Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2000

Formula One is racing heaven

Status as one of two most popular sports in the world richly deserved

September 23, 2000


— The most famous race track is going international and I'm lucky enough to be here.

The Formula One global circus rolled into town this weekend bringing Grand Prix racing back to the U.S. for the first time since 1991. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has played host to its famous 500-mile race 84 times, but this is its first Grand Prix. Mine too.

I've been an F1 fan since my father introduced me to motor sports in the early 1970s. But this is my first time at Indy and my first F1 race. I'm trying hard not to become overwhelmed by it all. I'm not succeeding.

Watching a car fly by at almost 220 mph is impressive enough. But what strikes you most about these state-of-the-art racing machines is the acceleration. A Formula One car can go from a standing start to 200 mph in the about the time that it takes to finish reading this paragraph. At almost 800 horsepower and 17,000 rpm, the lure of the engine is a powerful draw to the racing fan.

The glamour of the sport is one of its biggest selling points. These are the cars that run through the streets of Monte Carlo after all. Attending the race will be a couple of princes (Britain's Andrew among them, as well as his ex-wife Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York) and princesses (Malaysia's Tunku Putri Barirah). Actors James Garner, Antonio Banderes and Melanie Griffith are in town.

F1 is one of the two most popular sports in the world. The race Sunday will be seen by almost a billion people in a hundred countries.

Looking for proof of F1's popularity? Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags will be in town for a Monday night football game against the Colts. But they couldn't find enough hotel rooms and will be staying in Muncie, Ind. When someone can trump the NFL, they must be powerful indeed. And speaking of Trumps, Ivana is expected to put in an appearance this weekend.

The American motor sports fan might not know much about the likes of Germany's Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen of Finland or rookie British phenom Jenson Button. But in the rest of the world these drivers are treated like rock stars. Michael Andretti was the last American driver in F1 and he only lasted half a season in the early 1990s.

The one F1 driver U.S. fans are likely to be acquainted with is Jackie Stewart. The Flying Scotsman hasn't driven in 27 years but has never been out of F1 or the public eye. I had the chance to be in the pack of journalists interviewing him Friday, but was too awestruck that I was, indeed, part of the media horde to ask a question.

Later in the day Friday, there was a parade of historic F1 cars. For a racing history buff, that was nirvana, Valhalla and heaven rolled into one. And for more living history, several former world driving champions are milling about the pits. Stewart (three championships), France's Alain Prost (four) and Jack Brabham of Australia (three) are testament to the sport's sense of history and loyalty.

These are the cars and drivers I grew up watching and, quite frankly, idolizing. It's an honor, a privilege and an incredible charge to walk among them.

But I hope my weekend didn't peak too soon. At the check-in gate, I was standing right next to Mr. and Mrs. two-time world champion, Mika Hakkinen. He doesn't look larger than life, but from what I've seen so far he does drive that way.

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