The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas playoff race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s Round 2 elimination race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Contenders narrow

It’s been 14 races since Martin Truex Jr. won. It’s been 10 since Kevin Harvick won. Kyle Busch has one win in the last 11 races.

And yet, regardless of how each team is running, the Big Three have to be thrilled with how the playoffs are shaping up at this point.

That’s because the drivers who would seem to be the biggest threats to beat them at Homestead keep getting eliminated. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were out after Round 1, and now Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski are gone after Round 2.

Chase Elliott is perhaps the favorite to get the last Homestead spot right now, but can you really picture someone other than a Big Three driver winning the title? With apologies to the remaining five challengers, none of those remaining have the experience and history at Homestead that the Big Three brings.

Anything can happen, of course, and none of the remaining drivers are pushovers. It’s just that Homestead seems to require an extra level of speed and execution. Given the increased pressure and performance demanded by a championship situation, having been in that spot before — and achieving the ultimate goal — really does count for a lot.

2. What to make of Round 2?

Brad Keselowski won three straight races bridging the start of the playoffs, giving a false impression of how good his team really was. Keselowski himself was frank about the streak all along, saying he didn’t have the fastest car in any of the three races he won. But when a team goes on a roll like that, the momentum feels impossible to ignore. Suddenly, everyone had Keselowski penciled in to Homestead.

Then came a ninth-place finish at Richmond, a crash while leading the Roval and finishes of 14th, 27th and sixth in Round 2. Just like that, Keselowski was out.

Now Elliott has won two races in three weeks, and has seemed to be running better in general as the fall approached. That said, is Elliott’s recent run that different than Keselowski’s? Wins shouldn’t be ignored, but in terms of making a statement, it’s Harvick who was going to win both the races Elliott won — including on Sunday — without self-inflicted mistakes on pit road (one by the team, one by the driver).

So it’s tough to figure how seriously to take Elliott’s playoff hopes. He’s racing with confidence and his team is putting him in situations to capitalize on potential wins. Is that enough to put him in the Homestead conversation, though? I’m going to take raw speed over anything at this point in the season, and that still seems like Harvick every week.

3. SHR channeling JGR

All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers advanced to Round 3, making up half of the playoff field heading into the last four races.

When is the last time such a feat occurred? Actually it was only two years ago, when all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth — made it to the Round of Eight.

Kenseth and Hamlin were eliminated after Phoenix that year, with Busch and Edwards advancing to Homestead. Edwards then was infamously in position to win the championship until a late caution,  which reset the field, ended in a wreck with Joey Logano and ultimately turned out to be his final career race.

So how will this year unfold for SHR? Will more than one of its drivers get to the final four?

I’m going to say no. Harvick is a lock, but Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer probably need to win a race during this round if they’re going to make it. That’s because there’s such a large playoff points deficit to the Big Three, and you would think at least one of that trio will need to advance on points.

Bowyer could win Martinsville, but so could a number of drivers. The best bet for other SHR contenders might be if a non-playoff team wins one of the races and opens up an extra spot to reach Homestead on points.

Otherwise, Harvick might be riding solo into the championship round despite having three teammates in the semifinals.

4. Stale schedule hurts Round 2

Kansas was an OK race. It got exciting at the end, when there was a late battle for the lead. But had the playoff elimination scenario not been present all day, it would have been your standard, ho-hum 1.5-mile track race.

Logano dominated the early part of the race in clean air, until Harvick took over and did the same. Aside from the stage breaks, there was only one caution — for oil on the track when William Byron blew up.

It was just another reminder that NASCAR’s No. 1 issue isn’t personalities or tires or rules packages, but the tracks themselves — and where those tracks fall on the schedule.

The excitement and freshness of Round 1 seems like a distant memory after a relatively uneventful Dover race, a disappointing Talladega and then Sunday’s event at Kansas. This round’s watchability was masked by the good fortune of two popular Elliott wins, which pump up many in NASCAR. Overall, though, Round 2 promised more thrills than were actually delivered.

