Will 'Rush' Turn Grand Prix Racing Into America's New NASCAR?

Circuit of The Americas - H 2013
Circuit of The Americas

Circuit of The Americas - H 2013

Austin's $450 million Circuit of the Americas -- the U.S.'s first purpose-built Formula One racetrack -- is banking on the sport broadening its appeal in the U.S. NBC says Grand Prix racing is "very attractive" programing.

Ron Howard's Rush focuses on one of auto racing's most heated rivalries — the battle between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1976 world championship season. As they did in the 1970s, today's F1 drivers go wheel-to-wheel on a global stage — in one race season, some 20 Grand Prix events take place on different tracks around the globe. This year the host countries include Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, India, Italy, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S.

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But for the last three decades, F1 hasn't had a permanent home in the United States. Grand Prix's most legendary circuits — Italy's Monza, Britain's Silverstone, the chicanes of Monaco — come to mind, not the streets of Long Beach or Detroit, among the cities that temporarily hosted F1 races in the U.S.

The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, could change that. The $450 million, 3.4-mile facility, the first purpose-built F1 track in the United States, hosted its premiere Grand Prix in November, ending a five-year F1 racing hiatus in America (and the track's drama-laden construction). Among the 265,000 in attendance were Howard, George Lucas, Luke WilsonOwen Wilson, Matt LeBlanc, Rupert Grint and Patrick Dempsey.

Despite the celebrity embrace, the apparent wide interest in Rush, and a state-of-the-art facility, the question remains: Can F1 gain traction in NASCAR-obsessed America?

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"There’s a pent-up demand for F1,” insists Steve Sexton, Circuit of the Americas' president and CEO. Sexton says NASCAR and F1 attract completely different demographics and that the average annual household income of F1 fans is $100,000. “There’s not a huge overlap with NASCAR," he says. At last year’s Grand Prix in Austin, says Sexton, 60 percent of the ticket sales came from outside Texas and 20 percent from overseas, causal evidence of F1's more cosmopolitan audience.

Still, crossover from NASCAR's audience would bolster F1's future. "Our goal is to educate fans," says Sexton. "F1 race cars are like airplanes on wheels — they go from zero to 100 miles per hour in five seconds."

In a nod to Grand Prix's broadening appeal, NBC recently signed a four-year contract to broadcast Formula One in the United States. NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network president of programming Jon Miller says F1 is a “very attractive property” for the network. NBC's live broadcast of the Monaco Grand Prix in May was the most watched F1 race in the U.S. in six years, says Miller, despite starting at 7 a.m. ET.

 Not to mention, he adds, that "F1 attracts affluent, passionate viewers."