Austin, Texas, will be the 52nd world championship race held in
the land of the free and the home of the brave. The Circuit of the
Americas in the Lone Star State is the 10th different venue since
the international series first appeared in the USA, in 1959. Over
the years the F1 circus has traipsed all over the Stateside map... 

The first venue, a run around a windblown airfield in Florida , was
followed by an excursion throught a dusty field of dreams in suburban
California. Then came a ramble through the rolling hills of rural
New York state, a voyage around a beached ocean liner in the
urban blight of a then decaying West Coast city and a deadend
foray onto the parking lot of a decadent Nevada gambling casino.
The next moves included a blunder into a traffic jam in
the concrete canyons of a Michigan metropolis, a wild western
detour into the Texas panhandle and a wrong turn onto the
deserted streets of what appeared to be a ghost town in the
middle of the parched Arizona desert. The most recent travail, at
an enormous cement bowl in the heart of Middle America, fizzled
out with the world's most expensive sport having again failed to gain
a permanent foothold in one of the world's richest countries.

F1 in the USA has often seemed a clash of cultures. A long
tradition of verbal sparring between the European and American
media began when snobbish scribes from abroad observed that
'American racing crowds have little dress sense.' At Watkins Glen
F1 visitors were dismayed by the flamboyant manoeuvers of the
lavender-suited, cigar-smoking, official starter who tended to
leap high in the air and contort himself while performing his
flag waving duties. Sniffed one snooty English journalist: 'His
antics suggest that he has a natural flair for ballet...I suggest
he confine himself to that medium. There is no place for such
buffoonery on the grid of a World Championship Grand Prix.'

In later years most race reports from 'The Glen' featured the
box score from the notorious 'Bog', a swampy area opposite the
pits where drunken fans tended to run amok and burn vehicles (the
destruction record, set in 1973, was nine cars and three buses).
At Long Beach the fat women's blue-rinsed hairdos and rhinestone-
festooned glasses were deemed noteworthy of derision and Las
Vegas was described by one British writer as 'the anal rectumus
of the civilized world as we know it.' 

In Detroit the hope that some of the imported European glamour
and sophistication would revitalize the inner city's urban blight
was sabotaged by those in the F1 press corps who dubbed the race
'The Murder City Grand Prix' and suggested that sounds of gunfire
might drown out the engine noise. The Detroit press shot back by
questioning the manliness of 'The Prix' (pronounced 'The Pricks')
regulars, suggesting they preferred dainty cucumber sandwiches to
three quarter pound whopper hamburgers, and speculating that any
red-blooded all-American boy in a souped-up Camaro could go
faster in a parking lot - in reverse - than the average speed attained
by the 'funny little furrin cars' putt-putting around the streets of the
Motor City.

In Arizona, where hordes of disinterested Phoenicians completely
ignored the Grand Prix (about 15,000 spectators was the norm, a
smaller crowd than that attending a nearby Ostrich race), the
local media ridiculed the foreign circus performers, including
the ringmaster. "Americans are really very provincial people,"
Bernie Ecclestone had said. "They think that America is the end
of the world and that's it." One newspaper columnist (after being
tossed out of the pits for not having the proper credentials)
wrote of being insulted by Ecclestone's complaint about the lack
of promotion and media coverage. In a piece entitled 'Officials
Whine Above Engines' the cynical scribe went on to disparage F1
and its leading players and was unable to differentiate between
'Alain Senna and Ayrton Proust.' (Perhaps, the F1 fraternity said, he
was confused by the Phoenix press kit which contained phonetic
solutions to the puzzle of pronouncing the drivers' names: 'Pee
air On ree Raf an el, Ny jil Man sil, Ma kay lay Al bor eh toe').
Anyway, the jaundiced journalist didn't really care and finished
up by comparing F1 unfavourably to the normal Phoenix traffic:
'You can see a better race between the curb cruisers along
Central Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights.' 

F1 wrongly assumed it would find salvation at America's shrine of
speed, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the annual Indy
500 - 'the world's greatest sporting event'. Here, Bernie
Ecclestone predicted, F1 would put on a real show, unlike the
500, which is "490 miles of yellow flags followed by a 10-lap
sprint. Stop-go is the way Americans like it," Bernie claimed,
"We don't. We sit down for a one and a half hour Grand Prix race.
The Americans keep wanting breaks to get a hamburger or make a
phone call. That's the way they are."

But the series that likes to call itself 'the pinnacle of motorsport'
seemed an absurd mountain-out-of-a-molehill exaggeration to most
Americans, especially after a disgraceful exhibition in 2005, when
only six F1 cars took the start at Indy after the seven teams using Michelin
tyres withdrew following the warmup lap for so-called safety reasons.

Now, with the sport more eager than ever to cash in on the huge
US consumer market, F1 must hope that at Austin in the Lone Star
State the Americans will buy its product along with their hamburgers. 

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