F1, Take One

Fast cars! Big egos! Billionaires! Painted boobs! How grand prix racing came to Texas—and why it’s probably here to stay.

March 2013By Comments

Photograph by Sarah Wilson

Special precautions were in order. You needed only look skyward one weekend last November to realize it. Helicopters hoisted bigwigs from various spots in Austin to the recently constructed Circuit of the Americas, where the city’s inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix would be held on Sunday, November 18. Rich people filled the skies like a late-season mosquito hatch, and many Austin residents shut themselves in their houses to wait out the infestation. 

Among the people hitching a ride on a charter bird was Mario Andretti, the 72-year-old race car driver who’d been hired as COTA’s “official ambassador.” And so it was that I found myself, at six-thirty in the morning on the Friday before the race, in a meeting room at the downtown Embassy Suites, where a smiling man behind a bar was already offering chilled champagne. Andretti, diminutive but robust, arrived casually dressed and loaded down with entry badges. I trotted after him to the top floor of the parking garage, where the helicopter was waiting. He slipped on his sunglasses, and as we waited for the boarding signal, I shouted over the copter’s noise, “What’s it like to go two hundred miles an hour?” 

He shrugged and answered in an Italian accent, “The speed is, to some degree, irrelevant. Speed will surprise a beginner. But I’ve trained since I was twelve years old. If you never experience it, you notice it.” He added that he has driven people in three-seater demonstration cars to give them a taste of the experience. “The reaction is ‘Waaaaa!’ ” he said, crying like a baby. “When I go out, I don’t ease into it. There’s a panic button, but I ignore it. They pass out and come to later.”

He turned around and saw that the pilot was ready. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go!”

This weekend was the culmination of years of deal-making and wheel-greasing, in which a handful of businessmen, aided by state comptroller Susan Combs, conjured a multimillion-dollar race operation. The flak had started early and hadn’t subsided in the weeks before the race: dissatisfied residents had already begun grumbling about pollution, helicopter noise, and traffic. But state officials had courted the profitable enterprise with the enthusiasm of an AV club president who stumbles upon a chance to date the prom queen. (On race weekend, Governor Rick Perry himself rode by shuttle to the race site to size up the extent of the traffic.) By the time the race lovers flooded the city, even the most disgruntled citizens had resigned themselves to the peculiar reality that every year for the next ten years, one of the most prestigious car races in the world, watched on TV by 500 million people, was going to take place in their backyard.

Our helicopter climbed up into the clear, sunny sky. From downtown, we flew over Interstate 35, heading southeast, the clusters of apartment complexes and housing developments giving way to puzzle pieces of brown scrub and stock tanks. After about ten minutes we reached the track—a 3.4-mile course with long straightaways and switchbacks, gradual curves and sharp corners. From the sky, its irregular shape looked something like a giant women’s stacked-heel shoe. The entire COTA installation covered 1,300 acres and included the track, a 14,000-capacity amphitheater, a main grandstand built to accommodate 8,000, and auxiliary stands for another 88,000.

A year and a half earlier, this had all been raw land, and F1 had seemed little more than a whimsical theater of press conferences. But now the track and all its fresh plumage had been installed as if it were just another (unusually loud) subdivision. We landed a short drive from the track, and as we exited the helicopter, we could already hear the buzz in the distance, like a swarm of bees.

THE IDEA THAT A WORLD-CLASS RACE would come to Central Texas had seemed so unlikely, and the high-stakes business negotiations to land F1 had been so fraught, that on the weekend of the race, it was still a little surprising that it was happening at all. The event was the brainchild of 47-year-old Tavo Hellmund, a race promoter, whom I met last October at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. The son of a local department store employee and a Mexican motor-sports promoter, he has the buttoned-down look of a casual businessman, offset by a Texan drawl, a talent for expressive storytelling, and a penchant for dipping tobacco. He has some difficulty sitting still, a trait that has ultimately worked to his advantage. As a teenager, he said, he worked summers in his dad’s business, taking tickets and picking up trash at Indy racing and F1 events in Mexico, and when he was 22 he moved to Europe to attempt to make it as a driver. After seven years he’d made it only as far as Formula 3—a feeder class to F1—and he decided to try his hand at promotion instead.

