By Susan Elizabeth Shepard
AUSTIN, Texas -- Days before the United States Grand Prix returns to Austin, the town is much less agitated than it was at this time last year, when predictions of suffocating gridlock and dire crowding in the town's cocktail lounges put fear in the hearts of laid-back residents. As year two of the race kicks in, now the question becomes: is Formula One here for real? The majority of Americans aren't aware that there's an auto race with a global television audience equivalent to five Super Bowls.
If F1 racing is to establish a foothold in the US, it would be helpful for fans to have a homegrown driver to rally around. Sure, we can get behind a driver from another English-speaking country if we must, but how about a tall, good-looking Californian who grew up dreaming of Olympic skiing until he drove his first go-kart on a Vegas track? One who looks forward to a race weekend in the U.S. where he can get some decent Mexican food and barbecue? Whose parents drove him around to races on weekends in an RV until he left for Europe as a teen? Could we get someone like that?
Meet California native 22-year-old Alexander Rossi, the only American currently in Formula One racing, and the reserve driver for Caterham. He's been in Europe since he was 17, competing in the feeder series of races, and two weeks ago claimed a GP2 victory in Abu Dhabi and was named Best Rookie in the F1 feeder series. When Rossi hits the track during practice on Friday, he'll be the first American to drive an F1 car on U.S. soil since 2007.
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Rossi's entry to racing was a go-karting class in Las Vegas when he was ten. "My mom always said when we went to Vegas it was gonna be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and then it turned into a preview of a lifetime," Rossi said.
That opportunity involved working through the ranks of kart racing in the U.S. and involved a great deal of travel and expense; he said the accumulated costs of supporting a racing career from karting to Formula One can be up to seven million dollars. Rossi's parents, Peter and Dawn, were crucial support, lining up sponsors for his young career and taking him around the country to compete. His mother homeschooled him, so he finished high school before having to decide to leave the country to progress in racing.
"I left California when I was 16. And I moved to Europe and I've been there for five years now. That was probably the hardest part and that's why, I think, that there's so few American drivers in Europe and in Formula One, because in order to do that you have to leave [the U.S.]. And for me it was a very difficult decision, but from a young age I knew I wanted to race in Formula One so that was just a step that was necessary," Rossi said.
It was an unusual situation that meant he'd spend a few months living in a Holiday Inn Express in England before renting a house in Italy (as a 17-year-old), eventually landing in London when he signed with Caterham. The time in England is evident in his crisp speech, dotted with "quite"s and "carry on"s and just the shadow of an accent. And now those travels have brought him back Stateside. "It's strange how it's come full circle, because I started in karts in the States, went to Europe to get to Formula One and now to be able to come back to the States in a Formula One car is quite cool," Rossi said.
It's also cool to be on familiar ground. I ask what he's looking forward to eating and he says "Barbecue!" getting suddenly animated. "Because it doesn't exist in Europe, and if it does, it's just the most horrible thing you've ever had in your life because they don't understand it." People try to make it in Europe? "Oh yeah. In France, of all places. It just doesn't work." He's also happy that two of his oldest friends, one of whom now lives in Austin and is starting a cryotherapy business ("he's from California, he's into the whole holistic thing"), will be here to see him drive.
The track itself, it turns out, has been a consensus hit with the drivers, Rossi said, because it isn't so safe as to be boring. "Us as drivers want high speed corners and corners that require, for lack of a better word, big balls, and that's where you can make up a lot of time on other drivers, for example."
A tougher track imparts more of a human element to the race, and Rossi draws a direct line from his other sport, skiing (he grew up close to Lake Tahoe), to reflexes on the track. There is a provision in his contract with Caterham that allows him to enjoy the sport, an activity that might have been embargoed along with wakeboarding and other potentially risky endeavors.
"It's amazing how similar [skiing] is to driving a race car. Driving a race car is so much about the feel and the adaptation so you have to be able to just feel it, trust your instinct to be able to do it well. When you're skiing you don't think about everything you do, you just feel it and if something comes you weren't expecting, you sort it out and then you carry on," he said.
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In a country where the most popular motorsport, NASCAR, has firm blue collar associations, the elite trappings of Formula One's fanbase stand out. Cities don't usually have to worry about a sharp upswing in private plane useage or helicopter traffic management for game days in other sports, and the Kentucky Derby is the only other sporting event in the country with an acknowledged fashion component. I ask Rossi if he thinks perceived elitism might be something F1 needs to overcome in order to draw an audience. He sees the technical achievements as able to sufficiently impress an adequate crowd.
"I don't think the budgets have anything to do with attracting fans or not. It's just the fact that people aren't able to see it. That's a big issue, when you think about how many European races there are, there's 12 European races a year. There's one in the States. We need more. And it's a big enough country to have more," he said, going on to discuss proposed races in New Jersey and California, which would give the sport entry points on all three American coasts.
And regardless of personal circumstances, he says, everyone can appreciate fast cars. "When you see a car that can decelerate from 200 miles an hour to 40 miles an hour in 150 feet, you don't get tired of watching that. Because you're seeing things that don't mentally make sense and you're seeing cars defy laws that you know as a driver of a normal car."
Rossi appreciates the mechanics of racing to the point that he's completed an associates' degree in math. "I thought that it would be brilliant, if I didn't make it as a race car driver, that I could then be an engineer," he said. "Then as I thought about that more I was like, 'Well, if I didn't make it as a race car driver I think I'd be quite bitter,' so I probably wouldn't want to be involved in the sport. So I'd probably change that to chemistry," though he then said he'll only cross that bridge if he needs to.
The technical wow factors of Formula One cars impress, but when it comes to retaining eyeballs, fans need a rooting interest, which generally blooms from geography. It's like soccer: as a country, we pay attention only when Team USA is up to something. Fortunately for Formula One's Stateside prospects, Rossi is comfortable being The American here.
"There's a lot of pride that goes along with it because there hasn't been a successful American since Mario Andretti. Americans were written off in Europe and in Formula One and there's this kind of arrogance -- rightly so -- that goes along with Europeans and Formula One. It's their sport and it's their world and Americans can't really compete," he said.
But compete he will, and the first weekend of November, with his GP2 win in Abu Dhabi, Rossi had a taste of how it felt to represent not just Caterham but his home country. "Just to hear the national anthem on the podium, it's quite a powerful thing," he said. "And come Friday morning when I'm able to drive on American soil as the only American in front of friends, family and such, it's going to be quite special."
Rossi heads off with Caterham's head of communications for lunch, and to prepare for the rest of the week, which will include a 13-hour day of media and fan event commitments Wednesday, which is also when stories about the increase in airport arrivals and decrease in hotel vacancy rates show up on the Austin news to emphasize how many of the fans in attendance come from far away. Like Rossi, Formula One is just taking practice laps in Texas now. If he succeeds, its audience will only grow.
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Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a writer in Austin. She is also a fourth-generation University of Texas graduate.