In NASCAR’s backyard, an F1 watch party highlights the sport’s American growth

CHARLOTTE, NC — It wasn’t too long ago that Formula 1 fans in the United States had to wake up quite early on Sunday mornings to watch the World Series wherever it takes place that week. Being a US-based fan was a challenge, an obstacle that kept many from getting into the world’s most popular motorsport. And the idea of ​​fans gathering in a bar to watch a race was considered laughable. No establishment would be interested in opening its doors that early, and there weren’t enough fans to justify it.

Standing on the terrace of Lucky Dog Bark & ​​Brew, a dog-friendly bar here that also hosts F1 watch parties for every race, Ted Pandaleon, 37, shakes his head as he remembers what those days were like . Growing up in Chicago, he was such an avid F1 fan that he dreamed of one day finding a job in the sport. Still, as big a fan as Pandaleon was, those early morning start times — often before 7 a.m. on the East Coast — were prohibitively expensive for live viewing. So he had set up his parents’ VCR the night before to record the race, then watch it at a more reasonable time.

Never thought Pandaleon would be standing here in a bar in the US, beer in hand, watching an F1 race with other diehard fans while raging dogs frolic around him. But on this Sunday in July, here Pandaleon and around 30 other F1 fans gathered to watch the British Grand Prix. For Pandaleon, a graduate of the University of Southampton with a master’s degree focusing on racing car aerodynamics, the scene reminded him of his time in England, where F1 is considerably more popular than in the United States.

“I never thought I would see something like this,” Pandaleon said. “I did my tertiary education in England, and so we would all meet for the pub races and watch them. But I was never really able to get things done here – not that I was trying too hard, but I never thought it could happen. It’s really cool.”

Fans wearing shirts and hats from their favorite drivers and teams sat around high tables on the terrace to watch the race on one of eight televisions. A table featured supporters of Alpine, Alfa Romeo and Red Bull; another table was made up of Ferrari and Haas fans, one of whom wore a T-shirt with a picture of Haas director Guenther Steiner, who looked unimpressed and his famous quote, “We look like a bunch of wankers”. Most were dedicated fans.

Dogs come with the territory on Formula 1 show nights at Lucky Dog Bark & ​​Brew in Charlotte. (Jordan Bianchi / Athleticism)

When a wild crash occurred on lap one that saw Guanyu Zhou flip behind a barrier of tires, a chorus of “oohs and aahs” broke out. And worry swept the patio as security personnel worked to extract Zhou, whose condition was not immediately known, followed by applause when it was learned he would be fine. The enthusiasm was there throughout the race. There were loud cheers when Lewis Hamilton made a cheeky pass from Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc, cheers when Mick Schumacher got into position to earn his first career point, and a mumble of expletives when not once, but twice, Ferrari employed a dodgy pit. strategy to harm Leclerc’s championship aspirations.

“It’s always on my mind, how are they going to mess this up,” said a Ferrari fan. “When there’s nothing at stake, pit stops go well. It’s only when it matters that Ferrari gets it wrong. And you know once (Leclerc) had to leave the lead, he was going to come out fourth, because, well, Ferrari.

What Lucky Dog sums up is how much popularity F1 has grown in the United States over the past few years. Because not only was the group made up of long-time fans like Pandaleon and Karl Klein, whose German father was a big supporter of Michael Schumacher and passed on his love for Ferrari to his son, but also newbies who recently got hooked on the F1.

Like so many Americans who have recently discovered F1, Tyler Goodwell’s journey to fandom can be traced in the popular Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive”. After watching the first episode which covered the 2018 season, Goodwell was captivated by the behind-the-scenes look at a world that for so long had been closed to the public.

“With F1, I always felt like there was a bit of a veil there,” Goodwell said. “If you watch F1, unless you’re really into it already, it’s quite hard to appreciate what you’re watching because they’re not real cars and there’s nothing relatable about it. So you have to have something that sparks interest and on top of that you have the pilot problem where for a very long time it’s very hard to break in and appreciate who everyone is and who is under the helmet. ‘Drive to Survive’ lifted that veil and broke down that wall where you’re like, ‘OK, I can get in there.’ I can understand and appreciate what’s going on.

