NASCAR stars Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin ponder F1’s surge in American popularity

F1 NASCAR Chase Hamlin
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For different reasons, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin are watching more Formula One than ever — but the NASCAR stars’ viewing habits also share a common thread.

Both Cup Series playoff drivers are deeply curious about what is driving F1’s spike in U.S. fandom as the global racing series returns to America for the first time in nearly two years.

That’s good news for followers such as Elliott, a self-described “huge F1 fan” who was wearing a Daniel Ricciardo shirt Thursday morning while making the media rounds on Zoom. The reigning Cup Series champion, 25, is also a devotee of the “Drive to Survive” docuseries that has been credited for F1’s growth since its 2018 Netflix debut caught the eye of his generation.

“It’s super fun to watch (F1), and they’ve got a lot of traction right now,” said Elliott, who used a 2017 off weekend to attend an F1 race at the Spa circuit in Belgium. “I don’t know if that is just because of the Netflix series, or what exactly it is that has driven some of that at least here in the United States. Obviously, they have a super interesting dynamic with how the TV broadcasts work, and ESPN getting those rights and being able to show that here in the U.S. I feel like that probably has a little bit to do with it.

“Then the Netflix thing certainly I feel like there’s been a lot of people that know nothing about racing, just friends of mine, that have watched that docuseries and have become fans of F1 and want to watch it. Which is super, super interesting to me.

“They’ve done a good job. I feel like they talk about the right things on their TV broadcasts, and the racing has been really good in my opinion this year. Obviously, a great battle with (title contenders) Lewis (Hamilton) and Max (Verstappen). I don’t know what’s led to it, but whatever started that process of those right decisions. Maybe luck of the draw of having some great racing this year with some extra eyeballs kind of at the same time — a right sequence of events for them. But they’ve got a good thing going.”

NASCAR Cup Series star Denny Hamlin said he is watching more Formula One than ever because so many friends are talking about the F1 races (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports).

Hamlin, who grew up following the Southern short-track Late Model scene like Elliott, isn’t as enamored with F1 but is no less captivated by its recent phenomenon of increased popularity.

“This year I’ve probably watched more races than I have my whole life, for sure,” Hamlin said. “Some of that is driven by social media. My friends are tuning into it. You see that the American press is giving it more attention this year.

“Obviously, when you see a buzz or see something on social media about it, you want to kind of tune in and see what’s going on. That’s kind of driven my interest in it, more so than anything.”

Hamlin also has become a “Drive to Survive” viewer but for more practical reasons. Bubba Wallace, who drives for the 23XI Racing team that Hamlin co-owns with Michael Jordan, is being followed this season by a Netflix documentary crew.

“It certainly made me tune into that to see how they did the production, and certainly it came across with some good storylines,” Hamlin said. “Certainly I’m a person that will turn into that series as it continues.”

It’s prompted many in the NASCAR industry to ask whether major-league stock-car racing can capture the same lightning in a bottle (or on film in this case). Plans fell through for filming a NASCAR-type version of “Drive to Survive” during the 2021 Cup playoffs, but the concept could return in 2022.

How should NASCAR go about positioning itself for content that can generate the watercooler buzz that F1 lately has realized?

F1 Grand Prix of USA - Previews
Red Bull Racing drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez posed with NBA jerseys after playing basketball in the F1 paddock Thursday in Austin, Texas (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Elliott said it’s a complicated issue.

“I don’t what the right or wrong answer is there,” he said. “The most important thing is how do you want your sport to be portrayed to the public. Netflix put that deal together with F1, and then I will say that was a very respectful, very intense way that people could watch and be like, ‘Holy cow, there’s a lot that goes into this. These guys aren’t just driving around the track as fast as they can. This isn’t funny. This is legit.’

“And the next thing was a comedy skit that came out for NASCAR that just kind of further confirmed the outside opinion that we just turn left for fun, and there’s nothing else to it. Yes, I do think the calculated decisions of how you want people to look at it can be changed for sure.”

That’s a reference to “The Crew,” a slapstick NASCAR-themed vehicle starring Kevin James as a crew chief that was canceled after one season on Netflix this year.

Aside from reinforcing cultural stereotypes, it’s difficult re-create the same insider access of “Drive to Survive” because F1 rarely had allowed such a peek behind the curtain of its paddock before. NASCAR, meanwhile, has built much of its branding around driver access for decades.

“I think one thing that helped Formula One is for so long it was such a closed shop, and people never got to know what the drivers are like or what it’s like in the garage,” McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, whose team fields cars in F1 and IndyCar, said in May before the Indy 500. “Formula One had the benefit of people who always wanted to get behind the velvet rope, and Netflix did that, where in IndyCar, NASCAR or football, it’s historically already let you behind, so the intrigue may not be initially quite as high.”

Elliott said Thursday that it would be tricky for NASCAR to raise barriers of exclusivity more than 70 years into its existence.

“I feel like that’s kind of an area that I feel like we’ve always been super open about, and I don’t see that changing,” he said. “I do feel like sometimes that there is on the F1 side, they have been able to create a little bit more of a VIP experience because of the limited access. I do feel like some days it makes it hard for us to create a Super VIP experience or whatever because of the access. I do think it has pros and cons and, when they put that thing out there on their docuseries, they let people in behind the curtain. And they portrayed it as a very serious sport and a very cutthroat sport that is a serious thing. It’s not a joke. It’s the livelihood of a lot of men and women, not just the drivers.

“I feel like it put a really nice landscape together of explaining that to people and explaining the fight for rides, the fight for a podium or fifth or sixth and how that can change throughout the field. They did a fantastic job, and I have to feel like with as popular as Netflix is, that has had an impact on their viewership.”

F1 Grand Prix of USA - Previews
AUSTIN, TEXAS – OCTOBER 21: Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia AlphaTauri talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of USA at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Mark Sutton – Pool/Getty Images)

Scuderia AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, one of the breakout stars from the second season of “Drive to Survive,” answers questions Thursday in an F1 news conference at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas (Mark Sutton – Pool/Getty Images).

F1 also has benefited this year from a compelling title showdown between fierce rivals Hamilton and Verstappen, who have feuded a few times over memorable on-track shunts.

But 29 of the past 33 races in F1 have been won by those stars’ respective teams (Mercedes and Red Bull), which leaves Hamlin perplexed – particularly with the U.S. Grand Prix poised to draw a record sellout Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, a week after NASCAR had a lackluster crowd at Texas Motor Speedway. F1 is adding a second U.S. race next year in Miami with reports that Las Vegas offiicals also have explored a return to the schedule as a third annual event.

“It’s crazy because you’ve got probably a 90 percent chance of picking which two guys are going to win” in F1, Hamlin said. “This year has been a little bit different with craziness going on, but there is two people that can win, two teams that can win. There is not much side-by-side racing, as compared to NASCAR, but yet fans and media love it.

“I think Kenny Wallace actually posted a very good question this week asking ‘What is it? What is people’s infatuation with it right now?’ because when you talk about how critical fans or media or whoever might be of our racing in NASCAR, it’s head and shoulders above anything going right now. The show is good. Why can’t we get people to turnout? Texas was just a big disappointment seeing what was up in the stands there, and yet we are talking about the biggest crowd in history showing up for COTA F1 race next week.

“So, there is some kind of disconnect that’s going on that’s not making this deal work, but I would love to see us have more of an F1-style approach to a race weekend and how we host hospitalities, parties, just all of those things. There’s just got to be more to it than us showing up and racing like we are doing right now.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.