What he wanted to promote was his hometown. “Now, Austin doesn’t roll off the tongue like Monaco or Singapore,” he told me. But he believed it had plenty to offer F1, such as thriving nightlife and a large population within a 180-mile radius. There were more than fifty Fortune 500 companies in Texas that could become directly involved with teams or manufacturers. The city also had no professional sports franchise, which would make Formula 1 the main sporting event in town besides the Texas Longhorns. Hellmund speculated that Austin’s assets would set it apart from Indianapolis, the last location for a U.S. Formula 1 Grand Prix, where track sponsors broke ties with F1 in 2007.

But many promoters have plans. What Hellmund had was more valuable: access. For as long as he could remember, his family had been close with Bernie Ecclestone, the president and CEO of Formula 1 Management. Ecclestone, a petite 82-year-old mogul with a white mop-top, regularly made the news, often photographed with statuesque women more than twenty years his junior. He had ruled over Formula 1 since the late seventies, collecting huge sanctioning fees from promoters that had led to his standing as the twelfth-richest person in the United Kingdom. “Bernie realized he could go to Abu Dhabi, places that aren’t really on the world map but that have more money than they know what to do with, and for a fee they are on live TV in two hundred countries,” Hellmund said. “They have a prestigious global event. For them, it’s a cheap deal.”

For a promoter like Hellmund, with less money to spare, the fee was an obstacle. But just before the 2004 Super Bowl, in Houston, state lawmakers created the Major Events Trust Fund, a reserve that provides support for huge events that promise to rake in tax revenue. Realizing that the fund could offset the F1 fee, Hellmund went to Ecclestone in 2007 to sell him on the idea of establishing an event in Austin. Ecclestone considered reintroducing the Grand Prix to the U.S. with a mix of interest and apprehension. In the past, Formula 1 just hadn’t taken hold in the States. But after two years of persuading, the F1 chief granted Hellmund a ten-year contract beginning in 2012, setting the price tag at $23 million per year. Hellmund then went to the state comptroller, Combs, who agreed to pay the fee out of the Major Events Trust Fund for those ten years. With that accomplished, Hellmund believed, all he needed was some capital to build a track.

For a while, the necessary components were coming together. Hellmund was introduced to Bobby Epstein, a 47-year-old bond trader with a soft-spoken, self-deprecating manner, who owned more than six hundred acres of undeveloped land just south of the Austin airport. Epstein signed on as an investor and brought San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs on board (more to add credibility and funds than to participate in the daily negotiations). The three men formed a company, Accelerator Holdings, and anticipated that the construction would cost $250 million. They began to excavate the land, removing gas lines and digging a nine-foot-deep trench for the track’s foundation. 

But there was a chicken-and-egg problem that put Epstein and Hellmund at odds. In the business agreement, Hellmund held the rights to the race and would sign them over to the company when the investors had funded $190 million of the project. Investors whom Epstein and McCombs approached, however, were more willing to commit if Hellmund transferred the F1 contract to the company first. “If you don’t have an event, you’re not building a facility for it,” Epstein explained. Hellmund had no intention of handing over his hard-won prize until his partners ponied up the funds. As construction began to stall, news of brewing internal disagreements became public, and the partners’ relationship crumbled. In the fall of 2011, Hellmund was forced into a buyout agreement. 

That left Epstein with a 3.4-mile ditch and no valid contract. In October, he went to London to meet with Ecclestone, who had the upper hand since there were two other countries actively bidding for the race. Ecclestone asked for a higher sanctioning fee than Hellmund had negotiated. Epstein refused and flew back to Austin with no deal. 

And worse fortunes awaited him. Combs, by this time, had been publicly criticized for leapfrogging over the city when she promised to pay the sanctioning fee, and in mid-November she announced that the state would no longer provide the fee up front; rather, it would reimburse the money after the race had been held. Though the chances of getting an Austin Grand Prix onto the 2012 calendar had dwindled down to about 5 percent, in Epstein’s estimation, he continued negotiations with Ecclestone, calling him regularly as the deadline to set the final 2012 Formula 1 schedule approached. Not until December 7, the day of the deadline, did Epstein emerge with a viable contract, and after hanging up with Ecclestone, he realized he had ten minutes to get the money into Ecclestone’s account before the wires closed in Europe.