But remember the chaotic playoffs opener at Las Vegas? The first-time playoff event at Richmond? The hype and craziness of the Roval? The playoffs had gotten off to such a good start and were part of a string of great races that spanned a couple months.

Thankfully, Martinsville lies ahead next week and Round 3 also contains Phoenix’s new layout with the start/finish line in a turn (which might not change much with the racing, but at least it’s something new to talk about).

Maybe this is a wacky theory, but is it possible a stale schedule can leak into the on-track product at times? When a race gets hyped so much that even the drivers buy into it, is it possible they race differently? Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but Round 1 was a hell of a lot more compelling than Round 2 — and that seems backward for a playoff format that usually picks up steam as it goes.

5. Frustration continues for racing in U.S.

One of the year’s most-attended races in the United States happened on Sunday, and it wasn’t the NASCAR race.

Formula One and NASCAR went head-to-head once again this season — same day, same time —  and it only figures to get worse next year when they run in the same state as well.

I understand the reasoning for both series — F1 goes all over the world and doesn’t really care what NASCAR does, and NASCAR doesn’t have much of a window to avoid F1 — but that still doesn’t make it productive for either.

Think about this: What if NASCAR held the Kansas race on a Saturday afternoon? Then it could have sent its drivers to flood the F1 paddock, where they would have been portrayed as celebrities to the worldwide TV feed, increasing the international profile of the stock car series. Conversely, F1 is trying to gain a foothold in the U.S. but can’t really do that without dipping into the NASCAR fan base, which is the largest and most receptive audience in this country.

It all seems so self-defeating when you think about the challenges all forms of racing face today. With so many smart people working in both series and the obvious crossover opportunities, a greater effort should be made to lift up both NASCAR and F1 — even if one has to give a little more than the other to make it work.

Social Spotlight with Formula One’s Frank Arthofer

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to share their thoughts on social media. This week: Frank Arthofer, the global head of digital and new business for Formula One.

I noticed you came on board in June. As you get started here, what are some of the immediate challenges that you want to tackle, and what do you see as something you want to steer toward improvement?

As you know, and as our fans most importantly know, we’re not really engaged in making a big investment in the digital space to serve fans. I think our platform is a little bit dated in terms of and the F1 app. We have a team of — you wouldn’t believe it — less than five who are running all the content on our website and our app. We hasn’t participated in the fantasy gaming space at all.

So there is I think a lot of opportunity to deliver an experience to fans that makes us a core part of the way they interact with this sport and the digital space. That certainly exists on our own platforms, and even moreso probably on the social media space. So to me, that’s probably the biggest opportunity: Just investing to drive engagement and ensuring that when fans wake up every morning and Formula One is an important part of their life, that we’re a part of that life and we’re making it better.

So you come in and see these areas of need. Where do you even start? You don’t have huge staff and you don’t have all these things. What do you decide to tackle first?

I guess you sort of start with what your North Star is, which is I guess a strategy question. I’ve spent a dozen years in media tech, sports and entertainment, and for me, it’s going and looking at the big governing bodies who do this really well — the NBA is a great example — and kind of understanding what it is that makes them great.

Do they act as a media company and try to cover the sport somewhat independently as an example? Are they invested deeply in the platform and the technology side of the house to ensure that they’re personalizing and experience to fans, serving up the right content at the right time to the right people? So that’s kind of where we started. What are the people who do this best doing, and what are the common elements that we want to try and take and make exist in the Formula One world?

People in the F1 world, from what I understand, have gotten used to doing things a certain way for a long time. Did you meet any sort of resistance when you want to change this, or say “I’d like to do this, we want to improve this?”

Yes and no. I would say that all the incumbent staff who are in place in Formula One, almost to a man and woman has embraced changed in a material way. So internally, I think there has been very little resistance to it and, in fact, most of our best people have been waiting for this moment.

