For the next three days, Austin is an alternate sports universe. While the rest of the state (and country) will be be focused on Baylor vs. top-ranked Kansas State or the Texans' and the Cowboys' games, a worldwide audience will watch the United States Grand Prix--an estimated 120,000 in person and millions more on TV . It is the first-ever Formula 1 race to take place at the Circuit of Americas , just 15 miles south westeast of Austin. Here are some things you want to know about the F1 scene.
1. THERE'S ACTUALLY A RACE
For two years, most of the F1 coverage was about money . . . and lawsuits over money, and state-provided money, and the sport's well-monied clientele.
Organizers have suggested that the USGP is a plum for host cities that's on par with the Super Bowl, and as with the NFL's big game, it seems to be a high-dollar party ( 24-karat gold champagne! ) and networking bonanza first, and a sporting event second.
But the football game still matters, and so will the auto race. F1's season title is still very much at stake; the USGP is the second-to-last race of the year, with Germany's Sebastian Vettel currently leading Spain's Fernando Alonso in the standings by 10 points (a topic we'll revisit later).
So what's the racing itself like? Eric Mores of ESPN the Magazine sums it up:
If Nascar is the NFL of motorsports in the United States, Formula One is more like soccer. While Americans prefer the knock-the-other-guy-into-next-week sport, the rest of the world goes crazy for a nuanced game in which minuscule differences in strategy and execution decide the outcome.
Mores notes that new rules have made F1 more "wheel-to-wheel" like NASCAR, while also introducing greater parity, with eight different first-place finishers so far this season (last year there were only four at this point in the schedule).
2. THE CARS ALSO TURN RIGHT
That's the biggest difference between F1 and other types of racing, as Matt Hardigree of Jalopnik told me for a New York Times/Texas Monthly story way back in July of 2011.
That article continued:
Unlike NASCAR’s oval, F1 tracks have turns and elevation changes, but less passing and less crashing. Like Indy, F1 is open-wheel racing, not the more popular stock car action. But F1 is a Mac compared to Indycar's PC—more proprietary technology, more speed, more money.
“The great thing about Formula One that I think Texans will love is that it is really fast, really loud racing,” Hardigree said. “I think that what they won’t be used to is the fact that Americans suck at it.” (Phil Hill, in the 1960s, and Mario Andretti, in the 1970s, are the only American drivers to win F1 championships.)
3. IT COULD GET INTERESTING REAL QUICKLY
And by "interesting," we mean there could be early crashes. Last month at the Japanese Grand Prix, several drivers were "retired" during the first lap.
That kind of thing could happen here in Texas because, as Auto Week put it , "no team has yet turned a wheel in anger here." So nobody is sure what to expect. And that's especially true given the Circuit of Americas' signature feature, Turn 1.
As the Associated Press explained, the course is "notable for a 133-foot elevation heading into first turn, which means the cars will immediately descend from that height into the second turn. And because it's a new track, the surface is expected to be slippery."
4. IT'S NOT THE FIRST TIME THAT THE SPORT HAS BEEN TO TEXAS
There have been nine other F1 sites in the United States, including New York's Watkins Glen for many years, and, most recently, Indianapolis's Brickyard, which last held an F1 race in 2007 (though the Circuit of Americas is the "first purpose-built" Grand Prix facility in the U.S.")
Maurice Hamilton of ESPNF1 recalls the 1984 United States Grand Prix:
In 1984, F1 visited Dallas; an extraordinary weekend in more ways than one. The heat in July was overpowering but the biggest victim was the track, a temporary but extremely challenging affair fringed by the usual concrete blocks and surfaced with a material that could not cope with high temperatures and the torque of F1 engines. The timetable was such that the warm-up (a standard feature of race day) was held at 7am and prompted Jacques Laffite to arrive dressed in pyjamas as he made his way down the pit lane on a golf buggy.
The novelty value of the weekend stretched to a barbecue at South Fork and characters from 'Dallas' turning up at the race. As the TV stars sat in their air-conditioned boxes, they must have thought F1 people mad as they went racing in 100 deg F. But there was to be drama aplenty with the brave Nigel Mansell collapsed in a heap while trying to push his stricken Lotus across the finishing line. The final act starred the promoter when he made off with the cash box and was never seen again. And neither was the race.
5. SERGIO PEREZ COUNTS AS THE "HOMETOWN" FAVORITE
Mexican F1 fans are expected to make up as much as 20% of the USGP crowd, a potential economic boon for San Antonio as well as Austin, and a rare treat for Perez, who hails from Guadalajara.
"It’s the closest one I have ever raced in the last eight, nine years in my life, so I expect to have a lot of support here," he told the press on Thursday, as Autoweek reported.
6. FOR SOME FANS, A HELICOPTER'S LIKE A TAXICAB
Austin will have not one but two impromptu helipads this weekend, one downtown on the roof of the Embassy Suites, and another off of Mopac, much to the chagrin of residents who live nearby. The Austin city council has already promised to have more restrictions on F1 chopper traffic in the future.
As Michael King of the Austin Chronicle wrote,