F1 team picks Charlotte for new headquarters

Choice raises questions about Indianapolis' prestige

May 4, 2009
A decision by a startup Formula One team to set up shop in Charlotte, N.C., is fueling debate over whether Indianapolis still is the self-proclaimed "motorsports capital of the world."

U.S. Grand Prix Engineering announced its formation in late February and is the only F1 team headquartered in the United States. It plans to field two cars, both driven by Americans, for the 2010 season.

There are grounds for dismissing the significance of the decision. The F1 circuit this year features 17 races, none of which are on North American soil. Indianapolis Motor Speedway last hosted the U.S. Grand Prix in 2007, and never recovered from the race two years earlier, when all but six cars pulled out because of tire issues.

Still, that the new F1 team chose Charlotte over Indianapolis and a racing heritage dating to the first 500 Mile Race in 1911 could signal the end of an era.

The loss should be taken seriously, said Drew Klacik, a senior policy analyst and motorsports researcher at IUPUI's Center for Urban Policy and the Environment.

"We need to realize that other parts of the nation and the world are moving to maximize their share of the motorsports industry," Klacik said.

Charlotte is considered the hub of stock car racing, as most NASCAR teams and race shops are within 40 miles of the city. On top of that, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is set to open there next year.

So how does NASCAR benefit an F1 team? Plenty, according to Peter Windsor, a racing journalist who launched U.S. Grand Prix Engineering with Ken Anderson, an engineer involved in both NASCAR and Indy Car.

"We're just taking advantage of all the technology that NASCAR has promoted," Windsor said while in the Middle East for the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.

Windsor acknowledged he and Anderson "have a lot of love" for Indianapolis but ultimately think they need to be in Charlotte to succeed.

Indy vs. Charlotte

The technology that lured the team to Charlotte includes a state-of-the-art wind tunnel that Anderson designed and which Windsor said is considered by several F1 teams to be the best in the world.

A wind tunnel is critical to F1 teams because, unlike in other racing leagues, their cars are designed and built from scratch. Indianapolis has a wind tunnel, at the Auto Research Center on Guion Road, but it isn't full size, so teams must build model cars to conduct testing.

A slew of suppliers in the Charlotte area and direct international flights to many European cities further swayed Windsor and Anderson.

"From my perspective, coming from Europe, there are few places now that are as good as Charlotte in terms of the infrastructure that is available," Windsor said.

Indeed, an $8 million, 61,000-square-foot research and development center that's separate from the wind tunnel, coupled with the NASCAR Technical Institute, which trains 1,900 students annually, has helped make motorsports in North Carolina a $5 billion industry.

Not to be outdone, Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2005 launched an initiative within the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to grow the local motorsports industry by offering incentives to prospective businesses.

Since then, 16 companies have taken advantage of a sales tax exemption to create nearly 600 jobs while investing more than $51 million in their operations. National Hot Rod Association drag racing teams that have established headquarters in Brownsburg, near O'Reilly Raceway Park in Clermont, are responsible for a large portion of the investment.

IEDC officials declined to comment on the F1 team's decision to locate in Charlotte. But Tom Weisenbach, executive director of the Indiana Motorsports Association Inc., a not-for-profit that promotes the industry, said Indianapolis still has a stellar reputation.

"Would we like to have them? Absolutely, if it's the real deal," he said. "We have the resources. But we'll be OK."

Part of the reason the team likely bypassed Indianapolis is the unstable open-wheel racing environment that has persisted since the ugly divorce 13 years ago between the Indy Racing League and Champ Car, said Derek Daly, a former F1 driver who resides in Indianapolis.

It will take years to return open-wheel racing to the prominence it once enjoyed, Daly said, and only then will it regain the credibility it needs to attract business.

"What I would like to see is Indiana, through the growth of Indy Car racing, become the viable alternative to any new teams that want to set up," he said.

Other observers say it's only logical that the F1 team chose Charlotte. Anderson, they point out, has other racing interests in the region in addition to the wind tunnel.

"It's that simple. I don't think there is any hidden agenda past that," said Mike Hull, managing director of the IRL's Target Chip Ganassi Racing team in Indianapolis.

Skepticism abounds

Yet local racing enthusiasts are skeptical that an F1 team can survive in the United States, particularly due to the exorbitant overseas travel costs involved to get to the races.

Veteran motorsports journalist Robin Miller likened U.S. Grand Prix Engineering's decision to a NASCAR team's setting up shop in England. While Miller and others want the team to succeed, they have difficulty understanding the logic.

"You can't have a Formula One team based in the United States," Miller said. "It doesn't matter if it's in Indianapolis, Charlotte or Helena, Mont. It makes absolutely no sense." 
Source: XMLAr01602.xml

Recent Articles by Scott Olson

Comments powered by Disqus