Let’s Get An American Driver: Part 2 - An American Team That Wants to be American

"I don't think we have to lean more [into being American]. We do Haas CNC and Haas tooling there, they are both American companies, you cannot be more American than them." -Gunther Steiner

HAAS F1 Team Headquarters Building in Kannapolis, North Carolina
HAAS F1 Team Headquarters - Kannapolis, North Carolina

Nestled back off a somewhat non-descript country road of NC highway 73 on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina and just down the road from Charlotte Motorspeedway, is a little sign that reads "Stewart-Haas Racing, Haas Formula 1 Team" and an arrow pointing to a side street.

Full disclosure, I grew up close to there, I still have family there and drive past their "Team HQ" every time I go visit. I'm always struck by something, the parking lot of the NASCAR team, Stewart-Haas Racing, is almost always full. The building of the F1 team often looks like a ghost town. Of the 243 employees on the Haas F1 LinkedIn page, only 13 are located in North Carolina. LinkedIn is by no means an official count, but it's telling.

Haas is, for sure, an American team. Gene Haas the founder and CEO of Haas Tooling is based in America, Haas Tooling is based in America. Gunther Steiner, the team principal is based in America and owns at least one other racing-related business in Mooresville, NC (Race City, USA babyyy). A few of their executives and part of their corporate operations and admin team are based here along with their often hilarious and always on-point marketing team.

But the bulk of the racing operations are based overseas. Their technical and design teams are located in Maranillo, sharing a campus with their engine partner Ferrari, and many of their race team functions: logistics, control system, electrical engineering, vehicle science, performance and program management team, are located in Banbury, UK. Branbury is a hub for many F1 teams, Haas has benefitted from being able to tap into that talent pool. It's completely reasonable for Haas to have an office located there as it's difficult to relocate potential hires to the US when they have so many options right at their doorstep and the location is more central to many of the races on the calendar than the US.

Over the last several years, Haas has caught some flack, especially in the US media and the US F1 fan base for not really leaning into their American roots. It boiled up when they signed Nikita Mazepin, and his father's company Uralkali, to the team in 2020. The sponsorship saw the car decked out in red, white, and blue. But not because of being American, but because the Russian flag was banned from motorsport due to the Russian State-Sponsored doping scandal, and his father, Putin's good buddy, wanted a way to show off their Russian company and flag by skirting the rules. That ended up as a bust, both the driver, and the sponsor after a historically poor performance from Mazepin preceded Putin being a bitch by invading Ukraine making it easy to kick them to the gulag. Fuck you, Putin. You’re a baby-back-bitch.

It would have been the perfect time for them to dive into their American roots, attract some American sponsors, and capture the American fanbase. But they didn't. Or they haven't yet at least.

That hesitancy to dive in head first has led to something fairly shocking, and pretty disappointing in my opinion. The 2021 fan survey show that McLaren is by far the favorite team of US fans based, followed by Red Bull, Mercedes, and Ferrari. Haas missed the boat on the massive growth of F1 in America, and time is running out for them to right ship. Massive American-based companies, Google, Cisco, IBM, and dozens of others have flocked to European-based teams because Haas doesn't capture the American fans nearly enough to create the commercial value enough for their sponsorship.

But coming back to that original quote from above by Gunther, they don't seemingly feel the need to. In my opinion, having Haas as their title sponsor isn't enough.

An American driver would be a natural next step, and developing American talent should be on their radar, but isn't. Their close ties to Ferrari, and their reliance on outsourcing as much as possible leave them at the whim of the driver market and the Ferrari Academy which is currently without an American front runner. Even publically stating that they want an American driver would do wonders to encourage kids to get into the sport early in life, critical to building the skills and resume to reach Formula 1. Despite the lack of accessibility to the sport here in the States.

There's a long road to an American driver in the sport, which I've written about here. However, a team is about much more than its drivers. Haas has a unique opportunity to bring talented American engineers into the sport, and they should. Hell, in North Carolina alone there are two world-renowned engineering colleges, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, right down the road from their headquarters. That's not including the dozens of other top engineering programs in the States. Universities are always looking for partnership programs to get their students' real-world experience and if Haas wanted to, would easily be able to tap into those programs to develop American engineering talent for their team. Something that they could be proud to brag about.

They could make the American flag much more prominent on the car without giving off the impression that they are pandering to US fans. But even if it came off as pandering, what's more American than that? I'm not opposed to stars and strips everywhere and the occasional cowboy boots.

They could also do more to attract American sponsors. I find it impossible to believe that Haas can't find sponsorship dollars from prominent American companies if that was their strategic goal. Outside of UnderArmor, the rest of their sponsors are relatively unknown in the US if they even have any presence whatsoever.

There is a light peeking out at the end of this long tunnel though.

Enter Michael Andretti and Andretti Autosport

The Andretti name is essentially American racing royalty. Mario, Michael, and Marco all have a deep racing resume of their own, including in F1, and own a number of teams including a top Indy Car team. Retired racer, Michael, is the business brain leading the charge - and they are America's next chance for a team that leans into their roots. They have a rising American star on their Indy Car team, Colton Herta, a huge American-based engineering force, and numerous big-time American-based sponsors. Most importantly, he has an insane desire to take his team racing in Formula 1.

While the road to his entry is seemingly littered with obstacles, he isn't relenting. After an attempted purchase of Sauber in 2021 fell through due to last-minute conditions from the Sauber camp, Michael has submitted his interest to the FIA to start a team from scratch, Andretti F1. Through this SPAC Andretti Acquisition Corp, Andretti has secured the financial backing to afford the $200M new team entry fee, which was put in place during the negotiations of the last Concorde Agreement meant to lessen the effect on reduced revenue shares. He supposedly has the operating revenue committed through his sponsor network. Rich racing background, internally recognized name, an opportunity for another American team, good friends with Zac Brown. Sounds like a shoo-in right?

Not everyone is on board.

Many of the teams are worried about their reduced share of F1 commercial revenues if they had to split it 11 ways instead of 10. That's an insanely shortsighted view considering that Netflix's Drive to Survive boosted their viewership to unseens levels in many parts due to it captivating America's interest. Imagine what a truly American team that fans could get behind would do, especially considering that there will be three racing in the US from 2023. Austin has 400,000 attendees last year, on par with Silverstone. Miami had ran out of space and capped theirs at 240,000. Vegas is going to be potentially even bigger in 2023. Liberty Media's Formula 1 (NYSE: FWONA) stock rose 62% following DTS Seasons 1's debut, revenues increased 86% to $2.14 billion from $1.15 billion. Proof that the US market is key to expanding their business further.

Rumors are that the F1 teams aren't actually opposed to an 11th team, and are holding out to force Liberty Media into increasing the team's cut of F1 revenues. Something that they seemingly can afford, and if it comes down to it, they should.

If you haven't read it yet, Part 1 dives into the details about getting an American driver into F1 and why the FIA's current Super Licence structure needs to change. Part 3 will dive into the part that sponsorships play, from both the team's and drivers' perspective to getting an American into F1.

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