Boise, Bums, Tramps and rocket launchers

"See you in Boise, Idaho," said an American pressman as he was leaving the Press Office in Phoenix on Sunday night all those years ago.

"Boise, Idaho?" we said. "Why?"

"Because Formula 1 isn't working here in Phoenix and Grand Prix racing will just pick another place and try that. Boise, Idaho. That would be the answer. The Potato Grand Prix of America".

He had laughed and strolled away. As far as he was concerned Formula 1 was never going to make it in the United States of America. The people running Formula 1 simply did not understand the American way. It was easier to blame the Americans for not appreciating the value of F1 racing and to go off to Asia and places where people do what they are told.

Nine years later there he was, the same journalist with a little less hair in the Media Center at Indianapolis. He had forgotten Boise, Idaho and seemed a little more impressed. Grand Prix racing was back in America and it was not some little street circuit around a half-baked city with too much money and no image. No Sir, Formula 1 was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the World Capital of Motor Racing, in the state they like to call Home.

Grand Prix racing had parachuted into the very heartland of American racing. And it was working.

But let us not get carried away. There were a few problems but they were of minor importance and many of them were simply down to the fact that the British and the Americans do not speak the same language.

A couple of years after I left the shoddy little media center in Phoenix, a strange building which resembled The Alamo and was reputed to have once been a morgue (or as we say in England a mortuary) I married an American girl and my mother-in-law gave me an English-American dictionary. I thought it was a joke.

But over the years I have learned that in addition to the different cultures and traditions between the Old World and the New there really is a linguistic divide and it is so easy for both sides to be misunderstood by one another. Having a family on each side of the Atlantic has been an interesting experience and has broadened the mind somewhat. Watching Formula 1 and Indianapolis getting together was like watching the parents and the in-laws getting to know one another a few years ago. The Brits lived up to the stereotype and chuntered away about stereotyped Americans and the Americans griped about the superiority complexes of the Old World.

At Indianapolis there were signs of the same kind of irritation that occurred when the edges were being smoothed off the relationships. The Americans were somewhat surprised and then rather annoyed when the F1 drivers - showing towering intellect in the circumstances - said that The Brickyard was "just another race track".

The English - who make up most of the F1 circus - were bemused that no-one seemed to understand when they were joking and when they were being serious.

And the competitive nature of the two races remained lively. Indianapolis is the oldest permanent race track in the world, said those with stars and stripes in their eyes.

Yes, said the English, but you know it was copied from Brooklands, wasn't it?

When everything was thrown in the melting pot and simmered gently for a few days it was clear - at least to me - that both sides had been as parochial as the other. But by the end of it the flavors (or should one says flavours?) were beginning to meld together. It may be a long time before the English find it easy to accept having roast beef with cheese on it but they were willing to accept that Americans do thing differently.

The winner in all of this was Grand Prix racing. The American fans loved it. It was new, exotic, cosmopolitan and exciting.

"You know," said the man behind the desk in the hotel. "Today I've been to Italy, France, Turkey and Greece. Well, on the telephone at least."

And even the most critical and superior being from Europe could not avoid being impressed by the work done by Tony George and his engineering team at The Brickyard. It was also impossible to ignore the scale of interest in Formula 1. The fans in the stands quickly showed that they could get used to the concept of cars running the wrong way up the main straight without suffering from whiplash injuries.

Inevitably some never managed to get over their prejudices. The best example of this was in the daily newspaper USA TODAY which sent a reporter named Skip Wood to report about Grand Prix racing's return to the United States. In English a "skip" is a large container into which unwanted things are put. The Americans call it a dumpster but all I can say is that the article was a lot of garbage (or rubbish as they say in England). Mr. Wood wrote of the "quaint little Formula 1 series" which was "holding court" in Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He opined that "not everyone shares the haughty opinion that there's Formula 1 and then there's everything else". And he called upon NASCAR to serve as an example of something which is not quaint nor little.

We read it and groaned. The only thing quaint and little in F1 is Bernie Ecclestone. And while he may be small in stature his ideas and his ambition (and his wallet) are as big as some of the Midwestern folk one could see waddling around the public areas.

The important thing was that fans did not mirror the comments of Mr. Wood. He did not reflect the mood of the event. Any racing promoter will tell you all that really matters at the end of the day's racing is how many bums there were on the seats. This is to use "bum" in the English sense rather than the American term which means tramp, a person without a home to go to. In the United States a tramp is always a female and she's far more interesting any tramp one might meet on the backroads of Britain.

When the F1 cars came screaming out of the pits for the first time on Friday morning there were very few bums on seats because the American fans were jumping up and down in their excitement. Out in the merchandising areas, it was like war. The gear was disappearing faster than jelly donuts do in police stations across America. And the money was flowing in. The merchandising folk were caught out and had to send back to Europe for more planeloads of gear.

"Never has Minardi been so loved," chirped David Coulthard after qualifying, much to the amusement of everyone. But it was true.

The important question now is how many bums there will be on the seats at Indianapolis next year. Tony George was delighted with what was happening around him but he remained a little cautious.

"We have to see how many seats will sell next year," he said.

But the feeling was that the fever that gripped the fans at Indianapolis will filter across the states as the Ferrari-bedecked fans go home and tell their neighbors about this amazing thing called F1. They may say that the racing as not like it is in the United States but you had to be there. It was an event. You have to have the hat and teeshirt.

George is already talking about the possibility of extending the race track so that it will include the seating at what is Turn Three on the oval. This would take the crowd capacity up to 350,000. There will be a bunch of studies done before that work is undertaken to make sure that the Speedway can cope with that many people when the infield is bisected by a racing track. They will have to make sure that there is sufficient demand because there are only so many hotel rooms in Indiana.

My abiding memory of visiting the Indianapolis 500 back in the late 1980s was the fact that there were so many people there. The Indycars were quick and all that sort of stuff but the thing that impressed the most was the vast crowd. It felt like it must have done in Roman times when the Games were on. It was like Ben Hur.

Formula 1 will continue to debate the need to spice up the action to keep the fans happy but I think that they will quickly appreciate that part of the excitement of F1 is the hunting down of the man ahead and the attempts to outfox him. There are other ways of spicing up the action of course and the other day while cruising around a toy shop (as one does) I stumbled upon an idea that Bernie probably has not thought of. He has two teenage girls with him when he goes shopping and so he probably does not often go into the Action Man section (GI Joe in American translation). I was dragged there the other day by an excited little boy who wanted to show me the very latest in Formula 1 technology.

Action Man now has a F1 car. It is red in color and looks rather a lot like a Ferrari. It costs an obscene amount of money and is useless unless you buy a separate packet containing Action Man's racing overalls.

I was chuckling to myself when I spotted a most unusual feature in the design of the car.

It had a rocket launcher in the airbox just in case any of the bad guys should interrupt the race.

Or perhaps it was to help the man in red to win the race. Over the years Michael Schumacher has tried most other things to keep his rivals behind him.

That would make the race go with a bang!

Print Feature