David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Despite a few hiccups, Formula E proves itself a welcome visitor

Amlin Aguri Formula E team driver Salvador Duran whizzes past the Freedom Tower during the FIA Formula E Miami ePrix electric car race on March 14.
Amlin Aguri Formula E team driver Salvador Duran whizzes past the Freedom Tower during the FIA Formula E Miami ePrix electric car race on March 14. El Nuevo Herald

A week removed from FIA Formula E electric car racing series’ Miami ePrix buzzing through downtown Miami and with four more yearly visits planned, here’s a few suggestions on how Formula E could be a better houseguest.

Understand, Formula E didn’t float into town with the haughty, high-maintenance air of FIA’s signature Formula One series. Formula E tried to have the kind visit that gets you not just welcomed back at the beach house but happily anticipated.

It just needs to keep the warm feelings flowing with a few adjustments, as most of us do when we plan erroneously on our first trip somewhere (i.e. heading for dinner in Amsterdam after 9:30 p.m.).

They didn’t stay long. By design, the series is a two-day production, one day of street blockage for setup, and one day for practice, qualifying and the race. It’s in and out in half the time of the old Grand Prix of Miami. Even the Long Beach Grand Prix, running on downtown streets since the 1970s, couldn’t be more efficient.

Formula E and race promoters Andretti Sports Marketing paid the city of Miami for the off-duty police and rent for Museum Park, home of a fan interactive “eVillage.” They paid for the necessary infrastructure improvements. They pulled the hundreds of permits themselves, did things as by the book as we do them here.

(When Andretti Sports Marketing owner and former IndyCar driver Michael Andretti mentioned the permits, he sounded as if he pulled hundreds of his teeth. I imagined David Beckham watching that from one of his homes and chuckling, “Imagine trying to build a stadium there.”)

Nobody knows exactly how much money the event brings into Miami. The overwhelming majority of fans looked local. That means money spent at the event is just money not spent elsewhere in town. I’d sooner trust a teenager with the truth than one of those “economic impact” claims put forth when some sports entity is trying to get the public to pay for its party house.

Formula E didn’t ask that. And the series did provide a good race at a neighborly volume. I’ve been trackside for sprints, midgets, Indy cars, NASCAR and Formula One. Formula E cars lacked the innards-shaking mass growl of those cars. That’s OK. There’s room for a quieter racing series.

As far as traffic, Friday locked up more than Saturday. Of course. People work. People play. People work at early playing. Blocking streets with all that going on clogs things. Still, I found less frustration there than, say, driving west on 836. Or any of the jillion roads under construction in Miami-Dade.

I’ve seen the Book Fair mess up more Saturday downtown traffic. During the race, I found a vantage point in front of AmericanAirlines Arena that allowed a view across Seventh Street to Northeast Second Avenue, Northeast First Avenue and Miami Avenue. Turn to the south, I could see the open parts of Biscayne Boulevard.

Cars moved.

The large crowd, on the other hand, didn’t. The biggest traffic problem at the car race — and what would have had me near homicidal as a fan with family — concerned walking people.

Low flow? No flow.

Only two foot bridges, one across Biscayne just south of the starting line and one over Northeast Eighth Street east of Biscayne, graced the course. People in line for the Biscayne foot bridge clocked their wait for each at 20 minutes. That’s 40 minutes, almost the entire race, to go from the eVillage fan area to the west grandstand near the start line.

That can turn a beautiful sunny day at the races with the kids into an hour of simmering in a whiny hell sauce.

Another bridge, over Biscayne at Northeast 11th Street near the east grandstands, gives fans another route out of the eVillage area. A fourth somewhere else over Biscayne should solve the issue.

To do that without using more time probably requires more people. Additional personnel and equipment might also get the track construction done on time. Early arriving fans expecting first practice at 8:15 a.m. didn’t see a wheel turn until 10:45 a.m. That would have dumped salt on my doughnut as a paying fan.

This can happen with first-time course construction. If it happens a second time, people stop getting there early to spend their money early. A third time, people stop getting there.

I’m an optimistic cynic on such things. Formula E’s drivers, suits, sponsors and sponsor suits love Miami. They want to keep paid business trips here on the schedule. A successful series means more money for them. Many series characteristics say Formula E understands something not always associated with FIA — competition for attention and disposable income makes fan responsiveness a requisite for success.

They know it all starts with being good houseguests.

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