Formula One crashes spectacularly in U.S.

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Formula One racing, which has been desperately trying to build its fan base, visibility and TV presence in the U.S., is primed to lose all three.

A debacle left only six cars to compete in the only F-1 race held in this country, sparked when Michelin Tire Co. found a flaw in its tires following qualifying runs for the June 19 contest at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After Michelin's requests for rule changes and track changes were denied, Michelin advised its teams not to compete, touching off a PR nightmare of epic proportion.

"We've been building this sport for five years, aggressively promoting and marketing it," said track president Joie Chitwood. "All that might have been thrown away."

In the fallout, fans are asking for refunds, the future of F-1 Indy races are in doubt and sponsors are poised to bail out. "We've already been rethinking our commitment" to Formula One, said a marketing chief for one U.S. sponsor who asked not be identified. "Even before [June 19], we talked about taking a long look at a sponsorship where, of the 19 races, only two were in North America [Indianapolis and Montreal] and the popularity of the sport didn't seem to be growing."

NO TICKETS FOR NEXT YEAR

Sir Frank Williams, the British owner of the BMW-Williams team, draws more sponsorship money from American companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Anheuser-Busch and Federal Express, among others, than any other F-1 team. His was also one of the teams using Michelin tires that declined to participate in the race.

Primary F-1 sponsors pay about $10 million a year to field a team for the 19-race season. That's about the same as sponsors pay for Nascar's 36-race season, but F-1 sponsors get exposure in Europe, Asia, Canada and the U.S.

F-1 had a contract to run the U.S. Grand Prix at the famed Indy course through 2006. Now that is in jeopardy, as many of the 120,000 fans at the event have asked for refunds and the track has stopped selling tickets to next year's race on its Web site. F-1 President Bernie Ecclestone said: "The future ... in the U.S. is not good."

While some say F-1 is to blame for not accepting Michelin's proposals for a compromise, others finger the tire company. Burdette Martin, president of the Automobile Competition Committee for the U.S., the sanctioning body for races in the U.S., said: "There is no question the fault lies first with Michelin."

On its Web site, Michelin did not apologize, but said its foremost concern was for the safety of the drivers and called the situation "regrettable." Michelin North America continues to run its iconic Michelin Man ads Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., which handles the $35 million account.

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