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World's Greatest Racing Figure Unrecognized in US - 2003-10-16

He is the highest paid sports person on earth. On Sunday, Oct. 12, he won a record-setting sixth world championship. But despite his success and fame almost everywhere in the world, he didn't make the front page of the sports section in any major U.S. newspaper... in fact he was lucky if he was mentioned at all.

Most race fans consider Michael Schumacher the world's greatest competitive driver. And with an income estimated to be anywhere from $70 million to $100 million a year, he could be the highest paid sports figure on earth.

And for sports fans throughout South America, Asia and Europe, especially his home country of Germany, it doesn't get much bigger than Michael Schumacher. Inga Stracke is a journalist who covers Formula One for German radio. She says the driver's success and fame force him to live a secluded life.

"If he's in Europe, like in Germany, he can't even go buy a piece of bread because he would have hundreds of people around him for autographs, they want to touch him, they want to shake his hand, and you can imagine that's not really a nice life," she said.

But when he's in the United States, it's nothing like that. With the exception of the 125,000 fans who showed up for his victory at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis Oct. 12, few Americans have heard his name, let alone recognize his face. Schumacher says that obscurity is one of his favorite parts about visiting, such as a recent trip to the western U.S. on motorcycles.

"We have been touring around with the Harleys, from Vegas up into Colorado and it was great," he said. "Wherever we stayed, I wasn't recognized, just treated very normal and I can watch people rather than watching me and that's something I enjoy very much."

But as much as Schumacher may enjoy his anonymity, Formula One racing promoters and sponsors do not. Hoping to capitalize on the growing interest in motor sports in the world's largest sports market, organizers want to raise the profile of their sport and its stars.

Jackie Stewart is a name from Formula One a few Americans do recognize. After winning world titles in the 1960s and 1970s, the Scottish driver became a commentator on American television. Stewart says the biggest challenge to marketing Schumacher in the United States is not his sport, but the fact that he's not an American.

"Lance Armstrong is a cyclist, now how many people in America are really interested in cycling? He's grown beyond his sport, but you have to be successful at your sport," he said. "And if you're an American and you take on the world, you'll become a superstar."

Formula One promoters agree. Although American sponsors including FedEx, Hewlett Packard and Marlboro have signed on, there are no American Formula One teams or drivers. And while some of the companies that craft the ultra-fast cars are familiar names - Mercedes and BMW - team names such as McLaren or Williams are not.

Max Muhleman runs a sports marketing company in the United States that specializes in motor sports. Compared to the popular stock car racing, known as NASCAR, Mr. Muhleman says the lack of familiarity makes it difficult for Formula One to lure American sports fans.

"Whereas they go to a NASCAR race and they don't expect anything more than Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Pontiac, they understand that, that's what they get and it's full of American names," he said.

Mr. Muhleman believes that until more Americans are involved, Michael Schumacher and other Formula One stars are unlikely to gain much time on American TV. The Austrian tycoon, who produces the popular Red Bull energy drinks, is cultivating a U.S. team. But it's been more than 20 years since the last American, Mario Andretti, enjoyed any success in the sport. Some fans joke it could take at least that long before another Formula One driver could become a household name in the United States.