‘Like A Super Bowl Every Year’: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on the City’s Formula One Race
Miami’s biggest booster talks with The Drive about how the city is getting ready for racing’s biggest international stage.
The promise of Formula One in the United States has been broken many more times than it's been fulfilled. From the empty promise of the Port Imperial street circuit in New Jersey to only six cars starting the race at Indianapolis in 2005, the results have been less than stellar even when races have materialized. But despite a lot of false starts, F1 is probably better positioned to grow in America than any time in decades, thanks to almost a decade of success with the United States Grand Prix in Austin and now Netflix's popular Formula 1: Drive To Survive helping the series to find a wider audience. There's one person who wholeheartedly agrees with that: Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez.
Suarez has been one of the biggest and most vocal forces behind the 2022 Miami F1 Grand Prix. The reasons for this should be almost obvious. Amid a huge influx of newcomers to Miami, the transformation of the region into a burgeoning tech hub and its increased prominence as an international vacation spot, the benefits to adding an F1 race (technically in nearby Miami Gardens, but with a massive impact on the bigger city and the entire region) are obvious and enviable for any city leader.
And Suarez is first and foremost a politician—a Republican, although the office in which he serves is nonpartisan and he's one who has made fighting climate change a key part of his agenda—but to say he did this just for political points and business development wouldn't be entirely accurate. As I found out during a chat with the Mayor—who says is a lifelong racing fan—his favorite F1 team is McLaren, and he's watched all three seasons of Drive To Survive.
Most obviously, however, he's a big fan of Miami, so pulling off a marriage between his city (really, the whole region) and F1 furthers his vision of putting Miami even more on the world stage than it is.
"Formula One is a global sport and Formula One can choose to be anywhere it wants to be," Suarez told me during an interview. "And look, it's only in two places [in the U.S.], right? It can be anywhere in the world. It shows that Miami is ready to take that next step to become a truly global city."
Suarez has helped push things in that direction already. At just 43, he's one of the youngest major-city mayors in the country and is known as a tireless booster for his city. In the pandemic, he's pushed the city to welcome residents eager for lower taxes, warmer weather and economic opportunities outside bigger cities. And he's become notable for using social media to lure Silicon Valley companies and talent to the "Magic City." Suarez was also an advocate for bringing Elon Musk's Boring Company tunnels to Miami, and while that may not be the most viable transit solution anyone's ever devised, you can't doubt this mayor's ambitions.
When F1 arrives in Miami in 2022, it will set up shop at the Hard Rock Stadium complex in Miami Gardens, a neighboring town north of the actual City of Miami and with a whole different mayor. That being said, it'll likely be Suarez's territory that sees the majority of the economic benefits of F1's visit to South Florida. In a way, it's a quite generous arrangement in the sense that the City of Miami won't deal with as many logistical nightmares come race day, but will get the biggest share of the money pie.
"Yeah. I mean, I used to kid with the former Mayor of Miami Gardens, who's my good friend, they don't call it the Miami Gardens Dolphins," Suarez said. "At the end of the day, everything that is South Florida really is branded Miami."
He added: "We don't really care that much about where the boundaries are. In people's minds and in their hearts when they're in Europe, when they're in Asia, when they're in South America and they're flying to go to see the Formula One race, they're telling everybody that they're going to Miami."
The battle to bring the pinnacle of motor racing to the U.S. for a second race—in addition to, and not in place of COTA for the time being—was an uphill one. After initial plans for a street circuit in downtown Miami fell through due to local opposition and various legal and logistical challenges, Suarez pushed forward with the help of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Finally, on April 18, a 10-year contract with Liberty Media to hold the Miami F1 Grand Prix was confirmed.
It's not exactly easy to put on a show of this magnitude, with authorities and agencies involved every step of the way from community-level all the way to federal and some even global. In 2011, the widely-publicized "F1 Grand Prix of America" in New Jersey made it as far as the provisional race calendar for the 2013 season, only to be dropped on and off again in 2014 and 2015, until the idea was completely abandoned shortly thereafter. The goal was to hold the race at Port Imperial in Weehawken and have the New York City skyline as backdrop, with Sebastian Vettel even doing a promotional test drive in an Infiniti G37 Coupe in the summer of 2012.
But if you can handle the traffic, public safety concerns, permitting processes, transportation and infrastructure needs, and the billion other moving parts that come with F1, it's something almost any city would love to have. Following F1's arrival to Texas, it was Austin that saw hotel, restaurant, and other tourism-related business profit from F1's mostly affluent fan base. The tiny town of Elroy remains mostly underdeveloped today even though it borders the track. As a native Mexican myself, I've seen the hoards of wealthy nationals fly in from Mexico City or Guadalajara, or drive their Mexican-plated Bugattis and Ferraris from bordering cities like Monterrey or Saltillo to attend the race.
It'll be a similar situation in Miami next year. Not just with Mexicans flying in from nearby Cancun to cheer Red Bull's newest driver, Sergio Perez, but with Brazilians and Colombians, too, who have already made Miami the primary destination for affluent business owners escaping violence in their countries. They'll all be filling up Miami's five-star hotels and crowding up expensive restaurants.
