RED HOOK, NY – Standing on the grid ahead of last Saturday’s Formula E race, it was difficult not to appreciate the enormity of the event that was taking place.
On a grid featuring 20 of motorsport’s top names, Moonlight star Naomie Harris, Hollywood power couple Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, and billionaire businessman Richard Branson, among others, you may have thought it was hard to know where to look.
But my eyes were firmly set on just one thing: the Manhattan skyline.
For that view had been the dream for a great number of racing series throughout the years. But it was finally happening.
Formula E had won the race to New York City.
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS IN THE MAKING
The idea to hold a motorsport event within the five boroughs was hardly a new one. Way back in 1982, Formula 1 announced plans to hold a race in New York for the 1983 season, identifying areas in Queens and Long Island as possible options, with an alternative being Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“I’m delighted that at last this is going to happen in New York,” then-FOCA president and Brabham team owner Bernie Ecclestone said.
‘It’s happening 10 years later than it should have. The three proposed sites are all excellent, close to transportation and restaurants, a factor that was missing at Watkins Glen.”
The race ultimately never happened, although CART did manage to get to Meadowlands for 1984, the race lasting until 1991 when the money dried up and the fans stopped coming.
Another attempt to get a race in New York City itself followed, with an event on the streets of Manhattan planned for 1992. It was ultimately canned over a dispute between Marlboro owner Philip Morris, who was due to bankroll the race, and city mayor David Dinkins, the latter not willing to make concessions on his anti-tobacco advertising stance.
As Joseph Siano of the New York Times put it at the time: “Everyone who couldn’t believe there would ever be an Indy car race through the streets of Manhattan can keep on disbelieving.”
The disbelief continued through to 2010 when, now as F1’s ringmaster, Ecclestone announced plans for a ‘Grand Prix of America’ to be held at Port Imperial in New Jersey.
Launch events were held with the New York City skyline being the main attraction, with then-world champion Sebastian Vettel playing up the event. Future Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi even lapped around the proposed circuit, telling me back in 2013 that it was like “Monza on the city streets”.
But it all came to naught. Questions over funding led to delays and multiple postponements before the project ultimately faded away. The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas ensured F1 had some kind of standing in the United States, the grand prix returning in 2012 and going from strength to strength. But a second race remained a dream that wasn’t coming to fruition anytime soon.
F1’s new owner, Liberty Media, has made its intentions clear when it comes to forming future calendars. New F1 CEO Chase Carey is keen on “destination cities”, with New York being high on his list, but the reality remains that staging a motor race in the city is a mammoth task.
But it is one that Formula E managed last weekend.
HOW DID THE RACE COME TO BE?
One of the newest championships established by the FIA back in 2014, the all-electric Formula E series has quickly become of significant interest for figures and manufacturers within motorsport.
Formula E stages events in cities – where electric cars are most needed – that bring the future of automotive technology to the masses. Beijing, London, Paris, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires are just five of the major locations the series has already visited, making New York a natural choice for series CEO Alejandro Agag.
“Alejandro came in to see me before season one, before they’d ever done a race. I’ve known of Formula E for quite some time,” explains Michael Hopper, a former sports commissioner for New York City and adviser to Formula E for the race, heading up its organization on the ground.
“There is no easy way to get an event of any size or stature done in New York. I was part of New York’s bid for the Super Bowl, and it took us a great many years to get that one here. It takes time, it takes a proven track record, and it takes some creativity by a lot of parties to get an event done for New York.
“So I know New York has always been near the top of Alejandro’s list after our initial meetings before season one. He always had a glimmer in his eye. He wanted to be here in New York.
“It’s a conversation we’ve had on and off through the years. When they started to look at season three and what that calendar would look like, it was time to add New York to that schedule.”
The ‘where’ had always been the problem with previous attempts to get a race in New York, but Red Hook emerged as a suitable location for a number of reasons, including the backdrop it offered.
“From the Statue of Liberty to New York harbor, Lower Manhattan and even downtown Brooklyn, there are portions along this course where you really have some amazing imagery where people really understand the location of where this race is,” Hopper explains.
“It only takes one picture or one image to know that is the skyline of Lower Manhattan, or the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Then from kind of a scheduling and disruption perspective, this area in Red Hook is a cruise terminal, that’s its normal operations, they’ve got cruises that go in and out of there every few weeks.
“So from a disruption standpoint, it actually provided us a really clear window to be able to do the works we needed, get the course prepared, do the race and move back out of there in a way that has a low impact on the business community, on the residential community, while really affording Formula E the ability to build a great, exciting course within the five boroughs of New York City.
“This isn’t one of the events where it takes place in New Jersey and they call it New York – this is New York City.”
The ease with which Formula E can get in and out without causing major disruption or any road closures was one benefit that Hopper thinks gave it an edge over a series such as F1 in the race to New York.
“I think there’s some differences in the series in general, whether it’s the length of the circuit, how many days you would need the circuit for,” Hopper says.
“Formula E’s schedule of practice, qualifying and the race all in one day is certainly an attractive proposition to different cities. And I think really when it comes down to it, the number one question you get from residents with a racing location such as either New Jersey or New York is the sound.
“I think that it’s a real leg up for Formula E when they start to branch out into other portions of their calendar to be able to provide the performance they do and the spectacle for the fans they do with that really limited introduction.”
THE REALITY OF RED HOOK
When it came to the race weekend itself, the on-track spectacle was an interesting one. The track layout itself was subject to private criticism from some of the drivers prior to the weekend, yet both races were filled with action.
