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Sport shifts to high gear in U.S.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a sports-crazy country like the United States, isn't it odd that the world's highest-paid and most popular athlete is almost unknown? Isn't it odd that Michael Schumacher of Germany will be making his first professional appearance of his 10-year career here this week?

Michael who?

Around the world, 31-year-old Michael Schumacher is bigger than Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Pete Sampras.

Around the world, Schumacher and his chosen sport - Formula One auto racing - attract a larger audience than anything except the Olympics and World Cup soccer.

Though the sport has a small, loyal following in the United States, the last time many Americans paid attention to it with any sense of excitement was 1978, when charismatic American Mario Andretti won the Formula One World Championship. The United States has not been host to a Formula race since 1991.

But the Formula One cars are returning. And Schumacher is coming.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway - the world's best-known speedway - is host to the United States Grand Prix this weekend. The event is the first under a three-year contract between the speedway and the European-based governing bodies of the sport. It is the key to their effort to re-establish the sport in the American consciousness - and open new markets for the sport's corporate sponsors.

Schumacher is a two-time world champion with 41 career wins, placing him in a tie for second for the all-time number of wins. He earns a salary of about $30 million - before several tens of millions of dollars from endorsements and sales of the "Schumacher Line" of products, ranging from T-shirts to cigarette lighters to teddy bears.

Though his peers occasionally grouse about his aggressive driving style, Schumacher is considered the greatest race driver in the world. In a sport where technology usually is regarded as making the difference between winning and losing, he is said to be worth "a half-second a lap" through skills that are otherwise difficult to quantify. He drives for the fabled Ferrari team of Italy - whose car this year is regarded as inferior to the British-built McLaren - and has won more races than anyone this year.

Schumacher is an avid soccer player, a doting father of daughter Gina Maria, 3, and son Mick, 1, and an animal lover. Earlier this year in Brazil, Schumacher and his wife, Corrina, adopted a mongrel pup when it wandered into their lives, named it "Floh" (German for "flea") and flew it to Europe in a first-class seat.

But unlike most auto racing series in the United States, Formula One is more about technology than personalities.

"Of course, there are some very poor races and boring races," said Eddie Jordan, owner of the Jordan Formula One team, which gave Schumacher his first Formula One ride, in 1991. "On the other hand, there are some very, very exciting races. But, I think that the one great thing about Formula One, which you people in the States miss, is that unlike your Indy program or your IRL program, Eddie Jordan and his team and every other team has to design, create, test, race and compete with each other with our own products.

"Our gearbox is a Jordan gearbox, the same with the chassis, the wheels, everything. And so what you have is a set of regulations that each and every team has to evaluate as to the very best way of presenting and designing a car that will give them the advantage, they hope, against everyone else."

The successful teams boast staffs of at least 300, jealously guard every detail of their designs from prying eyes and spend more than $150 million a year. They compete in 17 races a year, held in 15 countries.

A gearbox can cost $130,000 to make, and Jordan said his team uses 15 of them a season.

A steering wheel goes for $30,000 - it includes some of the electronics that operate the engine and gearbox - and an average team will use eight.

The cost of transporting equipment to five continents adds up to about $8 million a year for each of the 11 teams. Even the dry-cleaning bills are impressively large: about $60,000 a year for each team.

The engineering and extravagant costs have been part of the sport's recipe for success outside the United States. The series' largest market is Europe, but it has made advances in South America and Asia. The races typically draw crowds of at least 100,000; more than 200,000 tickets have been sold for the race in Indianapolis.

The series' television audience is 400 million viewers worldwide for each of the 17 live Formula One broadcasts.

"But what we have not been able to do - which is a failing on our behalf - is that we have not been able to have anything like the same ratio of appeal in the U.S.," said Jordan, an Irishman whose team finished third in last year's series and is currently placed fifth.

In the United States, the only people who get and stay really excited about the series seem to be the advertising agencies of major corporations, for U.S.-based companies provide the bulk of the sport's financial support. Ferrari's sponsors include Philip Morris Co. (which uses Formula One cars to promote Marlboro cigarettes), FedEx, General Electric and Tommy Hilfiger. Lucent Technologies and MasterCard sponsor Jordan. Significant backing for other teams comes from Compaq Computer Corp., Computer Associates, Yahoo! and ExxonMobil. Ford Motor Co. owns the Jaguar team.

To the corporate elite, Formula One is a direct link to worldwide recognition. But the series is often viewed as elitist and closed.

"It is up to us to help you to understand the sport," said Jordan. "This is our big chance, a fantastic opportunity that we may never have again."

Short of finding an American driver who might do for the United States what Schumacher's success has done for interest in Formula One in Germany, teams are searching for ways to be more accessible.

"We've got to make it more exciting for you, to show the technology of it, but also to make our drivers' names household names," said Jordan. "We are all mindful that every team is going with one agenda, and that is that we have to open our hearts, our teams, our people to give as much education as we possibly can.

"We need to open these doors, create new momentum, create an ambition to try to find a high-quality driver in the United States who can try for a world championship. We need to work toward becoming a totally global sport."

While the Formula One series works on all that, much of the focus this weekend will be on Schumacher, who is in a tight contest for winning a third championship. After comfortably leading the championship through midsummer, Schumacher arrives in Indianapolis trailing Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen of the McLaren-Mercedes team by two points.

"I have always been a good hunter," Schumacher said, in a statement released by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Yes, the contest is close, with just this weekend's race and two others - one in Japan, the finale in Malaysia - before the end of the season.

"It should concern me but, honestly, the differences [between the top two teams] are in such an area that if you get it right at the next race, the advantage can easily be the other way around," Schumacher said.

And so the world's highest-paid athlete will arrive at Indy in the midst of a points battle, looking for a championship. That's something most Americans can relate to.

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