The US Grand Prix Goes Mainstream

The United States Grand Prix has a spotted history, with circuits ill-fitted to F1 racing (I’m talking to you, Phoenix, and you, Indianapolis) and lackluster fan interest leading the FIA to abandon the US entirely for five years before finding what is proving to be a beautiful home outside Austin.

About 360,000 fans came to Circuit of the Americas for the October USGP, breaking the weekend attendance record set at Silverstone in 2019. While it may be too early to declare Del Valle, Texas as the new global home of F1, US audiences are definitely taking to the sport like never before.

American sporting legend is filled with epic championship battles – Celtics-Lakers, Evert-Navratilova and McEnroe-Connors, Ali-Frasier – and it appears that the fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen is drawing in not only NASCAR and IndyCar fans, but also some folks who before last week didn’t know Toto Wolff from Tito Jackson.

ZANDVOORT, NETHERLANDS – SEPTEMBER 03: Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff talks to the media in the Paddock during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of The Netherlands at Circuit Zandvoort on September 03, 2021 in Zandvoort, Netherlands. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 10: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Tito Jackson visits SiriusXM Studios on September 10, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

For the first time in five years there is a fight for both championships, with Verstappen ahead of Hamilton by just 12 points with five races to go and Mercedes leading Red Bull by 23 with Sergio Perez coming on strong (two consecutive podiums and five straight top-10 finishes).

But great racing alone has never been enough to bring American eyes to the sport; this time it took a dose of reality TV. In 2019, Netflix gave us Drive to Survive, a sometimes insightful and often embellished look behind the visors and garage doors.

With 330 million Americans getting deeper into their streaming catalogs after a year and a half of COVID restrictions, the series reached lots of people who were drawn in by Daniel Riccardo’s personality, or Hamilton’s greatness, or George Russell’s promise.

And while the show has taken some well-earned criticism for manufactured storylines and rivalries, it does deserve credit for widening the audience of a sport that can seem complicated and mysterious.

But getting back to the event itself, the record attendance wasn’t the only marker of how significant a date on the US sports calendar this race has become.

Pre-race viewers were treated to the sight of Martin Brundle chasing down Rory McIlroy, Megan Thee Stallion (hilariously), and Serena Williams (unsuccessfully) during the grid walk, and Shaquille O’Neal added to the spectacle by delivering the winner’s trophy in a giant wooden longhorn car.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – OCTOBER 24: Megan Thee Stallion walks on the grid before the F1 Grand Prix of USA at Circuit of The Americas on October 24, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

And while it’s rare for big sporting events to live up to their hype, this one did, with Verstappen besting Hamilton by less than a second and a half.

Miami is set to join the calendar in 2022, giving the United States two F1 races in a year for the first time since 1983. Bigger changes are coming to the cars as well next year, which should make close-in racing much more exciting.

Add in another season of Drive to Survive due in the spring, the US Grand Prix may soon take its rightful yet never fully occupied spot as one of the nation’s handful of most significant sporting events. A couple more years of Shaq, Logan Paul, etc, and we’ll get there.