The ease with which the Formula E paddock can be put together was obvious in Red Hook. The teams operated out of the usual tent garages, giving the pit lane a look like any other race. Fans were able to sample the eVillage, an important center for spectators on the race weekend with plenty of entertainment options, as well as checking out many of Red Hook’s offerings.
Red Hook itself was a curious mix of scruffy, degenerated streets and some up-and-coming new shops, pointing to the ongoing gentrification of the area. Something that really caught my eye was a Tesla dealership just a few blocks from the track, a nod to a message of sustainability that Hopper believes made Red Hook an ideal location for the race.
“If you think about Red Hook, it was a community that really suffered some damage or repercussions to the Hurricane Sandy that hit New York City a few years ago,” Hopper explains.
“That community is really at the forefront of thinking about sustainable energy, thinking about renewable infrastructure, and really hallmarks of Formula E.
“When you start to think about neighborhoods, if you pick any neighborhood in New York City to hold a Formula E race in, Red Hook would have already been near the top of that list. So I think it reflects the community really well.
“If you take a walk in Red Hook, a lot of the local businesses have had signage up in their windows promoting the race. There’s a gelato shop in Red Hook that created a specific flavor and named it after Formula E. There’s really cool local interest in it. They’ve bought in and want to be a part of it.”
Even when leaving the track and returning to Manhattan, Formula E’s presence was felt. The Empire State Building was lit up in the red and purple colors of the DS Virgin Racing team, an act that got tongues wagging an ocean away in the F1 paddock at Silverstone over the British Grand Prix weekend: “Why aren’t we doing that?”
But did it really feel like you were racing in New York City?
“Not at all. I just saw walls with the advertisements on, that was it,” said a to-the-point Jean-Eric Vergne after the first race on Saturday.
Alas, the enormity of racing in New York was not lost on all of the drivers, with Sam Bird – winner of both races – speaking particularly warmly about the event.
“The first thing to say is congratulations to everyone involved putting this event on. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to put this event on,” Bird said after his victory.
“It’s been an amazing week so far. It’s my first visit to New York, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and this race made it a lot better.”
The reality was that a race in Manhattan, while remaining the dream for any racing series, is not really viable. Red Hook offered a solution that, while still hard to pull off, was possible. The drivers on-track may not have felt like they were racing in New York once their visors were down, but few circuits on the Formula E calendar achieve that.
Those attending the event were under no illusions, though: all you had to do was gaze across the East River.
AN ELECTRIC FUTURE AND LEGACY
After working so hard to get a race in New York City, Formula E wasn’t going to let this be a one-and-done event. If it was going to roll into town, it needed to know that it could be a yearly visit.
“That was one of the main points of our conversations with the local authorities. We didn’t want this to be a one-off,” says Hopper.
“We wanted to make sure that Formula E would be in New York for a long time to come, and that is the scope of our agreement and our conversations, that this is going to become a fixture on the New York City calendar every summer.”
The location of the race is very helpful in making this happen. While a number of other cities that have hosted Formula E have faced pressure over the event and been forced to either relocate or, in London’s case, scrap the race altogether, the lack of disruption caused to Red Hook should prevent this happening.
Formula E is also looking to make a lasting legacy in the cities it visits. The New York City ePrix was the first event for the series that ran with zero-emissions, bringing clean, renewable energy to the Big Apple. The after-effects work for both the championship and, in Hopper’s eyes, the city too.
“I think when you think about the main points of Formula E’s brand, racing in city centres and racing in the biggest cities in the world is one of them, so New York needs to be on that list, so I’m glad that they’ve achieved that and they are going to be here for a while,” Hopper says.
“On the city side, I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in the electric vehicle portion of it from our local elected officials to community organizations, as well as a sustainability portion of it.
“Formula E’s goals to be carbon-neutral is really setting the standards for other US sports and New York sports and sports teams. So I think there are a lot of different takeaways that can come from both sides of this.”
From a racing point of view, though, history has already been made: Formula E has won the race to New York City.
“I give Alejandro a lot of credit on that,” Hopper says. “This has been a focus of his. From early on when we spoke, I think he understood what it was going to take to be able to get a race approved in New York City.
“He knew New York was where Formula E needed to be, and he’s made a lot of right steps and a lot of right decisions to be able to race here.”
Speaking after the race weekend, Agag made no secret of his pride of having got the race off the ground and finally managed what so many other series chiefs had tried and failed to do.
“Formula E has a habit of breaking new ground. This weekend in New York was yet another example of achieving what many thought was impossible,” Agag said.
“We managed to bring international open-wheel racing to New York for the first time in history, this is something that sets Formula E apart from any other series, bringing electrifying motorsport to the world’s leading cities.
“The race in New York was a defining moment in the series and years in the making. We worked tirelessly with the local authorities to find the right location. It couldn’t be Central Park and Liberty State Park wasn’t an option either.
“I actually thought it wasn’t going to happen, I didn’t lose hope but I wasn’t certain we’d get Formula E to New York… it hadn’t happened before in any form of open-wheel racing – then we found the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. It was the most viable option and it also meant we didn’t need to close any streets.
“But, best of all, we still had the most spectacular view of New York. I had a similar feeling on the grid as at our first-ever race in Beijing. We’d done it, and the race proved to be a resounding success in front of a sell-out crowd.
“As the saying goes, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere!”
Formula E may still be growing as a series, but its achievements last weekend must not be understated. Sure, it wasn’t the biggest global motorsport event in history, nor did it get its cars speeding around the streets of Manhattan.
But it broke ground and laid good foundations for the future. Formula E didn’t talk about having a race in New York City; it had an actual race in New York City.
Actions speak louder than words. And in the city that never sleeps, Formula E was able to make motorsport’s long-held dream a reality.