Other factors that'll play strongly into Miami's favor aren't even under anyone's control: its geographical location and post-pandemic reopenings. Seeing things purely from a tourist's perspective, glamorous beaches and a happening nightlife are likely to play a large role in drawing in people from outside of the U.S., especially France, Spain, Russia, and India, who will be looking to vacation in Miami either before or after the race. The fact that people will be hungry for travel following the COVID-19-related lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 will only amplify the race's potential success.
"This virtual and remote world that we live in, almost post-COVID world that we're coming into, the most important thing is experiences," Suarez said. "That is the most important thing and so you want to create a city with premium experiences, and Formula One is one of the most exciting sports experiences, if not the most exciting sports experience, on the planet. It's like having a super bowl every year."
"It's going to be huge. And I think it's going to be something that redefines who we are. I think this is one of those macro events, like Art Basel. They actually change the city. It's got that kind of power. And I think, you'll see, and people will see once they flock to the race, how captivating it is, how exciting it is, and how monumentally transformational it is," he added.
While putting on a monumental show worthy of millions of Instagram feeds is important, at the end of the day, F1 is about racing, and boring races ultimately die—usually from race promoters not being able to pay multi-million yearly race fees when event attendance is abysmal. With the Miami Grand Prix taking place in what's essentially a stadium parking lot, questions have been raised about its overall attractiveness and potential to produce good racing.
Said to measure 3.36 miles in length and boast a total of 19 corners, the current layout appears to play into modern, aero-heavy F1 cars, with swooping esses and a couple of chicanes giving way to mostly high-speed corners and one very, very long straight. It's a wild change from the original Downtown Miami layout, which was mostly all straights with a couple of corners and one hairpin, a la vintage Hockenheim.
When I asked Suarez about the race's current location and reminded him of other historic U.S. F1 venues (Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Detroit, Vegas, etc.) that ultimately dropped off the calendar, he remained bullish on the race's future success and, much to my surprise, said that it was inevitable for the race to eventually pivot to downtown, as originally planned.
"We have it in our blood and I think Miami, as opposed to many of these other cities that you mentioned, we're a truly global city," Suarez said. "We're the city with the most Super Bowls ever hosted in the history of the NFL."
"And the truth is that it would not surprise me if, in the future, we do see it downtown," Suarez added. "Because I think what happens is that every major sports franchise, they come into a city, they get their first stadium, if you will, and then when they show and they prove that they work, and that it's a great thing for the community, they usually get their second stadium. And usually, that's a nicer one, it's closer to the water. I think Formula One would probably be no different once people realize how incredible it is. They're going to want it in the most exciting place. I supported the downtown location when it was proposed. I understand that they had time deadlines. So I think part of it was practical, political considerations, that they had to do something within a certain period of time."
When I asked about the race's possibility of moving locations within those 10 contracted years, he answered:
"I'm completely open to it... [Dolphins owner] Ross is a phenomenal business person. He's done a tremendous amount for this community. If he called me tomorrow and said, 'Hey, we want to move into downtown tomorrow,' I would be willing to listen. So yeah, at any point ahead, I think that will happen. I think it's inevitable, but it's probably going to want to have a couple of races so that it's a proof of concept. And then I think hopefully at one point it'll pivot to Miami."
Much like when Mexico City came on the F1 calendar in 2015 after a multi-decade absence, the race at COTA will undoubtedly suffer a blow in attendance and exposure when Miami fully comes online next year. This doesn't bode well for the Texas track, who not only had to deal with the financial repercussions of COVID-19 but now has to worry about its contract with F1 parent company Liberty Media. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2021 marks the final year of the track's 10-year contract, and it's "doubtful" that state legislators will pump any cash toward another unless F1 and Texas are exclusive to each other.
In 2019, the special program aimed at bringing headlining events to the Lone Start State "contributed $26.8 million to hold the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin," according to the outlet's report. With local, state, and federal economies battered by the happenings of 2020, it's unlikely that the state will want to play ball with dozens of millions of taxpayer dollars in 2022, especially with Miami in the picture, but that's yet to be seen.
Suarez isn't worried about Austin, or any other venue for that matter. When I asked him what he, in his own words, would tell every fan trying to decide whether to go to Austin or Miami in 2022, he didn't mince his words.
"Has anybody ever actually been to Austin? I have to ask that question? No," Suarez said, jokingly. "I think Miami is a beautiful city on the water. It's an international city. People can come from all over the world and feel comfortable here. I think Miami right now is the epicenter of the tech world and everything that people are talking about. We want to be known as the capital of capitals. And I think a race like Formula One just fits that brand and that dynamic so good."
"And I think, Austin, it doesn't have that same brand," he added. "As I said, it's not like anybody in South America, Colombia is saying, 'Hey, I'm going on a flight to Austin tomorrow.' Or anybody in France or in Dubai. So I think Miami has that international flavor that really very few cities in America have and very few cities in the world have."
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