I think the challenge is in changing perceptions outside of Formula One, our relationship with teams and drivers. I think we’re slowly but surely working to build a more collaborative one. I think certain sponsors, probably in the old world of Formula One, wouldn’t have been interested in participating in the sport given some of the challenges in terms of the way it was operated. I think now it’s sort of moved to where actually we can be leading.

The brand is really strong and improving; we’re one of the most technologically sophisticated sports in the world, which really helps us given the way the market’s moving. So I think it’s more about the external educating process. And the most important of those constituents are the fans, and they too are rightly a little skeptical when we say, “Hey, we’re gonna invest in a big way in making great digital content.” Because we haven’t really done that for them at the league level — teams more so (have invested) than we have in some cases — for decades. But I think we’re cracking away at that foundation across the board.

In the NASCAR world, it seems like people are fans of certain drivers, but overall they’re fans of the sport. I don’t know how that compares to F1, but how do you present content to your audience with that in mind?

I think we’ve done a really good job building our foundations of being fun, being interesting, providing fans unique access on social. But I do think there are two things that make our sport unique and are both an opportunity and a challenge.

The first is the global nature. After the NBA, we have the second most fans of any annual global sporting event in the world. And if you take the U.S. out, we’re bigger than the NBA. So if you look at it through that lens, that’s a great opportunity — but it also means you need to be relevant to different tastes, different cultures around the world. And I think that’s something that we need to start to bring a little bit more to the way that we program and develop and deliver content on social.

The second piece is we have largely a very unique and exclusive rights position, particularly as it relates to what happens on the track, and we work closely with our broadcast partners to ensure that they have de facto exclusivity aside from us in most markets. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of taking advantage of that, frankly — that opportunity that exists from a video rights perspective. If we’re the only place aside from broadcast partners in the market where you can go and get great data around the race that’s live or get the official highlight at the end of the race that’s immediately available — which we are — I think that’s a really great unique selling proposition for fans. It’s a reason for us to be a part of their daily or weekly cadence with the sport, and we haven’t really elevated that enough. So I think that’s probably the second opportunity or challenge that we’re faced with.

I read your bio and it seems like you’ve done a lot in the OTT space, which is “Over the Top” streaming content. How do you see that evolving for the future? All of our habits are changing so rapidly.

Well certainly it’s obviously disrupting the media business in a material way, no more so than here in the U.S. as we sit in the Austin Grand Prix in the Haas tent. But I think for us as a sports right holder, it probably more than anything presents an opportunity, right? There’s more competition in the market for rights, which is a good thing. I think there’s more ways to reach fans through the Internet, which is a good thing, particularly in markets where cable TV isn’t as mature. And I think it presents an opportunity for us to go direct to consumer and build a subscription service that for our hardest-core fans who will always be the most important to us, super-serves them, and deepens their experience in relationship to the sport and with Formula One. (Note: F1 is planning to launch a subscription streaming service.)

Where is this all going? Are we even going to be watching TV as we know it in 10 or 15 years from now?

We’re getting into a philosophical conversation about the future of TV now. How much time do you have? (Smiles) Yeah. People will continue to watch TV. I think it’s an impossible question to answer because it’s so broad, right? Video viewing time is going up, so the value of premium video content will, in my mind, continue to grow. The ways people watch it, the devices on which they watch it, the ability for advertisers to reach consumers in the way that they’ve always done is going to change.

If you take advertising as an example, you’re gonna see more and more branded content on TV. It’s become the ad sales “soup of the day” from a digital content perspective. There’s not any big RFPs (requests for proposals) in the market nowadays that don’t come with some kind of branded content element that’s editorially authentic to the fan but also integrates the brand in a way that makes sense. You’re going to see that on TV, it’s not always going to be 15-to-30-second TV spots for two minutes every 10 minutes. And that’s the break in the content.

