NEWS FEATURE

The People Versus The United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis

So much had been said and written about the relationship between Formula 1 and the United States of America over the years - let alone the final countdown to the epochal Grand Prix at Indianapolis - that opinions had long been cemented everywhere... except, that is, amongst the fans who paid up and got themselves to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In the US press a minefield was well laid out and ambushes long since prepared as the home boys sat back with their arms folded and waited for Formula 1 to try and impress. 'What a weekend of sports' shouted USA Today on Friday morning, citing the women's soccer, men's baseball and sprinting in the Sydney Olympics. Meanwhile sprint car veteran Bill East argued that F1 is from another world and that '...kids growing up in this country don't have dreams of going into Formula 1. They more have dreams of going to Indianapolis or into NASCAR.'

NASCAR team boss Jack Roush decided that there was more sport and more money in his neck of the woods because of the lack of technology involved: 'A businessman like myself has got the prospects of selling the sponsor, of paying the driver, of paying the people that work on the car. At the end of the year he's got the prospect of paying all his bills and perhaps even having a little left over. There just isn't that prospect in Formula 1.' The prospect of Ron Dennis singing for his supper was certainly inventive, and reinforced the overall impression that America's writers wanted to convey was that the event was merely a boil on the bum of the nation's gigantic sports industry.

Undoubtedly there were empty seats by the bucketload in the giant stands of Indy. When asked for his impressions on the grid by Britain's ITV commentator Martin Brundle, Bernie Ecclestone jokingly compared it to a club race meeting at Silverstone, but those who had come to Indianapolis and spent their $85 to get a seat had done so because they wanted to see just what all the fuss was about. As the combatants squared up in the media Inside F1 sought out the regular guys and gals who came to watch, officiate, enjoy - and not enjoy - what actually happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Russ, an IMS security guard from Chicago was worried about the culture shock from America's fan-friendly racing to the cool, distant world that arrived overnight: 'The F1 people set all these constructions up to keep the people out of the paddock,' he said numbly. 'I don't think the public's gonna like all this. We get almost total access to the drivers - they can shout at them and they'll come and sign autographs, it's just another world here today.

'I've been coming here since 1963 and things have pretty much stayed the same in all that time and I wish for the sake of the fans that Formula 1 was more open. That said we're getting to see some wonderful racing cars and that's the main thing I guess but as a fan, and as someone who has to work with the fans I'd like to see more access.'

Mike from Plymouth, Massachusetts, witnessed some of the ways and means fans had to get around Fort Bernie however, and was more than impressed by his countrymen's fortitude: 'On Saturday night David Coulthard pulled out of the car park and this guy sprinted after him with his programme begging him to stop. He caught up after about 30 yards, handed in his programme and ran alongside as it got signed. It was wild, I've never seen anyone run so fast and he had just enough breath to yell thank you!!!'

Mike and Bob, both from Indianapolis, were as hardcore a pair of race fans as could be found in Indiana. Mike was still sporting his Brickyard 400 vest as he cheered on the action while Bob was bedecked in brand new Ferrari racewear as he looked on in quiet approval: 'We've been Formula 1 fans for almost 15 years now and never yet had the chance to see it for real, so when the word got out a couple of years back that the Grand Prix was coming to Indy we started counting down the days. We've had our tickets for months now and it's been getting so I can't sleep at night just thinking about it.'

As longtime viewers of F1's American TV coverage, Mike and Bob had an authoritative air on what they were expecting to see, and they were more than keen to offer an opinion: 'We started out at turn four and walked the mounds all the way here to the banking and we're just blown away. Indianapolis is the only place for the US Grand Prix. The last part of the infield's a bit tight but turns one through four are just great. I hope over the next couple of years they can reshape it and expand it to maybe another mile. We'll fill the mounds and the stands alright and the circuit would be great. With it being so open between turns one and two I think they're going to be pretty on it at the start, I don't think you'll see the same problems these guys had in Italy.'

Bill from Ohio was impressed with David Coulthard's qualifying performance, as were a number of other fans who had clearly called in at Silverstone in recent years and come home with DC and Damon hats now bleached in the American sun. For Bill though, DC's rotten luck couldn't be entirely blamed for putting him out of title contention... 'I don't understand how Coulthard can be so quick and yet never do anything in the race. He's got the best car out there, it's won the championship two years running, but he's about as useless as nipples on a bull.'