The moment the money was transferred, Epstein had a race. But there was a lot of work left to do. Over the next ten months, he would need more than five thousand workers out at the track site pounding away to build the track, the pit area, the grandstands, and a 270,000-square-foot building to host VIP fans. By the following November, the cost had escalated to $450 million, and on race weekend the workers were still putting on the finishing touches. Sidewalks ended abruptly. Grass had had no chance to grow, leaving large patches of dirt. But the track itself and the main buildings, by way of some miracle, were ready. 

Around Austin, in those same months, the hype metastasized. The track promoters were delivering economic impact numbers from $288 million to $500 million annually—so big you could almost hear whooping from businesspeople around the city: “The rich people are coming!” The W Hotel hired a designer to outfit million-dollar apartments for sale with dishes, furniture, towels, and the works, so that “all they have to do is bring their toothbrush.” Hearing that the hotels were sold-out—even when charging five times their regular rates—locals tried to rent out their homes, including one man on Craigslist who identified himself as a nudist. While the facility held only 120,000 fans, reports on the number of people coming to town grew so inflated that a few days before the race, my waiter at the upscale restaurant Uchiko said he understood that the event was going to draw 500,000 people.

One Wednesday evening in August, I attended a “preparedness workshop” at Austin’s city hall, sponsored by the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office to help business owners capitalize on the soon-to-be-annual occasion. As the 120 attendees got comfortable in their theater seats, an F1 expert explained that the sport is organized around a twenty-race season with twelve teams, and each two-car team is competing for points in two categories: one for engineers and one for drivers. World championship titles are given in both categories at the end of the season to the teams with the most points. It rivals only “futbol” around the world in popularity, he said.

This got the room’s blood pumping, but the mood was not entirely festive. The businesspeople looked around uncertainly, and in time a few suspicions were confirmed. “Yes, there will be traffic,” a city traffic coordinator said, to muffled laughter, asking the audience to “put on your patience hat.” Then came the manners portion of the workshop. A pretty etiquette expert in a blue skirt suit took the podium and instructed the audience never to say “Hey” or “Hi.” Business cards, she explained, should be offered with the right hand (the left hand is the “potty hand”), name-side up. Pupils were advised to brace themselves for a “no tip” scenario and briefed on common U.S. gestures that are offensive to foreigners. Scanning the room gravely, she gave three examples: she made the “Hook ’em” sign, then pointed, then motioned for someone to come closer. She paused. “I have just offended half the world,” she said. The audience gulped.

“TO ACHIEVE ANYTHING IN THIS GAME,” THE ENGLISH driver Stirling Moss once said, “you must be prepared to dabble in the boundary of disaster.” Yet racing has never seen a shortage of risk-takers. While Formula 1 has its roots in the vital European motor-racing scene of the twenties and thirties (“Formula” refers to a set of rules), the first world drivers’ championship didn’t take place until 1950. The stakes early on were cruel: thirteen drivers were killed in the first decade, and in the years that followed, horrifying wrecks were common. The last fatal collision killed the Brazilian hero Ayerton Senna in 1994, and afterward the governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, instituted new rules that radically improved safety.

As technology improved, F1 purists became increasingly enthusiastic about the cars themselves. Semiautomatic gearboxes, traction control, and aerodynamics took on a glamorous sheen, and team specialists began monitoring the cars on computers as carefully as NASA scientists analyze spaceships in flight. These days, cars can hit 100 miles an hour and return to a dead stop within four seconds. A crew can change all four tires of a car and refuel in three seconds. The machinery provides the thrill. A few fans still harbor the old bloodlust, though. One longtime F1 follower from Ecuador told me he was getting a little bored with the sport now that it is safer. “Some of us who follow racing feel it now lacks . . .” He struggled to finish his sentence as I waited. “Just kidding,” he said sheepishly.

Steering these small, lightweight machines around curve-filled tracks at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour requires immense concentration, and the heroes with the skills to maintain control loom large. Senna, Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher—these drivers and others are considered artists with the ability to focus and multitask better than any in the world. Forty-four-year-old Schumacher—statistically the best driver in F1 history—was still racing in the 2012 season, though as the U.S. date approached, the younger drivers outmaneuvered him. With a single remaining Grand Prix in the season, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Austin race could have closed the deal for Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, a camera-friendly favorite who had only one real rival in the weeks leading up to the event: Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, a driver who rarely dropped his stoic facade.

