Whether you consider it a marketing stunt (which it was) or a historic motorsports event (which it also was) yesterday’s Mobil 1 Car Swap at Watkins Glen was a pretty cool concept. Take a pair of stars from NASCAR and Formula 1, stick them in each other’s cars and let them loose. The stars in question were Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton, both of whom are sponsored in their respective series by Mobil 1, which led to more than a bit of cynicism from many fans, not to mention news editors who considered it a stunt not worthy of coverage. Wah.
Of course swapping seats is not a new idea, as it has been done before with Gordon and Montoya. Perhaps less well known in North America was a similar event featuring Damon Hill and rally star Colin McRae. Guys always want to play with new toys and when the guys are stars and the toys are made of unobtainium, the fans want to see the action. For this event, Mobil 1 opened the gates to fans for free, which ensured a decent crowd would show up despite the dismal weather.
The day dawned rainy and cold, which set up some interesting challenges and a first. They say this was the first time a Cup car had run on rain tires. I’m not that well versed in NASCAR history, so I’ll believe them. It was also the first time a Cup car had been run on the full course, including The Boot. While vintage F1 cars compete at the one time home of the U.S. Grand Prix, this was the first time a modern F1 car had been driven on the track.
As the teams prepped the cars for their warm up drives, the rain stopped and the fog rolled in. 20 minutes later, the fog lessened somewhat and the rain returned. Then, more fog. Not a nice time for fans or photographers and I’m sure the teams and drivers were less than impressed too. Until they got in the car that is! On the warm up laps in the number 14, Stewart was hanging the tail out every chance he got, while Lewis was pushing his McLaren pretty hard too.
The sound of a solitary F1 car reverberating off the hills of Upstate New York in the fog is a difficult sensation to describe. Perhaps the best word might be haunting.
Sadly, the boys were only given 4 laps in each other’s cars to go out and play. As expected, Stewart took a couple of extra because, well…he can. Hamilton appeared to do a respectable job in the taxi cab, although through the boot he didn’t seem to push it too hard. Stewart on the other hand was doing his best to wring the McLaren’s neck as the track dried out. The chunks missing from the rear tires told that tale.
Following the driving, the fans went home and the media were treated to the best part: close up face time with Lewis and Tony, who spent about an hour and a half chatting with media and posing for photos.
I spoke with a number of fans who were on hand later on in the bar and even this morning in the parking lot of the legendary Seneca Lodge. The sentiment from all of them was that even for a free event, there just wasn’t enough meat on the program for the fans. Let’s face it, there were 3 or 4 warm up laps each and then 4 laps for the swap. Obviously the event team can’t control the weather, but every fan I spoke to was disappointed that they stood in rainy, sub 60 degree weather for 3 hours to see a handful of laps. Yes, it was a free event, but somehow they could have done more for the fans. Maybe somehow include the fans in the interview session or something.
Yes, it was a marketing stunt and Mobil 1 will have tons of great marketing material, not to mention the show on Speed TV which has already aired. They could have made all of the fans happier if they had thought more about them. You can’t place a price on that stuff.
Over the next couple of days, we’ll have video of the interview session, where Stewart and Hamilton come to a pretty cool arrangement for next year. We’ve also got video footage of a lap of the original Grand Prix track. I think that Jason Tomchuk will probably have a story from the grandstands to counter my infield view.