NEW YORK — On a rare Sunday off (after a few days in the pits covering one of the oldest and most popular racing series in the world), I decided to spend my day attending one of the world’s newest racing series, Formula E.
If you haven’t heard, it’s an all-electric Formula car series (think F1 with electric cars).
The race was being held in, as the CEO of the new series called it, “The Capital of the World” — New York. Specifically, a picturesque setting near a landing area for cruise ships in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. This fittingly positioned NYC’s famous Manhattan skyline as the backdrop for many pictures of the cars and track.
Formula E is car racing’s first disrupt-the-status-quo tech startup built on a Silicon Valley vibe, social media buzzwords and celebrity endorsements. Like the provincial tech companies of the West Coast, it was born because a couple of people believed there was an insatiable appetite for something that didn’t exist.
An eco-friendly, bring-it-to-the-people, electric-car test bed.
And car manufacturers the likes of BMW, Audi, Citroen, Renault, and Jaguar agreed and all joined.
The world’s tabloid hogs have joined, too, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson and (in attendance at the Brooklyn event) Michael Douglas, and Chris Hemsworth. The only thing missing amongst the Instagram-friendly metrics are what most racing series tout first — fans.
But before I go any further, full disclosure: I attempted to race in this series a couple years ago. It was 2014, and my NASCAR Cup team had folded. It seemed through a friend who was a CMO at an energy company that there might be a way to swing getting into a Formula E car.
It wasn’t to be as it was too new, too foreign, and we quickly got distracted by other opportunities. But ever since, I have kept a keen eye on its development.
Bring on NYC.
I was excited to view the upstart series up close. But after a little too much caffeine in the form of a coffee, a bigger coffee and then an energy drink to get home from New Hampshire. I wouldn’t rest my overly caffeinated body until 2:30 a.m. that day. It was a struggle to awake.
Awaiting me was a media credential. But it was to lay dormant as I decided to bring my girlfriend and conned my best friend into joining us. Mostly because he lives in Brooklyn, and this event has zero parking. The official travel guide tells you, “Not to bring a car.”
Certainly odd for a car race but understandable being in NYC. So I parked at my friend’s apartment, and we Ubered.
As we approached the ride-share dropoff zone, I oddly felt devoid of that half-euphoric, half-anxious feeling of attending a new racing series.
I turned to my friend and Blondie to say I remembered attending my first F1 race in Montreal at 14 years old and being able to hear the cars from 2 miles away. The city was overflowing with Formula One fever.
I’ll never forget walking up to the corner just before the hairpin at the Montreal circuit, as practice just had started and an F1 car approached. It sounded like a fire-breathing, human-slaying alien spacecraft was rapidly coming our way, and it was not going to be pleasant.
Suddenly, the sound was all around us in a flash of yellow, an ear-piercing scream and a loud BOOM! The Jordan F1 car of Timo Glock streaked past where I was standing. As he shifted gears, the sound and explosion hit me in the chest so hard, I could barely breathe.
It, to this day, is one of my favorite memories in life.
This event was not going to provide that.
Obviously one of the biggest departures from traditional motor racing is the cars don’t make a lot of sound. That’s part of what allows them to race in The Capital of The World. There are no issues with deafening sound reverberating through NYC’s already overflowing boroughs.
As we told our Uber driver to stop, a few Formula E signs were plastered on the walls around us. He asked, “What is this?” and my friend said, “It’s like a Formula One race.” The Uber driver replied, “Who knew? That is cool.” Not exactly a good sign for the promotion of the event.
Nonetheless, I felt good about being able to buy three tickets if our driver had no idea it was happening.
Except when we went inside, the ticket building was completely empty. We abruptly were told it was sold out and actually had been for months. Even though on Friday, Ticketmaster indicated (for $85, mind you), there were tickets available … odd.
We were told we could have free general admission tickets and maybe could get in with them. And this was something I knew Formula E did in its first season as a way to get people to come. I’ve always thought this was brilliant.
From there we went into the stringent security lines, where I got my first glance at what I will refer to as “the clientele” and not “fans.”
Two young men in front of me were the embodiment of the clientele. Both almost identically dressed in expensive, perfectly pressed, white button-down shirts, light tan belts and navy blue linen chinos.
I must have missed the memo.
