When 14 Formula One drivers walked out the back gate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they quite possibly took the United States Grand Prix with them.

For a series that claims it wants a larger piece of the American market, the fiasco at Indy was a tremendous setback. Only six cars competed Sunday, creating a sham of a race that has jeopardized F1’s future in the U.S.

“Formula One is damaged, very damaged,” team boss Frank Williams said as he left the track. “Maybe irrevocably so in North America.”

Although F1 is the most popular racing series in Europe, Asia and South America – its TV ratings trail only World Cup soccer and the Olympics – the series has yet to catch on in America. In the weeks leading up to the U.S. Grand Prix, drivers, teams and even F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone talked of their desire to change that.

Ideas were discussed and Ecclestone was persuaded to award the U.S. television rights to four races to a startup company that bought air time on CBS for the broadcasts.

He also leaked information that Renault boss Flavio Briatore was hosting a Las Vegas businessman during the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago. It led to widespread speculation that casino magnate Steve Wynn was working with the series to stage a race along the Vegas strip.

But all those talks, efforts and ideas were sabotaged when concerns over tire safety for the seven teams that use Michelin caused them to pull out of the U.S. Grand Prix. The teams begged to reach a compromise with the FIA, the world motorsports governing body, that would allow them to race safely at Indy.

When no resolution could be reached, 14 cars pulled off the race track following the warmup lap and went home for the day. The fans at Indy were disgusted. Across the world, even the most ardent F1 supporters were mortified.

“It was, frankly, a sick joke and although I am long retired and was 4,000 miles away, I felt humiliated and embarrassed by what went on,” said former world champion Nigel Mansell of Britain.

“It was like watching someone commit suicide in public. My heart goes out to all those thousands of F1 fans who traveled from across America – not to mention those who came from overseas. They will not want anything more to do with F1.”

Before worrying about recapturing fans, Formula One first must figure out if anyone in the U.S. still wants to host a Grand Prix.

The contract with Indianapolis runs through next season. Indy track boss Tony George, who could be seen pacing and chatting on his cell phone during a frantic race-morning meeting, has yet to make himself available for comment.

He did, however, refuse to wave the checkered flag when Michael Schumacher crossed the finish line for his first win of the season, and George also boycotted the post-race podium celebration.

Track officials have said only that they are evaluating their options for future events, although they began accepting ticket renewals on Monday morning for next year’s race.

If the race does return to Indy, some doubt the fans will.

“Even if we do come back, half the crowd in the stands won’t be back, that’s for sure,” driver David Coulthard said. “Having this mistake take place, it will be a question of what actions will be taken to do damage limitation.”

Sports marketer Marc Ganis of Chicago’s Sportscorp Ltd. questions F1’s sincerity in its efforts to build an American fan base.

“They can talk all they want about it, but they certainly don’t act like they want to do it,” Ganis said. “They talk and talk and talk, then to go ahead and shoot themselves in the foot by basically destroying the event in Indianapolis … that leaves me to question whether it is a desire or commitment to grow in the U.S.”

Ganis believes F1 must increase its marketing efforts, take its drivers on an American promotional blitz and stage more than one race a year in the U.S. He points to seven-time world champion Schumacher, who rivals soccer star David Beckham in worldwide popularity, as an example.

“His reach here is extremely limited, he can walk down Fifth Avenue in New York and no one would know who he is,” Ganis said. “It’s the same way it was with Beckham. They had to work to build him here. Now he comes into New York and L.A. and he is treated like a rock star.

“That’s the price of entry into the U.S. sports market. If they aren’t prepared to do that, they shouldn’t be here.”

Drivers agree that the series needs more than one event in America. Of the 19 races now, Indy and Montreal are the only two in North America. The rest are in Europe and Asia, and the time difference forces Speed Channel, which holds the U.S. broadcast rights, to air them live early on Sunday mornings.

“F1 needs a couple of American drivers, an American car and five races in the States, which won’t happen,” Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve said. “So Las Vegas would be a good place for us because it is international, people go there for a good time, for a party, for gambling, so anything will work in Vegas.”

Now it’s just a question of whether Vegas – or any other U.S. city – wants Formula One.

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