So we’ll see that in other spaces for sure, but I think it’s all sort of rooted in the notion that if you offer a premier piece of content, people are going to care about it and continue to watch it. Technology is unlocking more ways to consume it rather than disrupting that in a material way.

Do you have a sense for what kind of content F1 fans like? And I’m asking this from a place of pure ignorance. Are F1 fans in general more into the technical aspects of it, where they love the telemetry and the data? Do they want driver interviews? What does well for you guys?

So not all fans are the same, obviously, and I think it depends on what platform you’re on. Social, by nature, is going to be a broader platform, and you need to appeal to a wider set of tastes. Then your own platforms are, by nature, going to be a slightly smaller group of people as you’re further down the funnel. And as you go even further, the subscription products, you’re even further down the funnel and you have an even smaller audience base.

So I think the hardest-core fans that are the least price sensitive who want to spend more time and money with Formula One are going to be the ones that understand every element of the sport deeply. They want the (NBA writer) Zach Lowe-style piece for Formula One — statistically driven, really data driven, almost like I’m in the strategy room making the decisions around the car and how it gets set up.

And on social, I think access … to some of the lighter elements of the sport. We like to say we take F1 seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. I think that’s probably a space that appeals to a broader range of people and can be kind of viral and shareable. That’s fun. We want to be fun on that platform and it’s required, because we’ve got 15 million followers on social versus a million or so that use our platforms on a weekly basis. It’s just a different group.

In the NASCAR world, the drivers have sort of been conditioned to play along with social and be really a big part of that. How willing are the F1 drivers to accommodate the requests you guys have if you have a pitch for them? Are they in that mode yet, or do they have more work to do to get there?

I would say at the moment, we don’t pitch to drivers directly because we try to build that relationship with teams. I will say that there are a lot of drivers who want to work directly with Formula One and sort of see the direction we’re taking in terms of investing in capabilities, investing creatively and editorially in this sport. And I think equally there are teams who support that, too, and kind of look at it as, “Hey, if F1 can help us grow this sport, that’s a good thing for everybody.” It’s not so much, “We have to grow the Red Bull team only,” or the Ferrari team only.

I guess the short answer is varying degrees. But I think most have kind of come around to the notion of social media presence, digital presence, direct relationships, interactions with fans. It’s pretty much net positive from everybody, from a commercial perspective, from a sport perspective and from a brand perspective — even if your brand is Daniel Ricciardo. So I don’t think there’s a lot of education to do; it’s more about finding the right operating model to work together on it.

I know the hot topic around here, or at least I’ve heard about it this weekend, is what F1 can do to get it more relevant in the United States. It seems like a long road, since motorsports in general is struggling at times in the United States, NASCAR included. Is there anything from a digital standpoint that you guys see that can help, or is it something that is going take time?

It’s funny, I was walking around Austin yesterday and I saw so many F1 shirts and hats. I heard people talking about it. I heard store owners commenting on how busy they were because F1 was in town. So it feels to me like Austin’s pretty healthy. I know that the sales have been incredible this week.

But yeah, obviously we’re not in the zeitgeist in the same way that other major sports are, and the same way that, frankly, we are in most other countries in the world. I think digital will help and the presence of OTT will help. I think our ESPN relationship will help, as that’s always been a great platform for growing sports. And I think in general, the presence of social media and the investment we’re making in that space, given how mature that is in the states, should help, too.

So I think it’s a lot of things. It’s not one silver bullet, it’s more like a collection of a lot of small initiatives that will hopefully lift this sport. I mean, it is the greatest racing spectacle in the world, so I think it’s more about getting fans to try and understand it than it is about really anything else. So we’ve gotta do a good job there.

What else do you want people to know about the efforts that you guys are doing that you just want to pull out there? Do you have a message to your fans?