The Wednesday preceding the race, I caught up with some true F1 aficionados at the Fan Forum, held in a gold-colored Hilton conference room. In attendance were the diehards, the fans who had come days in advance to soak up the nightlife, watch the practice sessions, and scrutinize the qualifying race. Most that I could see seemed to be middle-aged Americans, save for a few clean-cut youngsters wearing racing jackets who could have been from anywhere. (The event was representative of the larger fan base at the Austin Grand Prix: despite the image of F1 fans as European millionaires with Prada sunglasses and sweaters tied over their shoulders, the average attendee was middle-class and from North America.) 

I asked a few of them how they got interested in the sport. A thin, bald man with a mustache and perfect posture answered first. “You meet people from all over the world,” he said. “I’m a Lotus fan. I got interested in them in the sixties. You remember The Avengers? Diana Rigg drove a Lotus Elan on the show—a little blue convertible.” 

A big guy with white hair in front of us turned around. “It’s one of the most expensive soap operas in the world. Scandals! Egos! Girlfriends!” he said.

Not surprisingly, the drivers elicited strong feelings from the fans. In my unofficial survey, I found that when asked about the drivers, fans would praise some for their gregariousness or their mettle and single out another as contemptible. Common targets were Vettel, his teammate Mark Webber, Alonso, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, and Lotus-Renault’s Kimi Räikkönen. “Vettel is the indie rocker,” one said. “Hamilton is conceited, Kimi is the Iceman, Webber is more mature, a cutup.” 

“Everybody loves Vettel,” another said. “Hamilton is so friendly, and Alonso is a jerk.”

OUT AT THE TRACK ITSELF, large photos of drivers both old and new adorned the walls at the Paddock Club, a supersized cloister for VIPs above the team garages. I took a tour of the Paddock on race day with one of the managers, Beatrice Gendre, a young woman with a French accent, a ponytail, pearl earrings, and purple eyeliner. We strolled along an outdoor walkway and poked our heads into a few of the rooms, where large sliding-glass doors opened to balconies with views of the starting grid. Some of the rooms were private, others open to anyone willing to pay enough, still others designated for team sponsors like Lotus or Mercedes. In between answering questions in several languages via walkie-talkie, Gendre pointed out the variations in branding. “If you look at Ferrari, everyone has a seat,” she said. “It is more traditional. If you’re invited to Red Bull, it will be easygoing, dynamic, fun.” Nearly everywhere we went, exotic flowers were tastefully arranged, flat-screen televisions showed different areas of the track, and women offered champagne. In one common area, VIPs sat in little race car simulators like kids on coin-operated amusement rides.

All the furnishings and supplies, Gendre said, were shipped over on airfreight so that the rooms would look the same in Austin as they did in Monza, Italy, or Suzuka, Japan. While this stop had a few regional touches, such as live music from local bands, the rooms themselves were like a kit that could be put together anywhere. COTA still managed the facility, but because of the turnkey nature of the contract, F1 was now in charge, its workers a globe-trotting band of gypsies who unpacked the boxes and reassembled the whole outfit.

For most of the weekend, the area behind the Paddock was taken over by journalists, tire men, and stacks of tires shrouded in individually set electric blankets. This was also where most of the team members did their smoking and pacing. “Everyone here is a specialist,” explained Kenny Szymanski, a tall, genial 65-year-old with a New York accent. An occasional tire man—for Andretti, no less—he was wearing the same shirt he had worn when Andretti won the championship in 1978. Tire men from various teams waved and slapped Szymanski on the back as they walked by. “The guys on the laptops are the geeks,” he said. “They’re looking at aero in the car, tire pressures, everything.” He pointed to a man nearby. “That guy does the inside rear,” he said. He clearly loved spending time on the track, though it sounded as if the scene had been a little wilder in the past. These days, he said, security has increased. To give me an example, he showed me the photo identification he had used in his early days of F1. It was a picture of his naked butt.

“How does one become a tire man?” I asked a guy who was carefully checking the pressure of a tire.

“Bad luck, normally,” he said with a laugh. “In the old days we were all [heavy goods vehicle] truck drivers. I think ninety-nine percent of us still are or still have a license.”

