For most American auto racing fans, drivers with names like Gordon, Bodine and Martin compete at places like Talladega and Darlington. The ideal race involves a Dodge drafting a Chevy down the back straight of a steeply banked oval track. Nothing but left turns and plenty of torque. Touching bumpers and ramming door handles at 200 mph. North American Stock Car Auto Racing.
A fraction of racing fans, however, thrill to the names of Interlagos and Nurburgring, follow the exploits of Fisichella, Villeneuve and Haakinen, and show their loyalty to "constructors" such as Williams, McLaren and Ferrari. Formula One Grand Prix racing is contested 17 times a year, in countries from Malaysia to Brazil, from Austria to Japan (but, prior to last year, not for a decade in the United States). Open-wheel F1 cars, barely three feet high and capable of putting out 800 horsepower at 18,000 rpm, little resemble factory-standard cars like your Grandpa's Buick. The best drivers make a half-million dollars per 90-minute race. With circuits in locales like the streets of Monte Carlo, F1 has long been associated with international glamour, wealth and prestige.
Surprising, then, that Formula One has a Spokane connection. During a lull in July's British Grand Prix, the Speedvision announcer sent on-air greetings "to all our fans at the Swinging Doors Tavern out in Spo-cain, Washington, where folks get up at 4:30 am in order to catch our live broadcast. My goodness," he continued, "it must still be dark out there."
Dark indeed. A cadre of wrench-heads had nevertheless made the predawn trek just to witness F1 racing on a big screen via satellite. They deliberately lose sleep because they crave the adrenaline-pumping moment when five starting lights blink on, then off, and 22 cars rocket toward the first corner. From a standing start, each of those cars is capable of screeching up to 100 mph, then braking to a full stop -- in less than six seconds. F1 cars accelerate so fast that, as their computerized launch controls propel them off the starting grid, drivers' facial features are distended. Experienced Grand Prix fans always bring earplugs.
The early birds in Spokane almost need ear protection just for the big-screen telecast. As Juan Pablo Montoya roars through some difficult curves at Monza on the screen above us, Dick Hazelmyer proudly shows off his souvenir program from the 1962 German GP, held at the old 14-mile-long Nurburgring course. He can boast of a 45-year association with Dan Gurney, one of the sport's giants. It quickly emerges that Spokane's early risers are not merely casual fans. Todd Hudson recounts details of races from the '70s. Penny Jo Wagner, the group's spearhead, sports a racing jacket and a Ferrari flag. She roots loudly for her favorite driver, the current and four-time World Champion, Michael Schumacher of Germany.
And then there's Dennis Kegel, unflappable during the broadcast's tensest moments, a man whose sparse remarks are peppered with terms suggesting a deep technical understanding of Formula One.
Slowly it emerges that, well, sure, Kegel knows a little bit about auto racing. In consecutive years (1980-81), all he did was redesign and modify the Porsches that won their GTU class at the 24 Hours of Daytona, once outdistancing his nearest competitor by 68 miles and coming in third overall. His casual conversation is a seminar on active suspensions, airfoil design and carbon-alloy brakes. Shown a picture of one of Kegel's old cars, Hudson remembers not only its engine capacity but the type of brakes it used.
These guys know their motor sports.
Both Hudson and Kegel came to F1 via their first love, the world of sports car racing. For both, "F1 is the pinnacle -- absolutely," says Kegel. Why, then, is NASCAR so much more popular in the States?
"First of all, [American fans] can identify with it," Kegel says. "It's not perceived to be a bunch of rich snobs with names that are hard to pronounce."
Wagner adds that fans can relate to NASCAR because stock cars resemble our everyday commuter cars. (Adding to the unfamiliarity, there isn't a single American-born driver among the two dozen F1 racers.)
"Even more important," notes Kegel, NASCAR "is more competitive. They have achieved more parity than any other professional sports organization. NASCAR is home-grown, it's competed in by god-fearing people, and they do a tremendous job of appealing to the family," continues Kegel. "There's tons of passing. We've grown accustomed to circle-track racing because you can see the cars on the entire track. You know, Americans have some pretty decadent habits. We just want to sit in one place, watch the cars go by, be able to see the whole course, eat popcorn and drink some beer."
The international F1 circuit demands much from its followers. "All the bumping and passing and chasing [in NASCAR] -- it's easier to understand for the average fan than all the technical stuff in F1," says Wagner.
Nevertheless, a quarter-million people will turn out at the Brickyard in Indianapolis this Sunday for the United States Grand Prix. "That demonstrates the popularity right there," remarks Hudson. "We're just a small fragment of the sports world, but there are plenty of people who are interested in F1. And in the sport in general -- you ask guys locally who are in other forms of racing, they're aware of Formula One, they follow it. They may not be getting up at 4:30 in the morning to watch it on TV, but they know all about the developments."
All eyes turn to the tavern's oversize TV. Enrique Bernoldi of Italy is blocking David Coulthard in the McLaren, preventing the Scot from overtaking. It's a high-speed dogfight. Sleek machines streak past European billboards. The P.A. announcer is trilingual.
They don't race like this at the Kansas Speedway.
ABC will carry the U.S. Grand Prix live from Indianapolis on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 11 am, with prerace coverage at 10 am. Friday practice sessions and Saturday's qualifying will be shown on the Speedvision cable channel. Check local listings, or visit: www.usgpindy.com. Local F1 fans will gather at the Swinging Doors Tavern on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 9 pm for the Grand Prix of Japan.