Formula 1, American Exceptionalism, and the Spectacle of Sport

I want you to think of the most American things you can possibly imagine. Things that epitomize our nation and its culture.   Think of the ingredients to the American Pie. Most would probably say hot dogs, baseball, football, and beer. Maybe George Washington; maybe the Statue of Liberty. I believe that list is missing something. Something that encapsulates Americana at its peak. A thing that is bold, aggressive, and full of tradition. Readers, I give you auto racing.  Although at quick glance it may not seem starkly American, allow me to explain.

In 1920, the United States Congress passed the 18th amendment to the constitution, enacting the prohibition of alcohol in all 50 states. Determined not to be without their vices, bootlegging alcohol quickly became a thriving black market business, and the only source of alcohol for thirsty Americans. In order to evade police, bootleggers would modify their vehicles to go faster and handle better,  perfect for the twisting Appalachian mountain roads. Racing through the mountains against the police spawned the beginning of stock car racing, particularly after prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The modification and racing of production vehicles became regulated under the formation of NASCAR in 1948. Racing in America, as we are familiar with now, was born. Today, NASCAR ranks second to the NFL in television viewers and fans nationwide. It is rooted in breaking the law and outrunning cops, and offers the fastest method of the most basic form of competition. It’s brash, it’s fast, and it’s loud. Sounds pretty American to me.

That being said, the highest level of racing in the world has little to do with America. This thing that identifies with America so well, that we love so much, and we’re not even the best at it. That’s not to say our nation hasn’t had success racing internationally before. The Ford GT’s of the late 60’s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four years in a row, including a 1-2-3 finish in 1966. The battles between Carroll Shelby and Enzo Ferrari are the stuff of legend. The latest model of the Ford GT won Le Mans in its class this year. However, there is one level of international racing, one I would argue is the most difficult and prestigious, that Americans haven’t made a sound in since 1978, with a championship by Mario Andretti. This level of racing is called Formula 1, and it is the fastest, most dangerous, and most celebrated racing league in existence.



Some of you may have heard the term American exceptionalism before.  This phrase is defined as a mix of the ideas that American history is distinctly unique, that America has a mission to bring freedom to the world, and that these two ideas combine to make America superior to its counterparts. This mentality applies to sports. Americans don’t hope our athletes win at the Olympics, we expect them to.   Another example might be the FIBA World Championships for basketball are rather noncompetitive for the American team compared to the NBA.  Yet when American athletes are participating in competition where they are the underdog, or a high level of success isn’t anticipated, and they perform above and beyond what is expected, we become enamored with it.  This is what made the FIFA World Cup so popular in America in 2014, and even a little bit in 2010. Soccer, or football, is the most popular sport in the world, and Americans have never been good at it internationally, at least the men. We as a nation were so enthralled by the games because we as fans finally had uncertainty in the result.  Fans were not expecting them to win, nor was it a foregone conclusion that they would lose.  Americans were waiting on the edges of their seats to see what would happen to the boys from the States.  This was the nationwide mentality of American Exceptionalism willing even casual sports fans throughout the US to become connected with the success of the men’s national team.  Our national identity is paired to the belief that we are better, and we were presented with a glaring example of how we aren’t.  The intense part of American exceptionalism is that it is not a macro concept. It gets shrunk down and applied to individual examples, meaning we don’t just strive to be the best overall, we strive to be the best overall at everything.

Formula 1 is another example of this same concept at work.  Just as international rivalry and superiority is related to the World Cup, the same political or cultural tensions exist within the world of racing.  And just as the world holds soccer in high esteem, the world also holds racing in high esteem.  Once again, we are not the best at something that people worldwide have a passion for.  What’s worse about this example as opposed to the World Cup is that America and racing have a cultural connection.  The reason why this dilemma exists in Formula 1 is mostly because there hasn’t been a solid American presence since the late 70’s.   But that is changing.  While there are no American drivers in the field this season, 2016 saw the introduction of the very first American-based team, the Haas F1 team. Founded by Gene Haas, the team is based in Kannapolis, North Carolina, the same place as his championship-winning NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas racing. The team features a car with parts sourced mainly from Ferrari with minor support from other racing product manufacturers. So while the team is not completely American, an American presence is now evident in Formula 1, giving its fans stateside some stake in the outcome of the races.   In a perfect world, it would be American manufactured with an American driver, but this is at least a start.   Additionally, the team has had some success this year, with its number 1 driver, Roman Grosjean, ranking middle of the field at 13th.  Haas also ended with a mid-table finish in the biggest race of the year, the Monaco Grand Prix, which leads me to my next point.

Another feature of sports Americans have come to expect is a spectacle. They want the big games hyped; they want championships to be bigger and better than the last. One look at the Super Bowl proves this. Stadiums become filled with celebrities, performers, and fans, all expecting to see a show.  Racing in America offers this as well.  The Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 are easily the biggest events of the year in their leagues.  In that sense it could be compared to events like the U.S. Open and the Master’s in their importance to the sports league it represents. Where winning one game is almost as important, or perhaps more so, than wining the championship outright. However, these events are superseded by Formula 1’s grandest race.

Monaco is a city featured for its Mediterranean views, fancy hotels, and beautiful casinos.  Overall it is beautiful, but does not quite measure up to Paris, London, or Rome.  With one exception: the days leading up to and during the Monaco Grand Prix.   The Super Bowl alters a stadium and its surrounding areas.  The U.S. Open changes part of New York City significantly.  The Monaco Grand Prix transforms  a city, temporarily molding the entirety of the tiny nation to fulfill the purposes of Formula 1.  The Monaco Grand Prix is the pinnacle of the Formula 1 season and offers a spectacle to behold.   As taken from the F1 website, Monaco “stands alone, almost distinct from the sport from which it was born.”  The Monaco Grand Prix has become elevated to a cultural event, a gathering of enthusiasts the world over to take in breathtaking visuals and become a part of one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

This is why Americans should start watching Formula 1. With the United States Grand Prix coming up on the weekend of the 21st of October, the time for Americans to burst onto the scene of Formula 1 has come.  The moment is soon approaching for an American to join the greats of Formula 1 like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Alain Prost.  And Americans should be waiting to be a part of that special occasion when it comes, to be a part of that great spectacle of racing that the rest of the world is already accustom to.  The time will come to live up to the exceptionalism we strive for, and to support our champion of racing with the fervor and passion that we are capable of.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia and Global Motorsport

Posted by Alby

Ride or die Oakland Athletics fan. I enjoy sports talk of any kind, but I find that sports business often gets overlooked. Additionally, I am huge movie guy; am from California/New York, but think Montana is the best state in the Union; and Classic Rock is the soundtrack to everything.

Website: http://Check%20Down%20Sports

Leave a Reply