NEWS FEATURE

On The Road

Despite the fact that the youth of Britain is weened on American cartoons, watches American movies and then wonders why we can't produce sitcoms like Frasier and Sex in the City, not much can really prepare you for the first visit. This was my first proper trip to the United States (barring a day trip to play golf ten years ago... long story), and a prodigal return to the USA for the rank and file of Formula 1.

Now, at the risk of sounding just a teensy-weensy bit parochial, the United States is like Mars after anywhere in Europe. This I realized on my outward flight, after being politely informed that 'you may not get up go to the bathroom in case of unforeseen turbulence that the captain is expecting'. My friendly retort that in the Middle Ages he'd have been burnt for practicing witchcraft fell on the stewardess like an outburst in Swahili. Of course: the Middle Ages didn't happen in America. My house is twice the age of the most powerful nation on earth, which is a sobering thought.

In front of me were three particularly well fed examples of America's youth who, having watched the in-flight screening of Gone in 60 Seconds were looking for something of deeper intellectual meaning in their Nintendos - all save one girl who had tucked into a book. Soon though she loudly announced that her book had to be brilliant because they were going to make a film of it with Brad Pitt in the lead. I caught a glimpse of the page she was reading, it said 'Chapter 1'.

The US Immigration officials are the stuff of legend, and I approached my example with some trepidation. 'English?'' he barked. I wondered if it was a trick question, or whether an affirmative would prompt guns to be drawn with the question 'you got any irony on ya?' Meanwhile big brother started bawling, unseen, from the ceiling: 'No telephones in this sector - and that goes for you in the orange shirt, SIR! Switch that thing off im-mediately.' The Brits bonded over sarcasm. 'Got a gun?' drawled one. 'Well be sure and pick one up on your way out then.'

By the time I joined the rest of the Inside F1 team it was evening in New Jersey and the middle of the night at home, so it was decided we go to the Korean Bar-B-Q my delight was not unbounded. As I had eaten on the plane I said that my heart's only desire was a cool glass of beer, at which they shuffled uncomfortably on their seats looking like the police were going to bust the joint at any minute and force us all into rehab. All suitably replete, they then deposited me at the Comfort Inn, my first experience of America's motel culture. It was very much like being in Wales: flock wallpaper and an old TV. That said it looked like it could've been a set for Donnie Brasco, and with that thought I whizzed swiftly to sleep.

Soon it was time for our great adventure - the drive to Indianapolis. Running a touch behind schedule, it was actually pitch black by the time we left so I asked our driver - Inside F1's race ace Josh Rehm - just what I'd be missing over the coming hours. 'Nothin,' came the reply. 'I actually quite like New Jersey, it's kinda bleak and industrial but there's always stuff going on. Between there and Indianapolis though is a whole lot of not much.' His countrymen nodded agreement, so I just let the undulations of mile after mile of not much beneath our wheels lull me to sleep.

Twelve hours later I awoke just outside Indianapolis in broad daylight, and they were right: there was nothing at all to see. 'Such a dump,' said Josh as we terrified an Indianapolis Colts fan whilst trying to turn off the freeway. As we came into town the local radio announced a campaign that was offering current and former smokers a free cancer scan and, 'if you turn in your cigarettes, a nutritious cheese salad sandwich'. Mmm, I supposed that they were trying to start a riot to brighten the place up.

With nothing of any significance whatsoever going on at the circuit I went downtown to see what I thought of Indianapolis and what Indianapolis thought of F1. Downtown was a revelation - everything was buffed to a shine and every whim was handsomely catered for, including socks, which I'd forgotten to bring. 'What's your zip code?' enquired the girl with gigantic eyes as she studied my credit card. 'Erm,' said I, 'we don't have those in England.' This hit a chord, and she asked breathlessly about the journey to Indianapolis, then recounted the whole tale to Steve, her comrade on the tills. 'So?' Steve shrugged. 'You have to pretend like you care,' she said, turning to me with a reassuring smile.

Another part of the etiquette I learnt was that Americans only tell you to have a nice day after you've given them money, preferably with a tip - this I discovered in a fake Irish pub serving Guiness cold enough to fracture your teeth. Then on to another cliche: the mall. Through the shoals of wandering teenagers and large variety of sports shops inside Indy's Circle Mall I found a Jaguar R1 on the top floor. No razamatazz, no PR bumf, just a Formula 1 car abandoned in the middle of a lot of shops, but it drew a small crowd all the same.

