Ken Anderson doesn't look or act like the architect behind the most ambitious - and controversial - American racing team to be launched in a generation. At 54, he's pudgy and balding yet sunny and boyish, and he blends the laid-back cockiness of the motocross racer he used to be with an engineer's passion for technical elegance. As he strolls through the US F1 race shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, past a design office filled with humming CAD workstations, he pauses frequently to admire a weld or examine a half-milled upright. But he lingers longest over a crude and grimy tubular relic with puny tires that look like they were lifted from a lawn mower. "Isn't that the coolest thing?" Anderson says, radiating infectious enthusiasm.
It's December 2009. In three months, at the Bahrain Grand Prix, Anderson's team is scheduled to put an American car on a Formula 1 grid for the first time since 1986. But at the moment, the only remotely close-to-race-worthy vehicle in the shop is this first-of-its-kind go-kart built back in 1956. In many respects, the mini-me racing car is a perfect metaphor for US F1. Like the revolutionary go-kart, the team has been ridiculed unmercifully by its many critics for being too slow and too small. And like the go-kart, US F1 hopes to challenge some of the most rigid paradigms in contemporary motorsports - about how the international community perceives American teams and about how business is conducted in Formula 1.
Since Formula 1 was inaugurated in 1950, six American teams have gone overseas in search of grand prix glory. All of them featured prominent names and substantial resources, yet they won only three races among them, and Dan Gurney's historic victory at Spa in 1967 was the only win in a car built in the U.S.A. But bad karma isn't the biggest obstacle Anderson has to overcome. He's also defying decades of conventional wisdom, basing his team in the heart of NASCAR country rather than the center of the F1 universe, in industrial England. Even more outrageous, he expects to be competitive despite spending less money and employing fewer people than most of his rivals.
"This is a skunk-works deal," Anderson says as he strolls between rows of CNC machines milling exquisitely complex components out of blocks of aluminum. "In 1992, Williams did the FW14B, arguably the trickest F1 car ever built, with 180 people. So why did Toyota need 800 people last year? We're lean and mean. There's no upstairs, downstairs. We're in Joe Gibbs's original NASCAR shop, built in '94 before he moved to his garage mahal. It's not McLaren. But our autoclave still gets hot. It doesn't know it's in a 40,000-square-foot building."