I’d heard that several of the teams had gone to a local shooting range—something many of them wouldn’t be able to experience in their home countries—and I asked about what else they did in their spare time. “Oh, no one stays out,” he said sarcastically. “We’re very responsible—don’t drink at all.” He spotted a groggy teammate and shouted, “Is it the quiet guys who do the tires, Bruce?” The man groaned.  

Nearby, one German tire man took long drags off a cigarette and dodged all my questions, eyeing me with suspicion, but he was an exception. Most were accessible—certainly they were easier to approach than the drivers, who were international celebrities. Even without a gaggle of reporters squeezing in on them, the drivers were usually recognizable by chiseled looks and tell-tale struts. 

Not all the VIP fans watched from the Paddock Club. A day earlier, during the qualifying rounds, I’d been given a tour of the perimeter by a PR rep named Dara, driving a golf cart.

“Have you seen Ron Howard?” she asked as her golf cart swerved left and right. “It isn’t me! I swear, it’s the cart!”

We cruised by an RV village that looked like a refugee camp for the wealthy—one had a Ferrari parked next to it. We passed rows and rows of Port-O-Lets. We saw masses of people wearing freshly purchased merchandise ($60 for a Ferrari team T-shirt, $120 for warm-up jackets). We successfully avoided a collision with Susan Combs, who was trodding through a patch of lumpy dirt.

After I’d been dropped off, near a VIP hospitality tent at an outlying part of the course, I overheard a lot of Texas twangs as I walked by a buffet that featured a “Touch of Texas” theme as well as “Italian Delight” and “Southern Bliss.” I worked my way into the stands outside the tent and noticed a few guys taking pictures of themselves with a woman wearing a yellow swimsuit and six-inch heels. It was impossible to hear much over the scream of the cars and an occasional announcement over the loudspeaker (“two hundredths of a second . . .”). I tried talking to a nice couple from Houston sipping cocktails at a landing but was only able to catch the woman’s “We’re newbies” before we were reduced to miming. 

WHILE THE MOST dedicated devotees who travel from Grand Prix to Grand Prix may do little more at the end of the day than catch dinner with friends, F1 is known for its nightlife, and in the weeks preceding the race, party planners began disseminating the details. There was a party that assured “the ultimate luxury nightclub experience, bringing a touch of Monaco’s glamour and opulence to Austin.” Another event promised “the best of Austin’s burgeoning burlesque, aerial, pole, and exotic dance scene.” Others bragged about the DJs, the lighting, or the “contemporary stunning furniture.”

Some people at the weekend’s events didn’t care about the race at all. At an F1-inspired fashion show at the W Hotel, where a quartet of girls wore black-and-white-checked tops and white skirts that flared out Jetsons-style, most of the attendees were going to wait until the following year to check out the track. This was also the prevailing sentiment at a VIP event held in a ballroom at the Four Seasons. One local woman, with rhinestones glued around the corners of her eyes, said she was born in Milan and explained, “This is more my thing.” A local singer whose partner bragged that she was once “the Britney Spears of Syria” was also taking the wait-and-see approach.

Whether the guests were interested in the race or not, most of the talk had to do with the drivers’ whereabouts. All the hosts said their party was going to be so glamorous that surely it would draw the drivers, though I spotted only one out on the town, Red Bull’s Webber, and when I bumped into some tire men, team engineers, and back-up crew members one night, they would not acknowledge that they were with Formula 1 at all. (“Yes, you are,” said one guy’s date. “No,” he repeated, “I’m not.”) 

This didn’t mean, however, that there weren’t “drivers” everywhere. As I party-hopped downtown, I was surprised at how often men in their forties and fifties described themselves as drivers in passing. Initially, this struck me as odd, since they didn’t always look like drivers: some were a little tall, or a little heavy, or a little old. They were hobbyists, it turned out, part of a club that hosts events for Porsches, Ferraris, and other cars (and their owners) around the world. I imagined total chaos on the track, with a bunch of rich, egocentric drivers at the wheel. One night, at a party hosted by the British Consulate, I met a man who said he was an instructor for these kinds of student drivers. He said it wasn’t quite as lawless as I’d imagined, though he admitted it could get hairy. “I’ve had some horrible students where I had them pull over and told them, ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” he said. 

