AUSTIN, Texas -- Formula One, the world's most popular form of motor sports, is trying once again to conquer its final frontier: the United States. This time, the Europeans aim to make it stick.
The glitzy sport with ultra-fast cars and a flair for the exotic has landed deep in the heart of Texas, of all places, with a gleaming new track, a down-to-the-wire championship race and hope that it can grab the attention of American race fans who rarely look up from the NASCAR standings.
After a five-year absence, the U.S. Grand Prix makes its return Sunday at the $400 million Circuit of The Americas, a course built expressly for F1 on rolling scrub land just a few miles southeast of downtown Austin.
"This is what was needed," said Mario Andretti, the 1978 F1 champion. "Now we can compete with the rest of the world and some of those new venues that have gone up in the last few years in the Middle East and Asia. That's the ingredient that was missing here in the United States."
Austin is the 10th American city to host F1 since the first U.S. Grand Prix in Sebring, Fla., in 1959. Watkins Glen, N.Y., hosted a Grand Prix from 1961-80 and other F1 races have been held in Long Beach, Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix and other cities on street courses.
As NASCAR grew into the dominant series in this country, demand and interest for open-wheel racing took a hit and F1 didn't even race in the United States from 1992-99 before making its return at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even there, it couldn't last and track officials and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone parted ways.
F1 had seemingly abandoned the U.S. until Ecclestone made the surprise announcement in May 2010 that it would return with a 10-year deal to race at a track that hadn't even been built. With billionaire Red McCombs one of the key investors in the project, organizers began a mad dash to build the track.
Austin seemed an odd choice. A trendy city of about 1.5 million, Austin bills itself as the "Live Music Capital of the World" and is the capital of Texas. But it hardly fits in with the other F1 destinations such as Monte Carlo, Melbourne, Shanghai or Singapore. Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell joked that Austin hosting F1 was "sort of like Mayberry having the Super Bowl."
The U.S. Grand Prix achieved its mandatory goal of getting the track built, but the challenge will be how to succeed and keep drawing fans beyond the initial excitement of the inaugural race.
Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. which owns and operates eight tracks, was dismissive of F1's future in the U.S. and the possibility of it picking off fans from NASCAR.
"Formula One has never been anything in this country. Go back and check it," Smith said.
Zak Brown, chief executive and founder of the Just Marketing International firm that caters to auto racing, sees a different scenario. The return of F1 to the U.S. at the Circuit of the Americas is the footprint the sport needs in the American landscape.
"It's massively important," Brown said. "North America has been the one market where they've really struggled."
Brown noted F1 recently signed a new, four-year broadcast deal with NBC Sports Group. The exclusive rights deal, which begins next season, will provide more than 100 hours of programming across NBC and cable channel NBC Sports Network.
Andretti said he hopes F1's return to the U.S. will nurture a homegrown driver of the future.
"I always say F1 is like the Olympics." he said. "There's a lot of national pride and to have an American representing his country would be fabulous."
Vettel won the pole position Saturday, putting the German in the perfect spot to chase his third consecutive world title. Vettel, 25, could be just the third driver -- and youngest -- to win three consecutive world championships, joining Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton qualified second, and Red Bull's Mark Webber was third at the 3.427-mile circuit.
Alonso finished ninth in qualifying but will start No. 8 after Lotus' Romain Grosjean was penalized for changing his gearbox after the third practice session.