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.”
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?
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.”
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.
@F1 has something good going on. Because the cars DO NOT battle side by side. (Maybe every once in awhile). But the fans relate. What is it?
— Kenny Wallace (@Kenny_Wallace) October 19, 2021
“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.”