Continue to give us feedback from a fan perspective. We look at Reddit every day and we see the fan forums, so it’s helpful to know how everybody feels about it. And then I should also plug the Susan G. Komen Foundation; obviously we’re going pink this week in Austin and it’s a really important initiative for us in Formula One, and it’s near and dear to my heart, actually. So those are the two big messages, I’d leave you with.

Formula One Diary: Sunday night

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the sixth in a series.

I’ve spent the past four days documenting some of the differences between Formula One and NASCAR while experiencing my first F1 event. At times, it seemed very foreign — not just the accents, but the racing itself.

But fear not: Sunday’s United States Grand Prix actually showed how similar F1 and NASCAR can be.

Don’t believe me? Check out these quotes below and see if you can tell which were from the NASCAR race in Kansas and which were from the F1 race in Austin:

1. “The rules have got to be consistent. You can’t apply them differently to different instances. That’s our frustration out of today.”

2. “The problem is, we all spend an awful lot of money going racing. You want it to be consistently refereed — professionally refereed. And when you get decisions like today, it’s difficult to understand where the consistency is.”

3. “Where do you draw the line? For fans and casual viewers, it needs to be clear.”

4. “Don’t say everyone else can run off the track anywhere you like and never give any penalties — then I do it, and you give me a penalty.”

5. “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Seems like we’ve got a lot of stuff that kind of gets changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it.”

Think you know the answers? Let’s see how you did.

— The first four quotes were all from the F1 race. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner made the first three comments, and No. 4 was a comment Max Verstappen made to NBCSN.

— Quote No. 5 is what Matt Kenseth said after a penalty for too many men over the wall ended his championship hopes at Kansas.

So there you have it. It took until the last lap of the F1 race, but it finally felt like someone was speaking my language.

Rules are a funny thing in racing. The complaints often turn out to be about the application of the rules rather than the worthiness of them.

For example: Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on a restart early in the Kansas race for going below the white line. That lit up NASCAR Twitter for two reasons — first of all, that penalty is not called very often (if ever); second, Kevin Harvick — the car behind Truex — did the same thing, but was not penalized.

According to reporters at the track, the rule was discussed in the drivers meeting and it only applied to the front row, so NASCAR probably called it correctly. But that sort of thing drives fans absolutely crazy, because getting it right this time means they’ve missed it in the past.

If there’s going to be a rule, all fans really want is for each driver to be treated the same — every time.

A similar scenario happened on the last lap in Austin. Verstappen, an electrifying 20-year-old racer, chased down Kimi Raikkonen and made a sick pass in the second-to-last corner of the race to earn a podium finish.

The fans were thrilled, and Verstappen was understandably giddy with glee on the radio. It was a fantastic moment!

But it didn’t last long, because F1 officials — or “stewards,” as they call them here — decided Verstappen had not stayed within the “track limits.” He used the inside of the turn and “left the track” to make his pass, which resulted in a five-second penalty.

Raikkonen got third place instead.

Now, was the penalty called correctly? By the letter of the law, yes. But it was a head-scratcher, since fans immediately started posting images on social media of several other drivers using the inside of Turn 19 (as well as Turn 9) without any penalty.

Horner, the Red Bull exec, worried that since F1 is trying to gain fans in the U.S., the inconsistency of the penalty would be a turnoff.

“Formula One is still immature in this country; and it’s a big race,” he said. “With the lack of consistency in the decisions, I should think all the viewers and fans watching today should not understand why (Raikkonen) was on the podium and not Max today.”

Don’t worry, Christian. American race fans are already used to inconsistency.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, lower right, tells reporters about his view of an inconsistent call that cost Max Verstappen a podium finish.

Just look at two weeks ago in Charlotte, when Jimmie Johnson’s crew was allowed to fasten a lug nut while the car wasn’t inside the pit box — something NASCAR later acknowledged was a rule it hadn’t even informed all the teams about.

It’s no wonder, then, that situations like Truex’s black flag or Kenseth’s penalty — where he had too many crew members working on his car in a crash damage situation — appeared questionable.