'Kinda small isn't it?' said Sam, a foreman out shopping with his 'little lady' and glad of the opportunity to get up close and personal with the latest in European race cars. Would he be going out to the Speedway to watch the real thing, I asked? 'We-ll, it's up for discussion,' he grinned sheepishly towards the shop in which the 'little lady' evidently was prowling. 'The guys at work sure as hell are gonna be there.' Meanwhile, as we chatted, a family began debating whether or not they should take turns to stand in front of it as dad brandished his digital camera.

Dad, or Jim, wanted his wife and daughter to stand in front of Irvine's car. 'It's gross,' said daughter Eleanor, clearly miffed by her father's insistence although quite taken by the green machine. 'It's kinda cool,' she said, to Jim's clear approval. 'We have a Jagwaar,' he explained. Would he then be going along to the race? 'Oh yeah, it's going to be a guys' day out, we've got our seats booked and I'm itching to go.' Eleanor and her mom smiled and rolled their eyes as they - like I - imagined the tills at the Jagwaar Racing stand hitting meltdown by Friday lunchtime.

Most of the time my writing was done in the hotel, adrift in calm high above the streets and away from the frenetic atmosphere at the circuit. Sometimes though things can be a bit too calm, and so I put the TV on to make a bit of noise in the background. Happily I found Mel Gibson's Hamlet playing on Friday afternoon, sort of a greatest hits show as all the best lines were squashed into an hour and a half and illustrated with some primal screaming and eyeball rolling by the man with the golden buttocks. It was a touch disconcerting therefore to have the doom and gloom of Elsinor broken into every ten minutes by a loop of brightly colored adverts for Indiana's number 1 Chevy dealer, countless breakfast cereals, and furniture store discounts without any sort of warning at all.

On Friday night a short cab ride out of town took a select little group out to the Indiana State Fairground - scene of almost as many of America's racing rites of passage as the Speedway - where we were all left gawping and giggling like kids. This was the Hulman Hoosier 100 race for sprint cars around a dirt track normally devoted to horse racing. Earlier in the week Annie Bradshaw, F1's eternal PR, had arranged for some of the senior journalists to take a ride in a two-seater version of these thundering V8 machines that skitter and slide around the mile oval for lap after lap in the closest possible company. Indeed Alan Henry reckoned his ride was more impressive than that he was privileged to take in McLaren's two-seater at Melbourne, and they enthused enough for more of us to go along for the race. In the end 30 cars ran inches from each other for 100 miles, we got gen-u-ine grit to wear on our grinning faces the way home.

Late at night however a new side emerged to Indy - night town. With the F1 people safely stowed away and talking shop in the glitz of the ball or the familiar surroundings of yet another hotel bar, life carried on as normal as traffic came to a halt on Madison as a guy was slammed into the trunk of his Mustang convertible by the local constabulary. Elsewhere big, shiny new cars filled with hoods and painted ladies cruised ominously through the streets. After the first few hours it became business as usual for Formula 1, and the discoveries were carried on the other way round as the good people of Indianapolis got to grips with their Grand Prix.

'They've made such changes to this town,' Wendy the cab driver said the next morning through a cigarette smog - she, like all Indianapolis' cabbies was too busy even for a smoke. 'I've never seen such a lot of money thrown at cleaning the streets, there are so many new bars and restaurants it's unreal. You can get a taste of a different country every day of the year! Whatever the racing's like, the Grand Prix has brought about the kind of investment in our town that we can all enjoy.'

In the end however, the F1 folk felt the novelty of their surroundings wear off, and the realization that for all the showbiz this was just the 15th of 17 such weekends, after 30 out of 34 consecutive weeks enduring the constant grind. Once party central, the F1 community has grown too worldly to enjoy itself, but on Sunday night a gathering was arranged. Unfortunately, half those people planning to stay until Monday had frantically rescheduled their flights to get the hell out of there and the do was reportedly something of a damp squib. I couldn't possibly comment, because I was in a van in the dark driving through a whole lot of not very much.

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