- Associated Press - Friday, May 11, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN (AP) - The first American driver on the Formula One grid in five years is hoping for a solid performance at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Caterham test driver and California native Alexander Rossi took to the track for practice on Friday, becoming the first U.S. driver to get behind the wheel of an F1 car since Scott Speed drove for Toro Rosso in 2007. Speed was eventually replaced by the current two-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.

The United States will host a race this season for the first time in five years on Nov. 18 at Austin, Texas, and a second GP will be held in New Jersey in 2013.

“American people are very patriotic, but there is no driver to get behind and support,” Rossi said. “I don’t see why Formula One cannot be something America is a part of. I wouldn’t say it’s too European at all.”

Phil Hill was the first American driver to win the championship in 1961 and Mario Andretti title was the last in 1978.

Andretti’s son Michael raced 13 grand prix races for McLaren in 1993, with a third-place finish as his best result in that stint.

The 22-year-old Rossi maintains there is interest in the sport, particularly after Caterham signed agreements with several big-spending American corporate sponsors.

“I think (the sponsors) realize there is a big opportunity there that hasn’t been captured yet by Formula One,” said Rossi. “I feel like I’m a critical part of that.

“My goal is to be a racer and I want to be someone who inspires Americans to watch Formula One.”

The reason for lack of the F1’s popularity could be that Rossi’s generation most vivid memory of U.S. involvement in the sport was the infamous 2006 Unites States GP, when only six teams took part. Seven teams pulled out over tire concerns. Fans littered the Indianapolis track in protest.

“When they explained to me Formula One cars were quickest than Champ cars, that got my attention,” said Rossi, who admits it’s tough to break through the NASCAR and IndyCar dominance.

On Friday, Rossi finished his first spin behind the wheel of a Caterham _ formerly Lotus _ 21st of 24 cars. He swerved off the track once during practice for the Spanish Grand Prix race, which is Sunday.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Rossi said.


Paul Logothetis can be reached at: https://www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP

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