Both were actually the right call. In Kenseth’s case, that’s the rule and has been all year, and it was just enforced during last week’s race at Talladega.

But fans are so used to inconsistent enforcement of the rules, they assumed the calls were incorrect.

NASCAR — and F1 as well, it turns out — doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt that it’s making the right call. That’s something both forms of motorsport should strive to fix.


Sunday morning diary on how to follow F1 as a new fan

— Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Sunday morning

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the fifth in a series.


I had the chance to chat with a group of Formula One fans at the tweetup this morning, and they gave me an education on the best way for casual fans to start getting more into F1.

First, you have to pick a driver or team from the top group — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — or you’ll likely never get the satisfaction of a win. Drivers from the top three teams have won all 16 races so far this season, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel combining to win 12 of those.

But then fans also need to choose a driver or team from the second group — which is why those people were attending a tweetup on what’s known as Haas Hill.

Though most of them were wearing the gear of their primary driver, the fans said they’ve chosen Haas F1 Team as their underdog pick — and they find that makes the sport more enjoyable.

That jives with what Haas team principal Guenther Steiner and team owner Gene Haas told me Sunday morning when I asked what new fans should know about Formula One.

“The top three teams are typically going to be one to two seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field — but the rest of the field is within a second,” Haas said. “So you can find a lot of excitement watching the cars in the back dice it up, because they’re trying to beat the cars in that group.

“You really have two different races going on here at the same time.”

Steiner said new F1 fans need to pay attention to what’s going on at the front of the field and who is going to be champion. But when they look further down the running order, the appreciation of the mid-pack battle can really add to the viewing experience.

“They need to look at who we race,” Steiner said. “We are not racing for the win, we are racing midfield. There is a big fight going on in the midfield — with Renault, with Toro Rosso, with Williams — which for a new team is quite surprising.

“In the last 20 years, all the new teams who came in are gone already. And all together, they made maybe three or four points (points are only awarded for top-10 finishes in F1). In two seasons, we’ve gotten more than 70 points — and we keep on going. So they should cheer for us.”

In addition, Haas said the pit strategies and tire strategies (there are several different compounds teams use in the race, which are distinguished by color) enhance the experience once fans figure out the complexities.

“If you can start to understand a little bit about that, the whole sport really becomes very interesting,” he said.

But ultimately, one of the biggest differences between F1 and NASCAR is the fastest car almost always wins. And the 10 fastest cars are often the top 10 finishers.

So every single position gained is an achievement against the best of the best, with teams and drivers who travel around the globe to compete at the highest level of motorsports.

“Nobody here gives you a break,” Haas said. “Nobody here would give you a helping hand when it comes to winning a race. So you know when you beat these people, they gave it their all and you gave it your all, and at the end of it, whoever finished ahead wasn’t something that was given to you. You had to earn it.”


Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Saturday

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the fourth in a series.

Inside a van with Haas F1 Team drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen and development driver Santino Ferrucci, one of them has a discovery.

Whoever was in the van before them left an iPhone in the backseat.

Immediately, the drivers start trying to figure out if they can discover the owner. The phone isn’t password protected, so they learn the language is set to Spanish.

Another piece of evidence: It also has an image of Fernando Alonso on the lock screen — and Alonso is on the stage at the Saturday afternoon Fan Forum where they’re currently headed.

So it must be Alonso’s phone, Grosjean decides.

“It’s in Spanish, so there are not too many it could be,” Grosjean says. “Carlos (Sainz) or Fernando.”

“I don’t think Carlos has a picture of Fernando on his phone,” Ferrucci says with a laugh.

“You have a picture of me on your phone,” Grosjean cracks back.

Thinking he could prank his veteran F1 colleague, Grosjean begins to snap a series of obnoxious selfies with Magnussen and Ferrucci for Alonso to discover later.