Last year, Goodwell shared his newfound F1 fandom with Pandaleon and fellow patron Jay Mingoes while visiting Lucky Dog, a place the trio frequented, and discovered his friends shared a similar interest. Wanting to watch races together somewhere, they spoke to Lucky Dog co-owner Randy Waugh, himself a motorsports enthusiast, who offered his bar as a venue.

“There were maybe four or five of us at the start,” Goodwell said. “Then he just started growing. At one point, people were walking past the bar and they were like, “Oh, that’s cool. Can we look around ? But we didn’t know if we could invite them since it was a private event.

A light bulb went on where the trio thought of opening the party up to anyone who wanted to attend. Waugh agreed, and with that, Queen City F1 – the official group that organizes watch parties – was formed. Their first gathering was last summer with just a handful of people and has grown ever since.

“It’s growing pretty quickly and it’s pretty cool to watch,” Goodwell said.

Watch parties for sporting events are certainly not uncommon, even for a sport like F1 whose popularity in the United States, while growing, still lags behind several other sports. But Waugh says Queen City F1 events generate a level of excitement he doesn’t often see even when Carolina Panthers fans gather at Lucky Dog to watch games.

“I like, I like this environment,” he said. “It’s stronger than when a Panthers game is going on. There are more cheers.

The uniqueness of this horological celebration is evident on several fronts. For one thing, it’s in NASCAR’s backyard, where every major team is based around. Some in attendance described themselves as casual NASCAR fans, others said they paid no attention, and there were a few who closely watched America’s most popular form of racing. A common refrain is that F1’s earlier start times, usually between 8am and 10am ET, as well as the shorter duration of the races make it easier to consume, requiring less commitment than a typical NASCAR race that switches to the green in the middle of the afternoon and extends over three hours. .

Another difference is the age of those who came to Lucky Dog to watch the British Grand Prix. A number of fans Athleticism spoke was under 40, underscoring a key tenet of F1’s rise: its expanding fanbase falls into a younger demographic compared to most other motorsport series.

“A lot of people my generation and younger are very interested in the sustainability aspect,” said 25-year-old Jay Campbell. “I know so many people from university who had no idea, didn’t really care about motorsport, but when they learned the net carbon impact is almost zero, they think it’s really cool to be able to do everything it without having any impact.

Of course, the most distinct feature of this watch party is the dogs. Many of them sprinted all over the patio like they had their own mini-race – down the long driveway in front of the bar in a sharp right-hand bend through chairs, around a pillar and then over another all away which took them to the game area featuring a long black tube. At one point, as a pack of dogs ran over three, one of them lost traction and slid into several others, causing the pack to bounce into chairs. One observer joked that the dog reminded him of Nikita Mazepin, a former F1 driver known for frequently driving beyond his limits.

The pack included Rorschach, which received this name due to its black-and-white coloring; Sawyer, a boxer mix; Maggie, an exuberant Great Dane; and Senna, who belonged to Pandaleon. He chose this name because Ayrton Senna was his favorite driver as a child and he knew that every time he got a dog he would honor the popular three-time world champion who was killed in an accident during the Grand Prix. of San Marino 1994.

“I had the name decided on long before I even had a dog,” he said. “Senna was fearless. And as he said, “If you’re hesitant to take a swerve, you probably shouldn’t run.” One of the earliest memories I have, unfortunately, is the morning he was killed. He just has that kind of divine persona.

By the end of the British Grand Prix, Carlos Sainz had taken his first career win, prompting several jokes that Ferrari, despite their missteps, had somehow found a way to take the win. Hamilton put in his best performance of the season and several other notable storylines rocked Queen City F1. Many did not leave immediately, instead ordering another round so they could rehash what happened. They planned to return to Lucky Dog the following Sunday to watch the Austrian Grand Prix.

It’s become a tradition, which looks like it won’t be broken anytime soon.

“Even three or four years ago, I never would have thought we would have a gathering like this,” Klein said. “But now it’s kind of come in leaps and bounds, so it’s good to see, and we’ll see what it’s like in four or five years. I can only imagine.”

(Top photo: Jordan Bianchi / Athleticism)

Robert M. Larson