Sport shifts to high gear in U.S.

SUN JOURNAL

Racing: Backers of the Formula One series hope superstar Michael Schumacher and other drivers can build a stateside following.

September 21, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

In a sports-crazy country like the United States, isn't it odd that the world's highest-paid and most popular athlete is almost unknown? Isn't it odd that Michael Schumacher of Germany will be making his first professional appearance of his 10-year career here this week?

Michael who?

Around the world, 31-year-old Michael Schumacher is bigger than Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Pete Sampras.

Around the world, Schumacher and his chosen sport - Formula One auto racing - attract a larger audience than anything except the Olympics and World Cup soccer.

Though the sport has a small, loyal following in the United States, the last time many Americans paid attention to it with any sense of excitement was 1978, when charismatic American Mario Andretti won the Formula One World Championship. The United States has not been host to a Formula race since 1991.

But the Formula One cars are returning. And Schumacher is coming.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway - the world's best-known speedway - is host to the United States Grand Prix this weekend. The event is the first under a three-year contract between the speedway and the European-based governing bodies of the sport. It is the key to their effort to re-establish the sport in the American consciousness - and open new markets for the sport's corporate sponsors.

Schumacher is a two-time world champion with 41 career wins, placing him in a tie for second for the all-time number of wins. He earns a salary of about $30 million - before several tens of millions of dollars from endorsements and sales of the "Schumacher Line" of products, ranging from T-shirts to cigarette lighters to teddy bears.

Though his peers occasionally grouse about his aggressive driving style, Schumacher is considered the greatest race driver in the world. In a sport where technology usually is regarded as making the difference between winning and losing, he is said to be worth "a half-second a lap" through skills that are otherwise difficult to quantify. He drives for the fabled Ferrari team of Italy - whose car this year is regarded as inferior to the British-built McLaren - and has won more races than anyone this year.

Schumacher is an avid soccer player, a doting father of daughter Gina Maria, 3, and son Mick, 1, and an animal lover. Earlier this year in Brazil, Schumacher and his wife, Corrina, adopted a mongrel pup when it wandered into their lives, named it "Floh" (German for "flea") and flew it to Europe in a first-class seat.

But unlike most auto racing series in the United States, Formula One is more about technology than personalities.

"Of course, there are some very poor races and boring races," said Eddie Jordan, owner of the Jordan Formula One team, which gave Schumacher his first Formula One ride, in 1991. "On the other hand, there are some very, very exciting races. But, I think that the one great thing about Formula One, which you people in the States miss, is that unlike your Indy program or your IRL program, Eddie Jordan and his team and every other team has to design, create, test, race and compete with each other with our own products.

"Our gearbox is a Jordan gearbox, the same with the chassis, the wheels, everything. And so what you have is a set of regulations that each and every team has to evaluate as to the very best way of presenting and designing a car that will give them the advantage, they hope, against everyone else."

The successful teams boast staffs of at least 300, jealously guard every detail of their designs from prying eyes and spend more than $150 million a year. They compete in 17 races a year, held in 15 countries.

A gearbox can cost $130,000 to make, and Jordan said his team uses 15 of them a season.

A steering wheel goes for $30,000 - it includes some of the electronics that operate the engine and gearbox - and an average team will use eight.

The cost of transporting equipment to five continents adds up to about $8 million a year for each of the 11 teams. Even the dry-cleaning bills are impressively large: about $60,000 a year for each team.

The engineering and extravagant costs have been part of the sport's recipe for success outside the United States. The series' largest market is Europe, but it has made advances in South America and Asia. The races typically draw crowds of at least 100,000; more than 200,000 tickets have been sold for the race in Indianapolis.

The series' television audience is 400 million viewers worldwide for each of the 17 live Formula One broadcasts.

"But what we have not been able to do - which is a failing on our behalf - is that we have not been able to have anything like the same ratio of appeal in the U.S.," said Jordan, an Irishman whose team finished third in last year's series and is currently placed fifth.

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