The Secret Formula

Listen, Bubba. Come dawn this Sunday morning, U.S. time, the world's most exotic race cars will be screaming around the circuit at Imola, in the tiny European principality of San Marino, at 185 miles an hour. Blood-red Ferraris and sleek silver McLaren-Mercedeses, pinnacles of the automotive engineering art, will excite thrills in their millions of fans like nothing else can. The most talented, highest-paid drivers in the world will be in the cockpits of these machines, testing their wits and wills to the limit.

Two weeks after Imola, the flying circus will move on to Barcelona, Spain, and, two weeks after that, into the glamorous, gold-paved streets of Monte Carlo, land of Princess Grace, hard by the Mediterranean. On June 7, the racers will visit Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, situated on the Ile de Notre Dame, in Montreal, Canada.

The super-fast Formula 1 crowd will race sixteen times this season, in fifteen countries. But they won't even stop for gas in the United States.

It has been seven years since the last U.S. Grand Prix, seven years since the late, great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna shot his McLaren-Honda Formula 1 car past the checkered flag on a temporary road course in Phoenix, Arizona. Since then, the world's most prominent nation and, quite possibly, the most sports-crazed people on the planet have gone without a sniff of Grand Prix competition.

Because of that, American involvement in the sport is vanishing fast.
Ford still supplies Zetec-R V10 racing engines to three F1 racing teams--Stewart-Ford, Tyrell-Ford and Minardi--but all three are underfinanced back markers on the costly, highly competitive Grand Prix circuit. Goodyear has been making high-tech racing tires for F1 cars since 1964, but the company recently announced that it is pulling out after this season, leaving Japanese-owned Bridgestone in charge. You'll still see Marlboro and Mobil sponsor decals on FI cars, but the last American driver to compete regularly in the Grand Prix was Phoenix-born, Rome-raised Eddie Cheever Jr. Alas, Eddie failed to win a race in 120 attempts between 1981 and 1989.

Michael Andretti? All of America knows the great second-generation racing star for his heroic exploits on the Indianapolis car circuit. But his attempt to emulate his father, Mario, who in 1978 became the second of just two Americans to win the F1 driving championship in half a century of competition, was a disaster. During the 1993 Grand Prix season, Michael Andretti crashed five times, failed to finish most of the other races and quietly returned home to retake his accustomed seat in a bigger, less nimble Indy car.

No American has tried his luck in F1 since.
Everything the casual big-time auto racing fan needs to know about the top teams in Formula 1 must be said in a foreign accent. The fastest drivers are German (Michael Schumacher), Finnish (Mika Hakkinen), Canadian (Jacques Villeneuve) or British (Damon Hill), and every nut and bolt of the best equipment comes from the other side of the pond, too. Ferraris are Italian through and through. McLaren-Mercedeses are English-German co-productions. Everything else hails from various parts of France, Switzerland or England.

Have you heard? The tiny country of Luxembourg has its own Grand Prix. That it will be contested this year at the legendary Nurburgring track in neighboring Germany is beside the point. Luxembourg, which you could stick inside the infield at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has its own Grand Prix. We don't.

So, Bubba. Who gives a friggin' oil spot that the U.S. of A. is completely out of the Formula 1 picture? Don't most people here regard the whole thing in the same light as rugby or curling or soccer? Besides, wouldn't any red-blooded American motorhead rather watch ol' Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd slam the pedal to the metal in a big field of Chevys and Fords down at Talladega than sip champagne on a balcony while some guy with an unpronounceable name zips by in a race car with an equally unpronounceable name?

Sauber-Petronas? Prost-Peugeot? Those are car-racing teams? Sound like the sample bins at the Centers for Disease Control.

Still, why not have the choice?
In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Grand Prix was contested each fall in Watkins Glen, New York, a sleepy upstate village boasting a gorgeous and demanding racing circuit. This was by no means the most sophisticated venue on the tour (unlike Monte Carlo, there was no chandeliered casino, and the local restaurateurs had never heard of escargots), but the racing was great, and American contenders like Andretti the Elder, Peter Revson, even Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser were to be found on the starting grid. Following Watkins Glen's last F1 race, in 1980, the U.S. Grand Prix meandered from Long Beach to Detroit to Las Vegas to Phoenix before running out of gas in 1991. Racing teams disliked the jerry-built street circuits and temporary road courses. So did the public. (Denverites got a sense of this problem when the Indy cars ran on downtown streets here in 1991 and 1992.)

So is F1 gone from these shores forever?
Don't bet on it. For the first time, Formula 1 majordomo Bernie Ecclestone is trying to revive the U.S. Grand Prix, which in its heyday featured two American races each year--one on the East Coast, one in the West.

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