“We don’t know what attracted us to driving,” a Midwestern man named Ivars told me on Saturday night. He and a friend named Timothy, both dressed in suits, were at a pop-up party called My Yacht in the Ballet Austin building. There was not a yacht in sight, but two very chilly ballerinas greeted guests en pointe at the door, and inside, Patrón tequila was being poured in large quantities while classic black and white images of F1 drivers were projected onto the white walls. 

“It’s speed,” Timothy said, describing why he wrote a big check and became part of a drivers’ club. “You’re in control of a high-speed entity.” He referred to a row of Lamborghinis parked out in front of the building. “It’s also the forms of the car bodies. They’re art!” he continued. “There’s something very largely male about taking a machine and flying, piloting it. Although there are women drivers who are better than us.”

“It’s focus,” Ivars said. “The ability to focus.”

“And feeling you’re invincible!” Timothy said. “Guys are driven by testosterone. Most drivers aren’t old enough to figure out their own mortality.”

I drifted into the back room, where girls who were similarly too young to contemplate their mortality stood in tight gold pants and four-inch heels. Dubbed the “Golden Girls,” they were dancing on white platforms on either side of a DJ. Every so often, they poured guests Comte de Mazeray’s 24-karat-gold-flecked champagne. Since I am plenty old enough to contemplate my mortality, as well as my podiatric health, I stopped one Golden Girl who was drifting through the crowd and asked about her spike heels, which sent all one hundred pounds of her weight down to her toes. “My feet don’t hurt,” she said, quite believably. “I just smile today, and I’ll cry all day Monday.”

Although some party invitations announced that their event would be studded with celebrity appearances from A-listers like Matthew McConaughey, I glimpsed mostly lesser-knowns like performers Dev and T-Pain. Apparently I missed seeing the crown princes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But later on Saturday evening at My Yacht, I suddenly noticed a shift in the atmosphere. I wondered if some dignitary had arrived. Then I saw what was getting the attention. A few women had walked into the room wearing little red leather half-jackets, skimpy black undies, and high-heeled black boots, with checkered racing flags painted on their boobs. They posed for some photos, and after they’d scanned the scene for celebs, they headed straight toward an unsuspecting Matt LeBlanc.

ON THE MORNING OF THE RACE, I caught up with Tavo Hellmund in his family’s ninety-person suite, just above the starting area. Near the entrance, some of his friends had enlarged his original sketch of the track and placed it on an easel. Photos of his family were framed on the wall. An enormous buffet included filets of beef and racks of spring lamb, Chilean sea bass, homemade gnocchi with mustard curry sauce, and a nougat praline soufflé. His father, Gustavo, who had been getting cancer treatments in San Antonio just a week earlier, was in a buoyant mood, and his eyes twinkled under the rim of his baseball cap. “I’m very proud of my son,” he told me as he walked past.  

For Hellmund, this moment had been a long time coming, even though he hadn’t been able to complete the deal himself. “Yesterday, my good friend Carlos [Slim Helú, the richest man in the world] came up,” he said, hoarse from shouting over the noise of the track. “He knew my dad was here. He spent time with us, and then Bernie, of course, came up and spent a lot of time. And when we were all together, we all three had tears in our eyes. It was really emotional.

“Everyone has done a great job,” he continued. “And everyone should be proud, including Bobby and Red.” Although he’d been talking with Slim and Ecclestone about bringing a Formula 1 Grand Prix back to Mexico, he still considered himself a cheerleader for the Austin track, explaining, “If it doesn’t work out well in three years, they’ll still say, ‘Tavo was wrong!’ ”

As the one o’clock race neared, the area behind the Paddock was bustling with guests speaking a multitude of languages. There were men wearing blazers and scarves; women wearing enormous sunglasses, bling, and high heels; sweating workers on their walkie-talkies hustling by; and a group of well-dressed fans chugging mandarin-flavored Jarritos. 

Then the celebrities came through. George Lucas, dressed in a black Star Wars hoodie, jeans, and sneakers, was mobbed as he exited one of the fancy Port-O-Lets adorned with potted plants. Someone said Patrick Dempsey was nearby. As I watched Governor Perry give an interview in front of the Ferrari hospitality tent, several reporters behind me asked in lilting accents, “Excuse me, who is this gentleman?”  