Dave from Pensylvania is a diehard Anglophile and longtime fan of Benetton, who was loving every minute of F1's return: 'I got to turn one this morning and ev-ry-body was in Ferrari stuff and I just looked up and shouted 'what's with all the red?' I can't believe the Ferrari fanbase here, because we've been to Montreal before and it was nothing like this, everyone's Ferrari crazy. We've driven 701 miles from Pensylvania to come here and it's great, we're having fun but I can't find a Benetton hat anywhere.'

For the Friday afternoon shoppers there was the chance to hear from Williams' Ralf Schumacher on the BMW stand, and despite the stage turning red under the weight of his big brother's merchandise the younger star of Huerth-Hermuehlhein won some new friends during the autograph session. Ralf's a great guy,' said George from Las Vegas. 'He's a good racer too. I can't believe it took them so long to get over here and the weekend's great because we've got the Ferraris and the Porsches out on the speedway too and that's a first too so far as I know. It's a whole new experience.'

Nancy from Philadelphia was as impressed by Indy's fan-friendly layout as the F1 folk themselves, which was kept largely litter-free all weekend. Amid the wide open spaces of the speedway there were plenty of creature comforts, even if the menfolk didn't appreciate them: 'If you're coming out with ladies and children particularly you've got to have good facilities and Indy has it all, really. It's clean and it has a lot of bathrooms and these are important considerations. I'm having a great time on that account, and I'm sure we'll be back next year.'

Out on the grassy slopes leading up to the stirring Hall of Fame museum race fans of all ages congregated to chat about their findings as all manner of new sights and sounds enveloped them. One such old-timer was Bill, who sat chuckling into his Budweiser at the end of qualifying. 'It's the fanciest go-kart racing I've ever seen in my life. It's fantastic - we go to CART and to IRL and it'll be so-o boring when we go back. I've been going to racetracks for 40 years and I haven't had earplugs in for the last 20 but I had to put them in today because I cannot believe the rpm of these things. It's a pleasure to come here, it really is. I was sitting in the stand opposite the pits and I couldn't see the cars for the flags that were being waved - it's the European way I guess.'

Bill's companion was a mobile phone rep called Dave, whose heart and wallet had warmed to Ferrari's spell like so many of his countrymen. 'I had my friend on the cellphone when we were in the stands and I just held it up in the air and he was like 'Go-o-o-oddd! What was that?' I said that's Formula 1, buddy.' Was this a honeymoon period though, I wondered? After all, it's easy to be blase about Formula 1 - just ask in any of the motorhomes (if, of course you can reach them). Dave, though, was a thoroughgoing convert: 'This is gonna work for sure, we've got three years minimum and next year you're gonna have to get in so early or you won't have a chance. This is spectacular - they've upgraded the circuit, they've really upgraded the downtown area and all the restaurants and so on.'

One thing which was lamented, despite Ferrari's mystique, was the lack of American involvement. Indianapolis loves its all-American heroes - even if they're Canadian. Jacques Villeneuve has entered the hearts of American race fans as a member of that most exclusive of clubs: a winner of the Indy 500. Throughout the weekend his every move met rapturous approval and for Paul from Ohio this brought home how important it was for a direct involvement by the US as a competing nation. 'It's good to see Jaguar here wearing green, although it's the closest we have to an American team. It's a Ford at heart, and now they've got Bobby Rahal in there but we need a real American team or driver, that'll make it a true world championship. Right now everyone else I know is glued to the TV because it's the American team and American athletes who are cleaning up in the Olympics. F1 can make it big here, but we've gotta have one of our own out there fighting for the championship.'

It wasn't an American sport and it had no American competitors, but Formula 1 certainly left its mark. After the race there were delirious scenes as the many, many thousands who had bought their Ferrari tops, hats and flags scampered about whooping and cheering. After so much anticipation the Bernie show had finally arrived and not one person was sorry. Outside the paddock crowds thronged, hoping for a glimpse of their new heroes, calling out for 'Heinz-Hara-a-ald!' 'Hey Mike!' First though they got Mr. E, and I doubt he's had a reception like it in 30 years. 'Thank you Bernie!' 'Great show Bernie!' 'We love you Bernie!' they yelled, and received a slightly bemused flash of the palm for their trouble.

As the fleet of silver Mercedes' pulled out there was doubtless some worldly-wise glee being felt on the back seat of the leading car, and not just for the vast amount of dollars hoovered up by F1's Indianapolis debut. Financially Formula 1 has done well enough without America, there was nothing to prove on that front, but the big test had been taken and passed with flying colors: America loved its Grand Prix, and they'll do it all bigger and better next year. Of that everyone can be sure.

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