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NASCAR’s claim on the American public has officially come under threat. Ten years ago, Formula 1 and NASCAR were more than 5.5 million viewers apart. But in 2022, the Miami Grand Prix and the Darlington Raceway NASCAR race, held the same weekend, both racked up an average of 2.6 million viewers — the first time a Formula 1 event has ever matched NASCAR numbers. This begs the question: Is it really possible that Formula 1 will overtake NASCAR to become America’s new favorite motorsport? With NASCAR’s slow death among its core fanbase and Formula One’s rapid expansion to the fresh American market, the answer to that question may be a resounding yes.
Outside the U.S., Formula One is undeniably more popular than NASCAR. In the 2022 season, NASCAR averaged over three million viewers per race, the most they’ve had in four years. Meanwhile, the 2021 Formula 1 season saw an average of 70 million viewers per race. Despite the current chasm in the two’s popularities, the sports had similar beginnings. The NASCAR Cup Series began in 1949 with nine races, and Formula 1 had its first championship season a year later in 1950 with eight races. Still, each sport had a slightly different approach from the start.
NASCAR quickly barreled towards being the quintessential American sport. Within three years, it grew to holding 37 races, competed by rural, working-class men like Lee Petty and Ralph Earnhardt with cars that the American consumer could buy. Today, the core principles remain: The cars are tough, the drivers are tough, and the racing is tough. Short of intentionally wrecking another competitor, there’s not much that you can’t do. This, paired with NASCAR’s origins being intertwined with Prohibition-era moonshine runners, gave rise to its original fanbase: mostly rural, southern men. Nowadays, one of the biggest criticisms of NASCAR is its supposed alienation of that core fanbase. By attempting to broaden its appeal, NASCAR seems to have lost its most consistent supporters.
Formula 1, meanwhile, has always prided itself on its elegance — even calling themselves “the pinnacle of motorsport.” Teams spend upwards of $100 million — with some teams putting down as much as $400 million before a cap was introduced — per season designing and building cars at the forefront of engineering, racing around the globe in something adjacent to a traveling circus. While Formula 1 will never be as rugged a sport as NASCAR, NASCAR can’t compete with the international prestige that Formula 1 offers.
Furthermore, unlike NASCAR, Formula 1’s attempt at broadening appeal has been wildly successful. Since a takeover by Liberty Media in 2018, Formula 1 viewership has been growing rapidly in the United States — between 2018 and 2022 average viewership grew from just over 500 thousand to around 1.4 million. Social media revamps, young drivers connecting with their fans in new ways, and — maybe most importantly — the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive” have all helped boost Formula 1’s U.S. popularity. In fact, according to Formula 1, season 4 of “Drive to Survive” was the most watched show on Netflix in 33 countries, including the U.S. The New York Times even reported from an on-site survey that more than one-third of attendees at last year’s Austin Grand Prix mentioned the show as a reason for their attendance.
With NASCAR’s steady decline in viewership since 2005 and Formula 1’s recent meteoric rise, the time seems ripe for a lead change in America’s top motorsport. To most Americans, NASCAR has always belonged to the “rednecks” —an association strong enough that NASCAR’s attempts to broaden their viewership are not only pointless, but discourage the dedicated fans they do have. Perhaps younger Americans are ready to shift away from the patriotic, everyman atmosphere that accompanies NASCAR.
Formula 1, on the other hand, represents a new sport for American fans to indulge in — one characterized by global fame, high stakes, and an array of celebrity drivers to fawn over (scroll through Charles Leclerc’s Instagram to understand why). This new appeal is something NASCAR simply cannot match and, in a few years’ time, it’ll pay the price.
Does this mean Formula 1 is objectively a better racing series than NASCAR? Not necessarily, but one thing is for certain: as the younger generations take to the road, Formula 1’s global appeal certainly has the power to kick NASCAR to the curb on America’s motorsport podium.
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