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Why F1 in America “feels different” now to previous eras

With a third race in Las Vegas, over 400,000 fans each year in Austin, and Miami planning to expand its capacity again next season, has Formula 1 finally cracked America?

F1 in America

Photo by: Uncredited

F1’s previously piecemeal approach to America is reflected in the fact that the United States Grand Prix has been held over 50 times but at 10 different locations.

The Indianapolis 500 used to count for F1 points in the 1950s; the first US GPs were held at Sebring and Riverside before settling in Watkins Glen for a couple of decades. After a brief comeback at Phoenix, and a couple of years on the Indy road course (with a record raceday crowd in Year 1 before spectacularly self-destructing), Austin’s Circuit of the Americas finally gave it a solid foothold again. 

And while other events took place at Long Beach, Detroit, Dallas, Las Vegas and Miami – taking the total of F1 races run in America to 75 – it was the arrival of mass-media giant Liberty as its owner in 2017 that has been the gamechanger that saw a concentrated, joined-up push towards multiple F1 events each season, with Vegas about to join the roster this weekend.

Las Vegas GP rendering

Photo by: Las Vegas GP

Las Vegas GP rendering

Suddenly the ‘bust’ part of the cycle has evaporated, and the boom is underlined by long-term contracts. Someone who’s well-placed to discuss this point is a man who’s co-signed one of those: Tom Garfinkel is managing partner of the Miami Grand Prix, to add to his hats as president and CEO of the Miami Dolphins NFL team and its impressive Hard Rock Stadium.  

He sometimes catches himself calling it “the track”, but he does also have a strong background in motorsports as Garfinkel used to run the business operations of IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing. 

“I think this feels different, certainly for Formula 1 historically in my lifetime,” he says when asked to sum up where F1 is at right now in America. “Liberty Media has done a great job growing the sport internationally and I think they want to continue to invest in the United States.  

“Certainly they have a big investment in Las Vegas, we have a big investment here, and Austin's been around a while. And talking to some of the team principals as well, their partners want to have a presence in the United States. So, it’s a combination of those factors. 

“It takes investment to grow a sport, to grow any business really, you can't just expect it to just happen. If F1 wants to grow in the United States, you have to invest in it, which is what they're doing.  

“The NFL wants to grow internationally, you have to play games in other countries and invest in those markets to do that [Miami Dolphins just played the first game in Frankfurt, Germany]. And so I would expect that investment to continue, which means I would expect it to continue to grow.” 

Tom Garfinkel serves as Vice Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium and Managing Partner of the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Tom Garfinkel serves as Vice Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium and Managing Partner of the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix

And F1’s growth should bloom exponentially in Vegas next weekend, with a third grand prix in the States that Garfinkel welcomes with open arms.  

“Liberty Media is our partner obviously with Formula 1 on the race here,” he says. “But they're the promoter of that race. So, from the beginning, we've had a very collegial, collaborative relationship. 

“That's their race and we offered early on that anything we can do to help, we’re happy to. They haven't called on us too much, they know what they're doing, but we've tried to help where we can, and look forward to having another great event in the United States.” 

Fans at the Miami Grand Prix

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz / Motorsport Images

Fans at the Miami Grand Prix

And, with that, he sees F1 becoming engrained in the American sports fan’s psyche: “Five or 10 years ago, I don't know that the average sports fan in America could have named three drivers in Formula 1. And now they can probably name five drivers in F1 and tell you who their favourite is. So that I think that's very different.” 

Garfinkel also points to his own kids, who are in their late teens, as examples of reasons to be cheerful about F1 hooking a younger audience than ever before. 

“I know there's significant interest, particularly among young people,” he says. “Before the race was here, [my sons] were watching Drive to Survive and all their friends at the University of Michigan watch Formula 1 every weekend.  

“I think what's most exciting about it to me is that there's just a lot of young people in the United States falling in love with the sport. And that's very positive for the future of sport in America, when young people are really interested. So, I would expect that to continue.” 

The Hard Rock Stadium

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz / Motorsport Images

The Hard Rock Stadium

Delivering on high expectations 

Having successfully hosted two grands prix at his multi-use sports facility, Garfinkel knows the challenge associated with delivering on expectations ahead of that all-important inaugural event.

While Miami’s debut didn’t go 100% according to plan in 2022 – with complaints about the track breaking up and its kerbing at the tight chicane, queues to access the bridges that span the track and some hospitality issues – he feels they were all put to bed this year. 

“The first year, it was obviously such a challenge just to pull off the race in an 11-month timeframe, so we were pleased with what we accomplished,” he says. “We obviously had a lot of things to learn and to improve upon.

“We worked really hard to do that in year two and felt like we accomplished that goal with the wider bridges, repaving the track and building the permanent paddock club – improving on the food and some things there. And excited to try to be as good in year three, hopefully even better.” 

Fans fill the venue at the Miami Grand Prix

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Fans fill the venue at the Miami Grand Prix

And that includes plans to raise capacity, to attract even more fans in 2024. 

“It's not finalised yet,” he says. “We started at 85,000 and went to 90… we’ll probably go to 95. We may go a little higher, depending on how we see things but it's really a function more of just how comfortable we are with expanding the capacity and still being able to provide a great experience for people. 

“We always had a goal to try to get to 100,000. So we'd like to get there eventually. I don't think we'll get there next year just because, again, we want to incrementally do it so we know we can handle the people without overcrowding and creating fan experience problems.” 

Vegas arrives with plenty of hoopla, probably even more so than Miami and its amazing hospitality areas and concessional stands, which Garfinkel quips is “a taste of Miami – in a lot of ways it's a wine and food festival with a race going on.” 

Work in Progress at the Las Vegas F1 course

Photo by: Jim Utter

Work in Progress at the Las Vegas F1 course

The extra challenge faced by Vegas 

While Miami has a semi-permanent track, that requires assembling each year in terms of concrete blocks, catch fencing and grandstands, the added challenge of Vegas is to shut down its world-famous strip and many adjoining roads. 

When asked if he envied having that challenge, Garfinkel quickly replies “I do not!” 

“I think street races in the United States are difficult endeavours,” he adds. “And Las Vegas will be fantastic on the Strip. But doing it here is hard enough, when we have the land. And because we have many other events going on, it’s difficult but at least we were disrupting ourselves.  

“We were in control of managing the schedule and everything around that. When you're disrupting others, it becomes a much bigger challenge. Doing it in a street environment is very difficult.” 

Red Bull Racing RB7 drives in New York City

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull Racing RB7 drives in New York City

Regardless of what happens in Vegas, talk of a fourth American race often arises and then fades – especially when it comes to the New York area. Garfinkel believes there is room for further expansion, but he doesn’t see it yet. 

“I welcome the growth of events in the United States,” he says. “From the conversations I've had with the powers that be, I'd be surprised if they have a fourth race anytime soon in the United States. But I wouldn't rule it out either. You never know.

“I think if the demand is there, if it's the right place at the right time, why not? I'd be all for it.”

In the dog-eat-dog world of F1, it’s quite refreshing to know that the promoters of the American races all want to see their ‘rivals’ succeed. In a way, that’s a reflection of the spirit and tradition of JFK’s aphorism that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

There’s little doubt that the positivity surrounding these events is elevating the F1 brand’s awareness and that does “feel different” than what’s gone before – even ahead of the planned arrival of Andretti Formula, Cadillac and Ford.

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