The van pulls up to the backstage area of the amphitheater where the Fan Forum is being held, and Alonso is just finishing up. He walks toward the Haas drivers on the way to his vehicle.

But…it’s not his phone. It belongs to one of the women who work for McLaren, not the driver himself.

“Oops,” Grosjean says with a laugh, realizing he left a bunch of selfies on a stranger’s phone. “Enjoy.”

Romain Grosjean, right, and Santino Ferrucci, left, laugh with a McLaren employee after the woman received her phone that was left behind in a track van and discovered by the Haas F1 Team.

At the Fan Forum, the drivers — along with team owner Gene Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner — emerge onstage to loud cheers. They are America’s only Formula One team — the first in decades — so this is their chance to soak up some of the hometown love.

But that warm welcome turns out to be nothing compared to what’s waiting for them a few minutes later at a place called Haas Hill.

The vans, now with a police escort, pull up to an open fan area overlooking Turn 19. It’s the primary gathering spot for Haas F1 Team fans, and it literally has #HaasHill painted on the grass.

The drivers walk through a large crowd of people who are very happy to see them and step into a gazebo area with fans gathered on all sides. As fans wave flags, hold up Haas F1 Team scarves (some while chanting like at a soccer game) and yell out things like “THANK YOU, GENE,” the drivers and team executives sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Haas himself gets as big of an autograph crowd as the drivers, with the fans seemingly thrilled to get an up-close interaction with the man who gave American fans a home team to cheer for after so many years.

It’s odd to see Haas in this environment. At a NASCAR track, he’s just another team owner — even despite owning the cars of popular drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing.

But here? He practically gets the rock star treatment from fans.

Gene Haas signs for fans gathered on Haas Hill at Circuit of the Americas.

Then came the coolest part of the day for the drivers — who otherwise aren’t having a very enjoyable weekend on the track (they’ve combined for three spins and neither made it past the second round of qualifying).

As police cleared a path, the drivers walked down the grass to the bottom of Haas Hill for a pre-publicized photo opp. Think of it as one big team photo — with fans included as the team.

With a photographer on an elevated lift giving the OK, fans cheered loudly as they showed their support for the second-year team.

Personally, I was blown away and hadn’t expected to see that many people. I thought there might be a couple dozen Haas fans to greet the drivers, but there were hundreds.

Clearly, American F1 fans are all-in on the team — it’s just that outside F1, the team still hasn’t made much of a dent in the consciousness of the mainstream sports fan. Heck, they’re not even on the radar of many NASCAR fans — which seems to be a shame, given the American pride associated with NASCAR.

Back in the van, Ferrucci has a discovery: Another phone left behind by someone. This time, Grosjean can’t solve the mystery; it has British settings, so it could be anyone.

Ferrucci proceeds to take selfies anyway, having learned from his senior teammate.

Santino Ferrucci takes selfies with Romain Grosjean on a mystery phone after they discovered it in the backseat of a track van.

As it turns out, the owner is eventually found: A staff member with the Mercedes team that is currently dominating Formula One with Lewis Hamilton.

Given the Mercedes cars qualified first and third in advance of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for the Haas drivers to give the phone back.

A ransom in exchange for technical information might have been a better idea.


—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Friday afternoon

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the third in a series.

For an organization in only its second year, Haas F1 Team is doing quite well. Twice this season it has had double-points finishes — where both drivers finish in the top 10 — and that’s extremely rare for new teams in an ultra-competitive sport.

The paddock has noticed. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso said Thursday that “what Haas has managed to do in the last two years is quite impressive.”

“Two consecutive years in a very demanding sport like F1, competing at a good level, is a great achievement,” Alonso said, also calling Haas’ success “a very good thing for the sport.”

But there are also growing pains for a young team, and one such instance was on display during a rough practice session on Friday afternoon.

In Formula One, teams are allowed to design fancy-looking pieces that help generate downforce. They are attached to the nose, the sides, the floor and even the rear to redirect the exhaust. Unlike NASCAR, there’s no template to measure such things, so creativity rules.

