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F1 drivers: To grow sport in America, there need to be more races

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It’s an idea that has been kicked around more than a time or two: Given the size of the United States and the country’s appetite for racing, would it make sense to run two Grand Prixs in America?

Several Formula 1 drivers believe it would.

“We do have the one race and this is a big, big country with a lot of sporting heritage,” Lewis Hamilton said during this week’s press conference before the United States Grand Prix. “They love intensely-fought games but also have something to look forward to – because there’s a build-up to multiple games. We only have that one race here, so the people, for example in this city or people in the close States that fly over for this one Grand Prix, which happens once a year, it’s like a festival.

“You can’t really get too excited about one festival in a season. So, that’s probably something that Liberty will be working on for the future.”

The creation of Haas F1 has already provided Americans with a home team to back. In their third year of competition, the team is battling the more established Renault for fourth place in the constructors championship and gaining ground.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean agrees that more races in America are needed to increase fan participation and interest.

“Well, I think, to me the obviously, answer (to how to grow the sport in America) is to get more races in the US,” Grosjean said. “I think most of the time it’s really hard for the audience to watch the Grand Prixs. It’s the middle of the night. It’s not easy to grow the fan base.”

To go along with the US-based team, an American driver is necessary.

Throughout the history of the sport, there have been a handful of Americans who competed. Mario Andretti was the most prolific. His son Michael Andretti is one of the most recent.

Phil Hill is the only American-born driver to win the drivers championship. But he did that well back in 1961.

Try to get more races here, hopefully one American driver into F1 soon, and that will help,” Fernando Alonso said. “I think it will take a little bit of interest into the sport and have a little bit more unpredictable races is more or less what they have here. To have people expecting the unexpected until the end.”

To have a driver who speaks our language – and not just our language, but with the American version of English – is recognized to be important to Formula 1 drivers.

“Currently they don’t have an American driver. We can do our best to put on an accent and fill those boots,” Daniel Ricciardo said in his best approximation of a Texan accent. “I can try all I can – I don’t know how these boys can do it but I’ll give it a red-hot crack and see how we go.”

Well, maybe “talking like us” is not the most important thing.

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida