Formula 1's Race Strategy in America Isn't Convincing Fans to Stick Around

Photo:  Alex Bierens de Haan (Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Bierens de Haan (Getty Images)

When I asked new motorsport fan Alexandra Kueller about her first Formula 1 experience, she summed it up in one word: corporate. A recent live racing convert after a mid-COVID Drive to Survive binge, Kueller took advantage of a free ticket to head to her first-ever race, the 2022 Miami Grand Prix. From her perspective, the event just didn’t live up to its immense hype.

“I don’t know if I had any expectations of Miami, but my biggest takeaway was that this race felt geared toward corporations rather than fans,” Kueller said. “It felt very capitalistic — and it feels silly to say that, because I understand they have to make money. It just seemed like the fans were there to walk around and spend money, but they’re not who this race was for.”

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When I asked Kueller to paint a picture of her experience, it wasn’t exactly promising: “We luckily had seats with shade, but if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to justify sitting out there for hours on end with such limited view of the track. It’s May in Miami, and this race is in a parking lot. We had really good seats, but there were only so many amenities they can build in.”

“It’s not that I’d never go back to F1,” she explained. “It’s just that I won’t go back to Miami unless it was with another free ticket.”

Kueller isn’t the only one left distinctly unimpressed by her trip to Florida; another fan, Kate, who asked to be referred to by her first name only but who verified her attendance at the race with Jalopnik, found that her first-ever Grand Prix left her wondering if the whole “racing” thing is worth her time.

“I’d never really researched going to a race before,” Kate told Jalopnik, “so I didn’t realize I was paying through the nose for something that’s not typical of a Grand Prix.”

Between race tickets, lodging, and flights, Kate estimates that she spent somewhere “between $4,000 and $5,000" for a Thursday-to-Monday trip. A New Mexico native who spent her college years in Florida, Kate said she thought she was better primed than most to deal with the heat. Even she was surprised by a lack of shade or hydration options.

“I had sweat through my shirt before I even got into the track, but I kept telling myself it’d be fine once I could get some shade,” Kate said. Unfortunately, shade was desperately limited; by the time she got in the track, she was joining hordes of other sweaty fans fighting for relief from the heat. The two of us shared a laugh as she compared the event to Warped Tour, a massive summer festival for indie and emo bands that often took place in a parking lot. The biggest differences, Kate said, were “the ticket prices, and the fact that I’m just too damn old for this now.”

Kate, like Kueller, decided by the end of the weekend that she wouldn’t be returning to the Miami Grand Prix.

“You remember that line in Tiger King; ‘I am never going to financially recover from this’?” Kate asked. “Like, it wasn’t fully that bad, but now I’m looking at all these other races I could have gone to overseas for less money, and I kinda feel like I got screwed over.”

Kevin, another fan who asked to be referred to by his first name, was a little bit different. The 2022 Miami Grand Prix was only one of the many Grands Prix he attended. A longtime American F1 fan, he sported his Ferrari flag at the race track as early as the first-ever GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s seen the sport’s complex evolution here in the States, and at first, he was thrilled by the opportunity to head to two American Grands Prix in one season.

“I had this bad feeling about it from the moment I bought my tickets,” he said. “I convinced my wife to swing by Monaco on our honeymoon. Miami’s prices? Blew Monaco out of the water.”

His at-track experience, too, left him distinctly dissatisfied. A Jalopnik reader, Kevin pointed to the article I wrote after Miami last year, where I noted how out of place I felt as a former poor kid in an atmosphere dedicated less to motorsport than to cultivating a high-profile image of wealth and celebrity.

“It was just a bunch of people going so they could put it on their TikTok,” Kevin said, noting that he was definitely aware he sounded “like an old fart.”

“But it was the first time at the track where I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with anybody else,” he added, his voice tinged with sadness. “I was like, this isn’t racing. This isn’t Formula 1. It’s a high-end selfie museum in a parking lot.”

I asked if Kevin, a Florida native himself, would attend the race again, and he laughed.

“It’s the easiest race, distance-wise, for me to get to. Drove there in a few hours. But would I come back?” He laughed. “Yeah, maybe if I was paying what the tickets were worth.”

“What would you say your tickets were worth?” I asked. For reference, Kevin told me he had gone with a three-day General Admission ticket, which was just under $600 last year.

Kevin thought for a moment before he answered: “$300, $350, tops. $400 for GA, and you’re pushing it for any track, let alone one where you can’t see a damn thing.”

F1 has historically struggled to attract and maintain an American audience. Here in the States, we nurture a relationship to sport that’s quite different from what you find in Europe; when it comes to the realm of motorsport, we’ve had enough domestic products that we haven’t really needed Formula 1 to keep us entertained.

That started to change when the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone indoors to do nothing but watch Netflix for hours on end. People with absolutely no prior interest in racing turned on DTS for a little something to watch, and they got hooked. Fans of the show became fans of the sport, and when F1 returned to the Circuit of the Americas in 2021 after its pandemic-canceled event the year prior, it was to record breaking crowds.

F1 naturally saw an opportunity in America and worked to seize it. If hundreds of thousands of fans would show up to a purpose-built track outside Austin, Texas, how many would come to, say, the heart of a major city? How many races could one large country sustain while still maintaining enough exclusivity per event to keep selling out grandstands?

The answer, of course, is too complex to sum up in any handful of words, but F1 decided to try its hand deepening its scope of competition here in the States. It decided that, for the first time since 1982, three races in America might actually work.

F1 might have spoken too soon, if only because its ambitious projects completely bypassed the fans ready to show up to as many races as possible and aimed directly at the VIPs. F1 fell for FOMO marketing.

FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” is an acronym that’s picked up traction in our social media influenced world because we can see so many people posting about their great lives, and we want to experience that, too. That fear of missing out lends itself easily to marketing; if that TikTok influencer credits a certain product with her youthful, dewy skin, you’ll really want to buy it. If that Instagrammer went to a particularly gorgeous place in Italy, well — you’ll want to go there, too.

But this kind of marketing strategy can only go so far, since it’s rooted in a rapidly changing attention economy. No influencer today is going to be able to make a career out of the “cottagecore” trend, because that trend is over. The influencer has to move on now that the hype surrounds a different trend.

You can see this at play with the Miami Grand Prix. That first year, everyone wanted to be there. It was a new race. It was exciting. It was going to be glamorous, but it also promised to be a little silly. It was the place to be if you wanted to be seen being an F1 fan in 2022.

This year, with less than a month to go until the race, the circuit is begging fans to renew their tickets.

I spoke to another fan, Andrew, who forwarded me the increasingly desperate emails he got from the Miami GP organizers, pointing out flash sales and discounted ticket prices. The most recent was dated within three weeks of the race weekend — a drastic change from 2022, where tickets had sold out almost immediately.

FOMO marketing is a fine line to balance. On the one hand, charging hundreds or thousands of dollars for tickets to a race creates a sense of exclusivity that can contribute to people wanting to attend. But if no one at the track experienced hundreds or thousands of dollars of value, they aren’t going to come back. Instead of creating a dedicated fan, F1 has created an event doomed to wilt away as soon as the FOMO marketing hype moves on. We all know what the Miami GP is like now. We watched it happen. Maybe we were even there. But now, there’s another race — an even more expensive and exclusive race — on the calendar. Miami is no longer the place to be seen. Now, we’re looking at Las Vegas.

This strategy works, but not for long. The massive gulf between ticket prices and expectations at American street races aren’t designed to create long-term investments in the U.S. fanbase; it’s intended to make the most money in the shortest period of time. In the meantime, new F1 fans will lose interest. Long-term fans will turn their eyes abroad. The sport will wither away in America as quickly as it exploded. If Formula 1 intends to dig into the American audience for the long run, its current strategy is unsustainable. It needs to do better — not just for the fans, but for itself.

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