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DESPITE RECORD INDY CROWD, F-1 IS STILL A TOUGH SELL IN U.S.

Formula One often produces a festive event more than it does compelling racing.

Since most of the crowd of more than 200,000 for the inaugural U.S. Grand Prix Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were presumed to be F1 fans, this fact was not a shock.

However, surely curious F1 first-timers at Indy left wondering why the international series is so popular.

With F1, the racing is secondary, although seeing the cars hurrying down the Indy straightaway at 215 mph is an impressive sight.

That there is very little overtaking is not important to the fans or the worldwide TV audience.

Polesitter Michael Schumacher dominated the first F1 race in the United States in nine years and finished 12.1 seconds ahead of Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello. As Schumacher crossed the famed brick strip at the finish line he was greeted by a sea of large red Ferrari flags waved by fans.

Other than Schumacher's seventh victory of the season and second in a row, the major development of the day was points leader Mika Hakkinen failing to finish the race. As they would say in NASCAR, the Mercedes engine on Hakkinen's McLaren race car "blowed up real good" on Lap 26.

Schumacher now leads Hakkinen, the two-time defending F1 titlist, by two points with two races remaining.

Even when someone like Schumacher cruises, most fans don't mind. Many attend F1 races to be part of the scene. Many wanted to be there Sunday for the first F1 race at Indy.

Fans waving flags of manufacturers like Ferrari and national flags is a familiar part of the F1 scene. Several young guys walked into the track dressed in blue and white Finnish flags in honor of Hakkinen.

A significant number of fans also are into F1's sophisticated technology. The noise from the 22 engines, each producing 18,000 revolutions per minute (rpm), puts serious strain on eardrums. Anyone not wearing ear plugs during the race will be saying "What?" in conversations for days or weeks.

Max Mosley, president of Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), a sanctioning organization, raved, as much as a proper 60-year-old British gentleman does, about the Indy facility and the crowds. Mosley said the attendance was the largest for an F1 race in modern history, double the previous top F1 race-day crowd.

Mosley knows that, despite Sunday's huge crowd, F1 is a tough sell in the United States. In almost every one of the 15 countries where F1 races are held, it is the No. 1 motorsports event of the year. In the United States, NASCAR and the two Indy-car series attract the most interest.

"The problem in the States is, not only is there massive sports of all kinds at the highest level, but there's also motorsports at the highest level," Mosley said. "It's probably the most difficult sports market in the world.

"Formula One is probably the ultimate road-racing series. It doesn't pretend to be NASCAR, CART or the IRL. Formula One is its own culture.

"I don't think there's much doubt that it will work (at Indy). The question is, how many years will it take. I would say that, in 20 years, it will be a very major event. The question is, will it be a major event in five years?"

For F1 racing to generate more interest in the United States it needs improved TV coverage. A network has to buy the entire 17-race F1 package.

Time differences make airing all the races live a headache for most networks. In the U.S., Fox Sports Net carries the F1 schedule. Many of the races are on live at 7 or 8 a.m. Sunday mornings.

Last Sunday, American viewers could watch the U.S. Grand Prix in an early afternoon time slot. From the standing start, David Coulthard, the second-fastest qualifier, accelerated past Schumacher and led into turn one. On lap seven, Schumacher passed Coulthard on the outside off the main straightaway into turn one. On the next lap, Coulthard was assessed a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for his jump-start.

From then on, Schumacher led the rest of the way in the 73-lap race, usually by more than 40 seconds. Coulthard worked his way back to a fifth-place finish.

Schumacher, 31, was surprised by the warm welcome he and the other F1 drivers received in Indy.

"Nobody expected to have such a great welcome from American fans," the two-time F1 champion said. "Not only American fans, but fans from around the world. The reaction of spectators has been magnificent; you see people everywhere. It's really, really nice."

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