One wearing Oliver Peoples glasses (if you ever go to an Oliver Peoples store, they will remind you President Obama wears their glasses) turned to the other as they were going through the security scanner. He remarked, “This certainly isn’t like Monaco,” and his friend nodded. Aside from wanting to punch him square in the face, I knew I was in for an experience only the Europeans can provide.
I call it, “European Exclusionary Events,” where they invite you to spend money to feel superior to the others around you. Hence our free ticket allowed us in, but Mr. Oliver Peoples took a very visible red carpet-lined hard left into the E-Motion club, and we were forced down a route past a port-a-potty.
The Europeans love this sort of thing, because it makes an event feel exclusive – as if you have done something to deserve the first-class version of race attendance.
But Americans do not. Sure we have courtside seats in basketball, but the guy who got a ticket from his company raffle can be sitting right behind Kim Kardashian. American events are put on to make everyone feel inclusive. Formula E missed that memo.
But I digress.
As we entered the general admission area known as “E-Village,” it was not overflowing but definitely not sparse. Scattered throughout were a few informational and promotional booths from car manufacturers and racing simulators. Par for the course at a race.
And here I bumped into a friend who lives in Brooklyn. He knew nothing about racing but had brought his wife and twin babies in a stroller. It was free and a block from their place, and the electric racing ensured their babies would be OK with the sound.
It definitely wasn’t something that would happen at a NASCAR race. I thought that was very cool.
The schedule listed a 1 p.m. start, and as 1 p.m. came, everyone in the E-Village excitedly was listening for a signal or sign that the race had started. And then suddenly at 1:05 a group of cars rounded the hairpin adjacent to the E-Village. There was no warning (not even a race announcer) and the only reason you knew was the chirping of the tires and smashing of bodywork.
Surely, they must have forgotten to turn up the race announcer. But as the laps continued, it became clear they had not put any speakers in the E-Village area. So here we were with what seemed a couple thousand people desperately wondering what the hell was going on.
This was incredibly perplexing because the whole selling point as an attendee of Formula E was that it was quiet enough to foster conversation. And to be able to hear the announcers so well they even could play team radios over the loudspeakers, so you could be immersed in the race.
Guess it didn’t apply to the free tickets and the people the series desperately should be trying to impress.
I became Formula E’s best friend as I informed people left and right about the rules and who was leading the damn race. At the other end of the E-Village was a nice lounge area with a big screen TV sponsored by VISA but with no volume. So once again, I was the on-the-ground Formula E informant, letting people know why they were pitting and what the energy percentage meant.
But the best part occurred as the race came to a close, as you only knew it was over because of the fans in the frontstretch grandstand that rose to give the winner a standing ovation. As the cars made their cooldown lap, a fan turned to me and said, “I think this is when they go pit and change cars.” To which I replied, “Uhh, no. It’s over. That was the winner.”
But then as the cars continued to trickle through the corner on the cooldown lap, another person asked, “Why are they going so slow?!?”
It was clear with no info whatsoever, these attendees might be there until Tuesday wondering what happened to the race.
Why was it like this?
I stood at one of the exit gates to survey the crowd as the attendees and clientele left the grandstands. I begged the event for a redeeming quality, something to make me want to come back, but to no avail.
It suddenly became clear as I looked at photos of the massive but mostly unfilled E-motion VIP club for Instagram “influencers” — celebrities, media, and marketing chiefs.
Was it that this event was not for you or me? That the series wasn’t aiming to impress a race fan such as myself? (A race fan who loved this form of racing so much, I responded “open wheel cars with little to no downforce and 1000 horsepower engines on city street tracks” when asked 10 years ago what my perfect race series would be.)
Everyone attending with me began to refuse to call it a race event and started using words such as “promotional display” and “a massive advertisement.”
It became clear that Formula E is for the sponsors, the car manufacturers and the series to have media outlets talking about how they have a presence in the future of the world.
So the CMOs, marketing managers and executives in linens and sports coats can walk into boardrooms with PowerPoint slides of their logos being called “eco-friendly” in the media. And use social media buzzwords such impressions, engagement and KPI (key performance indicator) while showing their logos with Instagram “influencers” drinking champagne and being eco-friendly.
Formula E is an event that has a purpose but to entertain you would be a stretch. It’s much like in school when the teacher tells you you’re watching a movie, and it turns out to be an instructional video. It’s a relief you’re watching a movie, but you still need to learn.
This is Formula E.
You’re provided a race and a damn good one at that. But it’s clear, the truth is it’s for show and not the kind that entertains.