One such instance was a new design tweak Haas brought this weekend. As I mentioned in the Friday morning post, Haas made a big change to a piece of the car called bargeboards, and the enhancement had created some buzz amongst the media this weekend.

The thought was Haas’ design could help its cars perform better in the race. And while that still may be the case eventually, it’s not what happened in practice.

An up-close look at the new bargeboards. The piece to the right is what came loose.
After Romain Grosjean spun early in the second practice session, he told the team via radio it had a “massive, massive, massive” aero problem.

“I don’t think I can do anything,” he said. “(Another run) is not going to work. It’s pointless.”

So what was the issue? Well, after he came back into the garage, the team discovered part of the bargeboard actually fell off. One of the team members thought they saw it on TV sitting somewhere in Turn 20.

That meant the team had to spend valuable time replacing the brackets that held the bargeboards in place — not just on Grosjean’s car, but also Kevin Magnussen’s.

The team had to scramble during practice to replace the new bargeboard brackets, which required removing the nose of the car.
Grosjean said later it was unclear whether the bracket just couldn’t handle the additional load or if the bargeboard fell victim to one of the track’s many curbs. Either way, the team will need to come up with a solution to secure them better.
But that wasn’t even the most dramatic part of practice. After Grosjean spun out, Magnussen almost ran into the back of him while trying to pass later in the lap — and had to dart to the inside of a corner to avoid contact.

“Get out of the way, please!” Magnussen said on the team radio (though Grosjean couldn’t hear him).

“Extremely intelligent there from Kevin,” Grosjean said sarcastically.

Magnussen, who also spun out later in the session and flat-spotted his tires, said in an interview afterward the near-incident was just a “miscommunication.”

“There’s no problem there,” he said twice.


“It was a bit close, but that was fine,” Grosjean said in a separate interview, adding the two drivers didn’t discuss it. “Not a big deal.”

Ultimately, Grosjean finished the session in 20th — last — and Magnussen was 14th. Fortunately, there’s one more practice on Saturday before the all-important qualifying later that afternoon.

“Yeah, it wasn’t our best Friday,” Grosjean said.


Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

News Analysis: Fernando Alonso to run Indy 500, skip Monaco

What happened: Two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, sixth on the all-time F1 wins list with 32 Grand Prix victories, will skip Monaco to race in the Indianapolis 500 in May. He’ll drive a Honda-powered McLaren car run by Andretti Autosport.

What it means: A huge boost internationally for the Indy 500. An active F1 driver missing the biggest F1 race — which Alonso has won twice — to come drive at Indianapolis? That’s wild! It’s going to get a lot of attention around the world and will be quite a big story in motorsports from now through the race. Depending on how Alonso’s experience goes, it could pave the way for more famous drivers to try to the Indy 500 and raise the prestige level even further.

News value (scale of 1-10): Depends on where you’re reading this. It’s probably an 8 for international readers and a 6 if you live in the United States and only follow NASCAR. Alonso said in his view, the Indy 500 is “one of the most famous races on the global motorsport calendar, rivaled only by the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Monaco Grand Prix” and said he’d like to win the “Triple Crown” one day (which has only been achieved by Graham Hill, who raced in the 1960s). Of course, that perspective is different in the U.S., where even some race fans don’t know who Alonso is and may feel the Daytona 500 is just as big as the Indy 500. 

Questions: Can Alonso, who has never raced on a big oval (or any oval, perhaps), get up to speed quickly enough to be competitive? How much will this raise the international profile of the Indy 500, which was already coming off a ton of publicity with the 100th running? Is there anything NASCAR can do to counter this move for the Coca-Cola 600, which likely loses some of the media spotlight (Gordon? Stewart)?

Fernando Alonso speaks to reporters at a Shell-sponsored event in Austin before the 2014 race there. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)