“Guess how much the hot lap costs,” one of my fellow media members, adventure writer Jim Clash from Forbes, asked me at a dinner hosted by Formula One’s tire manufacturer, Pirelli. He was referring to the single lap out in a supercar we’d be scheduled to partake in during the weekend.
“I don’t know,” I mused. “Two thousand dollars?”
He pointed his finger up at the ceiling. “Higher.”
“Jesus Christ… $10,000?”
He shook his head and pointed up at the ceiling again.
“No way,” I said in disbelief. “How much is it?”
(Full Disclosure: Pirelli flew me out to the United States Grand Prix as a media member of its Paddock Club back in 2019. It set me up in a swanky hotel, paid for my food and booze, and gave me the full Rich Person At The Race Track experience.)
Let that sink in for a second. Think about all the things a normal human being could do with $15,000. That could be a year’s worth of rent money. That’s 1,875 Big Mac meals at a McDonald’s in New York. You could buy a decent used car with that money. Depending on where you live, that could possibly even be a down payment on a house. You could buy 75 General Admission tickets to the United States Grand Prix with that kind of money. And some people just toss that much money around for one lap around a race track.
I am very well aware that F1 is just one big huge obscene display of wealth. But, my god. Actually being a part of that very expensive circus—even just for one weekend as a guest—really forced me to realize just how rich people have to be to just buy this shit outright. It was a massive change of perspective from what I’m used to out in general admission. What in the name of high octane fuel could be so good about a single lap that it could be worth a year of my graduate school tuition?
On Sunday, just two hours before the US Grand Prix, I strapped on my borrowed helmet and climbed into a beautiful navy blue McLaren 600LT piloted by British racer Duncan Tappy. And I’ll be honest. It was really fucking cool.
I’ve been lucky enough to win or talk my way into a few hot laps before, but it’s never been anything wild. I’ve been driven around Watkins Glen International in a Honda Accord and around COTA in Mazda MX-5. And they were fast, but they were also careful.
But when Pirelli sent the McLarens out, my car was battling with someone else’s. I’ll admit that I was not paying attention to speeds—I was totally focused on the fact that Tappy was slip-streaming and passing (and being passed by) the aqua blue McLaren that started behind us. There were plenty of times where I totally expected to get a little nudge from the other driver—but somehow, the cars didn’t touch.
Yes. I have to admit: It was neat. It far exceeded the standard hot lap experience that the Average Joe could nab at an IndyCar or IMSA weekend.
But was it worth $15,000? Hell no.
I would happily pay a couple hundred bucks for a ride around COTA in a McLaren (well, I would not happily pay hundreds of dollars for a two-minute long experience of anything ever, but you get my point; it would be a more reasonable amount).
I’ll be generous; let’s say this ride took three minutes. That’s still more than $80 a second! That is, frankly, horrifying. It would probably take longer to literally burn a $100 bill than it would to make a lap around COTA.
I’m not complaining about having been offered such a neat opportunity. It was a very awesome, very memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am honored to have in the memory banks.
But it was also a pretty heavy-handed reality check to remind you that Formula One is not a sport designed to be accessible to regular people. Once the exhilaration of a really fun lap melted away, I was left with this feeling that I was not only entirely out of my depth but that I just did not belong in this ultra-exclusive world.
I love going to F1 events, and I love helping people find ways to do it on a budget—but when I stepped out of a fancy-pants McLaren after a lap that I would have had to spend several long months working to afford, I realized that this… is not my world. The other people climbing out of their own cars—a few fellow journalists but mostly just really, grossly rich people—probably wouldn’t have even bothered to chat with me if I’d just been some fan plucked off the Turn 1 hill.
Formula One is not accessible. I’ve been to the US GP as a fan with General Admission tickets four times, and I always thought I was having a better-than-normal experience because I would show up to autograph sessions and occasionally get to say hello to a driver. Even that is an abnormal experience for most race-going fans. And, hell, having the means to actually show up to a race in and of itself is very fucking abnormal.
Honestly, accessibility matters. Most people in the world are not grossly, disgustingly rich, and if you want more people to show up at races or even watch your product on TV, you kind of need to appeal to more than just the one percent. The $200 you’d spend on just a General Admission ticket at COTA could buy you a ticket, a paddock pass, parking, and a snack during the IndyCar race at the same track. Instead of sitting in the grass for three days, you can actually get up close and see some cars.
Yes, most people know what they’re getting into with F1. It’s elite as hell. I know that I certainly didn’t ever expect I’d ever be able to afford even a grandstand seat when I started watching F1. At the same time, though, it’s the sell-out crowds showing up to the race that keep F1 relevant enough to keep putting on races, not the people who can drop tens of thousands of dollars at the drop of a hat for an incredibly quick car ride. But with skyrocketing ticket prices and minuscule amounts of access to anyone who isn’t sitting on a pile of cash, more average fans can end up feeling unimportant.
It’s a frustrating paradox, and it didn’t really sink in until that hot lap. F1 needs its Average Joe fans, but it also doesn’t really value any of them.
But, I mean, if anyone ever offers you a free Pirelli hot lap, by all means get out there and take it. Pondering the implications of class and status can always come later.