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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Formula One in America

by Gordon Kirby
The Senna movie opens here in the United States at the end of this week and I highly recommend it. After enjoying a preview a few days before the Indy 500 I took a brief look at the movie in this space on June 5th ( #288 ).

The movie provides a clear look at Senna, exploring his rare talent and rather imperious ways, but it also gives an inside view of Formula One as it was in the eighties and nineties. More than anything it presents a fine portrait of a compelling and intriguing personality who was as committed to his work as any great driver has ever been.

The Senna movie will give Formula One a little mainstream media exposure in America and also provide Tavo Hellmund with some help in re-launching F1 in the United States. Over the last twenty years F1 has stumbled through a couple of stop-starts in America, first in the streets of Phoenix, then at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and we hope Hellmund's Circuit of the Americas in Austin will establish itself as a permanent home for the United States GP.

In my humble opinion F1's team owners should set their minds to making sure Austin is successful rather than distracting themselves dreaming about additional USGPs in New York, New Jersey or Southern California. Time and again over the years I've listened to F1 team owners or engine manufacturers go on about how they must race in New York City or LA and when I try to explain to them the many hurdles to achieving such a dream their minds immediately stray to other matters.

But anyone who's familiar with the politics, culture and cost of doing business in those places surely will have chuckled at Bernie Ecclestone's latest proferring of an F1 race in Jersey City. As New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg is alleged to have remarked to Ecclestone a year or two ago: "We'd love to have F1 in New York. How much will you pay us?"

© Paul Webb
Dare I suggest to the F1 team owners that they educate themselves about the political lessons the powerful International Speedway Corporation learned a few years ago when it bought a large tract of land on Staten Island, intending to build a NASCAR superspeedway. But ISC was forced to give up on the idea after having their tails well and truly beaten by both the politicians and citizens of New Jersey.

Meanwhile, if F1's return to the US at the Circuit of the Americas is to be truly successful we need an American star. The essence of any international sport like F1 is having domestic talent to cheer for. It's clearly evident in all worldwide sports and to recall the draw of the homegrown hero you only have to look back to the huge crowds at Watkins Glen for the United States GPs through the sixties and seventies when Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti were world championship contenders.

Of course the sixties and seventies were a remarkably rich time for Americans in F1. In addition to Hill, Gurney and Andretti we also had guys like Richie Ginther and Peter Revson to cheer for. Both Ginther and Revson won Grand Prix races and it shouldn't be forgotten that Ginther finished second in the 1962 World Championship, driving for BRM. Masten Gregory, Jim Hall and Bob Bondurant also raced F1 cars in the sixties while Roger Penske, Walt Hansgen and Tim Mayer were among those who ran their own cars in occasional early sixties F1 races at the Glen.

As we all know Phil Hill won the 1961 world title with Ferrari as well as scoring three Le Mans 24 Hour wins (all with Belgian Olivier Gendebien) aboard factory Ferraris between 1958-'62. In the September issue of Road & Track Sam Posey has written an excellent story about Hill's remarkable career, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his world championship, and it's well worth the read.

During the same era Dan Gurney was also a top competitors in both F1 and world sports car championship races. He was a lead driver with the Cobra and Ford teams and won Le Mans in 1967 of course with A.J. Foyt. At the same time Dan world championship F1 races with Porsche, Brabham and then his own Eagles as All American Racers fielded an F1 team from 1966-'68. Dan scored a legendary victory at Spa in 1967 before Goodyear withdrew its sponsorship in favor of focusing on Indy car racing and the Indy 500.

Among his many achievements Gurney stands with Jimmy Murphy as the only two Americans to win a Grand Prix race driving American cars. Dan did it with his own AAR Eagle-Weslake V12 and Murphy famously won the 1921 French GP driving one of three factory Duesenbergs. Those were the days!

Looking back, it's clear these were epic achievements, unlikely ever to be repeated. In fact it's sobering to consider that thirty-three years have passed--a third of a century--since Mario Andretti scored the last F1 win by an American driver. In August of 1978 Mario took his sixth and last win of the season in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort on the way to winning the world championship, leading home Ronnie Peterson in one of four Lotus one-two sweeps that year. It was the last of Mario's twelve Grand Prix wins and since then America has sadly struck out in F1.

The picture is equaly bleak on the team side. After AAR pulled out of F1 we saw Vel's Parnelli Jones and Roger Penske tackle F1 briefly in the mid-seventies. VPJ ran a car for Andretti from the end of 1974 through early '76 before Firestone pulled the plug while Penske ran an F1 team also from the end of 1974 through '76 with Mark Donohue and then John Watson driving. After Donohue was killed in Austria in 1975 Penske hired Irishman Watson who came through to win for the team in August of '76 at the Osterreichring where Donohue died a year earlier.

But at the end of that year Penske made the same decision as Gurney and Parnelli Jones before him. He pulled out of F1 to focus on Indy car racing and the Indy 500. Since then we've seen not a single American team in F1 and after last year's failure of USF1 to get off the ground the prospect of ever again seeing an American F1 team in action seems remote at best.

It's easy to be equaly pessimistic about the chances of an American driver breaking our long F1 winless streak. Since Mario Andretti retired from F1 at the end of 1982 to focus the last twelve years of his career on Indy cars we haven't had much to cheer about in F1. Through the eighties Eddie Cheever achieved the rather dubious distinction of starting more F1 races than any other American driver and in 1993 we got our hopes up when Michael Andretti tackled F1 with McLaren.

Michael had won the 1991 CART Indy car title and was the man to beat in Indy cars when he made the move to McLaren where he was teamed with Ayrton Senna. But before the end of the year Michael decided to throw in the towel and return to Indy cars. In his last race, the Italian GP at Monza, he made the podium for the first time but it was too little, too late.

Following Michael's unhappy departure F1 has been devoid of Americans save for Scott Speed's brief foray courtesy Red Bull. Sadly, Speed showed little form on or off the track.

Today there are plenty of young Americans trying to make it in open-wheel racing and some like Alex Rossi and Conor Daly have a particular hankering for F1. In the modern world it's an article of faith that any young American pursuing an F1 career must prove himself in the European ladder system. American open-wheel racing is seriously disparaged in Europe and nobody will look at any budding young talent unless they've shown what they can do over a number of seasons in GP2, GP3 or any of the plethora of European open-wheel categories.

As we speak, Daly is giving it the old college try. After dominating last year's Star Mazda series Daly opted to tackle both Indy Lights and GP3 this year. It's an ambitious schedule but exactly the type of commitment required to break into F1.

In his few starts in Indy Lights Conor has been at the sharp end of the field in company with Josef Newgarden who spent a couple of years racing with some success in Europe. But Daly has had a tough time in GP3, discovering that European fields are much deeper and more competitive than ours. He's making progress and hopes to continue his pursuit of an F1 seat but momentum is all-important in catching the eyes of any F1 team bosses who are ruthlessly fierce in judging the potential of young drivers. Unless, of course, the hopeful aspirant is blessed with a large bag of gold.

Let's not forget that even an exceptional talent like Ayrton Senna was helped by his family's financial resources and total support. The great Brazilian was also an extremely ruthless man, on and off the track, in the best tradition of modern F1. But if we are ever again to see an American racing, let alone winning in F1, he will have to possess the same qualities.

So will the revived United States GP at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin become a longterm success? For that to happen it's essential that a talented, tough-minded and totally motivated American driver emerges from the ranks. Here's wishing the best of luck to Daly, Rossi and any other young American with the gumption to give it a try.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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