It's understandable that many American Formula 1 fans would take a skeptical view of grandiose plans for races on their home turf, given the checkered history of U.S. Grands Prix. Announcement last October of a new effort to stage an F1 race on a 3.2-mile temporary course along the waterfront that will incorporate parts of West New York and Weehawken, N.J., produced a lot of responses along the lines of, “show me,” but the Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial is setting out to do just that.
On Monday, Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel and David Coulthard were involved in a promotional event on the site of the temporary circuit scheduled to host its first race in June 2013. Founding chairman of the event Leo Hindery Jr. was delighted with the results, which included a spirited “test drive” of the course by the reigning World Champion in an Infiniti road car (click here for video).
“I don't think anything could have come across better,” he enthuses. “Sebastian Vettel is just spectacular, and then to stick David Coulthard with him…we had so much fun and the press as well that were able to jump in the car. Except for four speed bumps that are still there as you go up the hill, I don't think anybody's ever driven that fast on those roads yet!”
Hindery was also pleased by Vettel's enthusiasm about the circuit after his road-car run, noting that it reflected his own aspirations for the track.
“By happenstance, when we first announced it, I was first asked to describe the course and I said, ‘Race like Spa, look like Monaco,'” he says. “I swear I didn't mention that at all to Seb, but when he was asked about it, he mentioned Spa as well, so that was a compliment.”
Hindery knows of what he speaks, for although he is more widely known in the business world as the former CEO of YES Network – the nation's largest regional sports network, which he founded in 2001 as the television home of the New York Yankees – and prior to that, CEO of AT&T Broadband, he also has a lengthy resumé as a racer.
“I raced in the ALMS, went to Le Mans four times, won it in '05 (with the Alex Job team's Porsche 911 GT3 RSR –Ed.), came in second in '03 in class,” he relates, explaining that this background put him in a prime position to fulfill the often-thwarted goal of running a major auto race in the New York metropolitan area.
“In the course of my own racing, I got to know and grow very fond of Bernie Ecclestone,” he adds. “And I knew of his long-term interest in seeing a course developed in the immediate New York area. A lot of people, myself being one of them, had struggled to find something that met all of the various criteria, and when this project called Port Imperial – a wonderful upscale residential community on the shores of the Hudson – was put together, you could literally see a circumference evolving that looks like Spa but is a seven-minute ferry ride from midtown Manhattan.
“But, you can't just propose that you want to do something with Formula 1 – it's got way too much sophistication. So, you go through a process. We hired Tilke to give us a design concept, we talked to the Governor (Chris Christie of New Jersey), who could not have been more supportive; and, fundamentally, two mayors through whose towns this course runs. You sort of tie it all up in a package and then you go back to Formula 1, and we continued to have their enthusiasm and, ultimately, their support.”
Part of the packaging was in finding a compromise between the gravitas of New York and the logistical challenges of racing there, Hindery admits: “It wasn't possible to find a course on the New York side of the river. This thought that you could run through the canyons of Manhattan, you just can't do that. So it took the perfect site.”
He's confident he's got that – the upper levels of the garage complex, now under construction (Vettel and Coulthard do burnouts past by some of the construction at start/finish, LEFT), will contain hospitality suites with views of pit lane, the front straightaway and the New York City skyline. Hindery feels the site and its amenities will appeal to both sides of the New York/New Jersey divide on which it sits.
“It's shared enthusiasm, for sure,” he says of the reaction the GP America group has received from the two communities. “My gut tells me about half the people will come from the east side of the river and the other half will come from the west side. The hotel accommodations on both sides are similarly strong; the entertainment venues are a little different, with New York City a little more sophisticated in terms of theater, Lincoln Center, where metropolitan New Jersey is very funky, fun, more youth-oriented night entertainment, especially in Hoboken.”
Of course, in addition to entertaining the customers, a street race needs to make sure its construction process doesn't generate negativity among the locals. Hindery is confident that GP America won't.
“There's two aspects to that,” he says. “One is that we're actually paying for the privilege of bringing this race to these communities. We haven't asked for any subsidy – we don't want it – and we will be reimbursing the towns for any out-of-pocket expenses they incur. So in effect we are paying a sanctioning fee to the two towns, which is novel in the United States in high-level sports. I believe that's the right way to go, and we never thought of going any other way.
“And, because half the course will be on the shores of the Hudson and the other half at the top of the Palisades, it means that nobody lives in the interior of the circuit. We are able to put it up and disassemble it and actually run the race itself with everyone able to access his or her home. Even while we're putting it up and down, people will continue to transit the roads, and relative to any other urban setting in the world, it's truly a minimum of disruption.”
Hindery also doesn't see any prospect for disruption in the fact that the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, will beat GP America to an F1 race, as the permanent road course is scheduled to host its inaugural race this November. He reckons both events can comfortably co-exist.
“I think they're completely different, and the fact that it's such a large country, they will probably go forward very differently as well,” Hindery says. “Obviously, one's a special-purpose track, the other's a street course; one's in the largest metropolitan area in the nation and one of the largest in the world, and Austin's a wonderful college town with a very different feel. My guess is that it will attract a somewhat different kind of fan.
“I think they'll do very well, but there will be very different outcomes, I suspect. We're very fortunate to have two international airports, thousands and thousands of hotel rooms and very established entertainment and hospitality facilities, and we'll probably play into those strengths as Austin will play into its.”
Meanwhile, it's all systems go for Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial, with construction proceeding for the first race next June.
“We currently have around 30 vendors under contract, from paving to beverage sales,” Hindery says. “I'd say we're about halfway along on the permanent facilities, which will be the pits and the Paddock Club.”
He also notes that the event – which has a 10-year deal – intends to maintain its June date for the long haul.
“We're scheduled for the third week of June and our intention – it's not really for me to say, but I believe the sport's intention – is to keep us together [on the calendar] with the Canadian Grand Prix,” Hindery relates.
Putting those two alongside Austin's United States GP and talk of a renewed Mexican Grand Prix in the near future, it looks a new golden age of Formula 1 in North America will soon be upon us.
Follow all developments for the new race via its official website at GPAmerica.com, where you can register to receive additional information. You can also follow the track on Facebook and Twitter.