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Red Bull Formula 1 team turns Washington's iconic Pennsylvania Ave into a racetrack

The main event featured retired F1 race winner and former Red Bull driver David Coulthard, who drove the car down the street between the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
David Coulthard waves to the crowd as he drives the Red Bull RB7 racing car.
With the U.S. Capitol in the background, former F1 Grand Prix-winning driver David Coulthard waves to the crowd as he drives the RB7 racing car that won the 2011 Formula 1 championship during a demonstration on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Saturday, April 20, 2024. Jose Luis Magana / AP

WASHINGTON — Thousands of fans lined up along Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday for the thrill of watching a Formula 1 race winner blast down the iconic street in a championship-winning car.

The event was hosted on a breezy spring afternoon by reigning F1 champions Oracle Red Bull Racing as part of a series of events in American cities designed to bring the world’s fastest race cars closer to the sport’s fastest-growing fan base.

The main event featured F1 race winner and former Red Bull driver David Coulthard. Coulthard, a retired driver who goes by “DC,” raced the RB7 car in which Sebastian Vettel won the 2011 title down the street between the Capitol and the White House, the same area that gets blocked off for presidential inaugurations.

Crowds packed the spectator zones for a good view, cheering and smelling burned rubber as Coulthard hit the throttle in a car that goes over 200 mph, some of them covering their ears as the engine revved up.

“It’s exciting!” said Ron Binkauskas, who flew to Washington from Kentucky and watched in the VIP zone. “You don’t realize from TV just how fast these cars are and how loud they are.”

Coulthard told NBC News that he was most excited to drive alongside “the iconic images” of Washington and that he would “love” to see an F1 street race in the nation’s capital.

“For many years, Formula 1 under its previous management tried to sort of find a foothold in America to have a true world championship. America is such an important and powerful country,” Coulthard said. “The American owners, Liberty [Media], have understood very well the American market ... and they’ve opened it up and made the paddock more accessible. I think, previously, the sport was quite sort of elitist and had the barriers up. And it was very difficult for people to connect. But that has really changed, and the audience has just gone [up].”

James Smith, who lives in Washington, took some time off work to see the show — and to see an F1 car in person for the first time.

“I’m just a fan of the Red Bull team, and it’s not every day that they come to this part of town. So it’s something I want to see,” he said.

Smith got into F1 by watching "Drive to Survive" on Netflix.

"I watched it during Covid a lot with some of my friends," he said. "And Red Bull was really heavily featured. So that’s how I got into the team.”

“Drive to Survive,” the popular documentary that premiered in 2019, is widely credited, including by F1 drivers and team bosses, for fueling the sport’s growth and bringing in more American fans.

But this year is a crucial time for the sport in the U.S., a test of whether it can keep growing — or even sustain its new fans.

David Coulthard drives a Red Bull RB7 Formula 1 car down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
David Coulthard drives a Red Bull RB7 Formula 1 car down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.Sahil Kapur / NBC News

From 2018 to 2023, ESPN says, viewership doubled from 554,000 to 1.11 million per race. But last year, it ticked down slightly from its peak of 1.21 million in 2022, which the network attributed in part to the record-smashing inaugural Miami Grand Prix that year.

One of the goals of the sport is to make it more accessible.

Red Bull’s two-day event included a zone nearby Friday and Saturday for fans to test out the Red Bull “simulators,” which the drivers use to hone their craft, to practice pit stops by changing tires the way the professionals do at races and to buy merch. Along with Red Bull race suits, plenty of fans were decked out in gear of other F1 teams — most notably Ferrari and McLaren.

They included Corey Jean Gartenhaus, of Washington, whose favorite driver is Lando Norris of McLaren.

“I actually had a calendar invite on my calendar today blocked off, and it said that I’m going to F1 DC. And my boss was like, that’s really awesome,” she said. “You watch it on TV and to feel it in real life and feel the vibrations of the engine and everything like that, it’s just a very different experience.”

The event brought out old and new Formula 1 fans, too.

Grand Prix-winning driver David Coulthard drives the RB7 racing car that won the 2011 Formula One championship during a demonstration along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Saturday, April 20, 2024.
David Coulthard drives an RB7 racing car during a demonstration in Washington on Saturday.Jose Luis Magana / AP

“I am one of the biggest Formula 1 and racing fans, and this is one of the biggest events that we’ve had in the District,” said Charles Kurtis, who has worked at go-kart tracks in the Washington area.Sebastian Fleischer, a racing driver and motorsports fan in Maryland, said he has been a Formula 1 fan “forever” — at least since Michael Schumacher was dominating in a Ferrari two decades ago.

“It’s really great to see how much growth and how big the sport has gotten in the United States, having three Grand Prix now,” he said, referring to the races in Miami; Austin, Texas; and Las Vegas — more than any other country hosts.

Kiana Parvizi, a self-described “Ferrari girl” who is a fan of Charles Leclerc, said she brought her roommate to the event because “I wanted to show my roommate what the F1 world was like and hopefully get her to watch a couple races.”

The showrun took place the day Red Bull’s defending F1 champion, Max Verstappen, scored the team’s 100th pole position ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix. Verstappen is dominating the sport, having won a record 19 of 22 races last year and three of the first four races this year. Although longtime F1 fans have learned to love the sport through eras of dominance — which never last — many newer fans have not. They want to see competition.

David Coulthard
David Coulthard prepares to drive a Red Bull Racing RB7 at Union Market in Washington on Friday.Chris Tedesco / Red Bull

Coulthard said he takes “the view that sport is about being the best” and that periods of dominance are inevitable when one team gets it right. But he said Americans have plenty of reasons to love F1.

“This represents the very best and technology,” Coulthard said. “And if we look at the world we live in today, most people have a mobile phone or a laptop, and of course you want the latest and greatest because it just enhances your performance experience. What you have in Formula 1 is the fastest, most technologically advanced racing car series in the world.”