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In The Driver's Seat

Taylor-made revival gave ailing US race hope of a Swift recovery

A year ago we left Texas wondering if we would ever be returning and if if there would ever be another US Grand Prix.

The event has long been peripatetic, historically struggling to establish long-term homes.

It began on the bumpy airfield at Sebring in Florida in 1959, transferred to the fast and challenging Riverside in California in 1960, then migrated from 1961 until 1980 to the autumnal beauty of Watkins Glen, up by New York's glorious Finger Lakes. Those were its true glory days, in the eras of Jim Clark and Graham Hill; Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt; James Hunt and Ronnie Peterson; Alan Jones and Gilles Villeneuve.

In ensuing years, events that could not legally be called the US Grand Prix (but which effectively were precisely that) were held in such places as a hotel car park in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1981 and 1982 (the Caesars Palace GP), in Dallas, Texas in 1984 (the Dallas GP), and in Detroit, Michigan, from 1982 to 1988 (the Detroit GP). A hugely popular US GP West was held between 1976 and 1983 on a street track in California's Long Beach.

When the real US GP returned in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1989, it met with a mixed reception. A local ostrich race was said to have pulled in a greater crowd, and one writer brilliantly encapsulated the promoter's hyped-up audience figures with the immortal line: "If 35,000 people were here yesterday, a lot of them came disguised as empty seats."

The arrival of America's Liberty Media bodes well for the popularity of the sport in Uncle Sam's backyard for future events... But in the meantime the Texan organisers embraced the problem of attracting fans and somebody had the brilliant idea of engaging Taylor Swift to perform a concert on the Saturday night.

The race lasted three years there, then faded away until it was revived at the great Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana in 2000. It survived the travesty that was the six-car 2005 race, but was gone after 2007. America, it seemed, could not rekindle the love affairs of F1 in Watkins Glen and Long Beach.

It would be another five years before the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, was built to host yet another revival.

The race here has always been popular, but last year's atrocious weather stretched things to the limit and taxed even the hardiest fans, hence the fears for its future.

And yet…

The Texans are doers, and they don't give up easily. Some strong promotion, determination in spades, and some creative refinancing helped the circuit to weather the storm.

The arrival of America's Liberty Media bodes well for the popularity of the sport in Uncle Sam's backyard for future events, when it is likely there will be up to three races in the United States. But in the meantime, the Texan organisers embraced the problem of attracting fans and somebody had the brilliant idea of engaging Taylor Swift to perform a concert on the Saturday night.

Of course, concerts at grands prix are nothing new, but this one hit the nail so firmly on the head. Swift, the talented 26-year-old, was an inspired choice for several reasons. She has a massive fan following, many of them teenage girls, and since she has not toured in 2016, they have been starved of her live performances.

Official figures suggest she was instrumental in helping to bring almost 83,000 people to the circuit. Their US$150 (S$208) ticketsgave them entry to the circuit and to her concert. That's inspired marketing in anyone's book.

Diehard fans will doubtless recoil in horror at what they would describe as cheap and nasty tactics unbecoming of a lofty sport that is often to be found lodged up its own exhaust pipe, but these are changing times in a world in which people have more and more choice about how to use their leisure time.

They demand better value for money. Greater entertainment. Always, something more. In Texas, 266,889 people got that over the three-day event, breaking all records for the track.

Yes, it might have been gimmicky. Yes - whisper it - the fans who went to see Swift might not actually have been true F1 aficionados. But that's not the point. If the concert drew in 83,000 fans paying at least US$150 each, that meant revenues of US$12.4 million, much of which would not have been generated without Swift. And that helped finance the Grand Prix and to keep the wheels turning, literally.

The good news for F1 is that there will be more of the same in the future, particularly as Liberty Media controls the Ticketmaster/ Live Nation business.

And good news too that the man who won - serial US GP winner Lewis Hamilton - is someone they know from his US life, not least his recent appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

This year, we left Austin knowing full well that we'd be coming back. That's about the one thing here that wasn't weird.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline 'Taylor-made revival gave ailing US race hope of a Swift recovery'. Print Edition | Subscribe