Thirty minutes before the race, the people in the grandstands opposite the Paddock Club began to get rowdy as the cars started ripping out of their garages and taking their places on the starting grid. Some fans had dyed their hair strange colors and wrapped themselves in flags from various countries. A group waving a huge Mexican flag was singing the ranchera song “Cielito Lindo” (“Ay, ay, ay, ay . . .”) and then segued into a chant of “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” 

The cars made a gurgling noise like a motorboat. The crowd cheered as a group of four fighter aircraft flew overhead, and a team of “COTA Girls” dressed in white jackets, fringed miniskirts, and red cowboy boots blew kisses for the JumboTron. Then the crews ran from the grid back toward the garages, and the cars began making a high-pitched whine. Anybody who didn’t have earplugs would have had serious regrets. “Austin! Texas! Are you ready?” shouted the announcer. The response, heard over the loud roar and through the earplugs, was “Whooo!” 

The cars tore out of the grid. With a wail, they climbed Turn One and took the hairpin curve, darting toward the next section of the track. A few in the crowd stood up to get a better look at the cars as they disappeared, then everyone had to watch the remaining turns on the JumboTron until the cars came back around. As I ran from one area to the next, I saw people sitting in the grandstands occasionally trying to shout a comment an inch or two from a neighbor’s ear. The conversations were brief and usually ended with gestures and shrugs, although I swear I saw a guy talking on his cellphone. 

The next 96 minutes and 56 laps were thrilling, even for a novice. Cars zipped by and whizzed out of sight in just three or four seconds. Starting out, Vettel had the pole position. Behind him were McLaren’s Hamilton, Red Bull’s Webber, and Lotus-Renault’s Räikkönen, with the other twenty drivers—including Alonso—lining up behind them. But every time a car passed another car, or even got close to passing, the crowd grew animated. People cheered or winced and gritted their teeth, and anyone holding a can of beer probably put a few dents in the aluminum.

By lap 5 Hamilton had started to move up, and by lap 10 he was only 1.6 seconds behind Vettel. He’d closed the gap to 1.2 seconds by lap 34, and soon he was right on top of him. On lap 42, Hamilton took the lead. 

His fans waved British flags as he crossed the finish line. From the microphone in his car, Hamilton addressed his team: “That was amazing, guys. Whoo-hoo! That was wicked. Thank you so much.” For his achievement, Hamilton received 25 points. Vettel got 18 for second place and Alonso 15—a close finish that kept him right on Vettel’s tail but not enough to top him in the overall standings.

COTA officials would judge the event a great success. The traffic hadn’t been terrible. Better still, 117,000 fans had filled the facility, leaving only 3,000 tickets unsold, and organizers planned to add another 20,000 tickets for sale in 2013. (Their enthusiasm was tempered by news that race fans would be competing for hotel space against football fans arriving for a UT game.) It’s impossible to guess if the United States will finally embrace the sport, but it will have better visibility next year, when NBC takes over the SPEED Network’s contract, and an F1 movie directed by Ron Howard, scheduled for release this fall, won’t hurt. The longevity of the contract beyond the next ten years will be determined, to some extent, by the little kids in the grandstands sitting on their mom’s and dad’s laps.  

After the drivers had all parked and the track was clear, the crowd swarmed onto the blacktop toward the podium. Within moments, Hamilton, Vettel, and Alonso marched out wearing black Stetsons emblazoned with the logo for Pirelli tires. They looked a little cartoonish, like tourists in France mugging with berets. After a solemn moment for “God Save the Queen,” Governor Perry walked out to shake Hamilton’s hand and give him the trophy. Hamilton kissed the silver cup and hoisted it over his head, then the drivers sprayed one another down with giant bottles of Mumm champagne. Even Alonso managed to crack a smile.

A MOMENT STUCK IN MY HEAD AFTERWARD. It wasn’t anything that happened at Sunday’s Grand Prix, but rather Saturday, in the pit, during a practice run. I stood only a few feet away from the cars, with no barrier in between. The drivers had wedged themselves into their seats, preparing to leave their space-age garages, and the VIPs in the Paddock Club were leaning over their balconies. Groups of men in matching zip-up racing suits huddled around the tires. There was a thin metallic smell of fuel exhaust.

A few laps into practice, one driver returned for a tire change, veering at 55 miles an hour toward his unflappable team, several veteran photographers, and me. It was standard for everyone else nearby, but I panicked. I jumped back, almost hitting a fireman who was standing by. In only a second or two, the car came to a stop. The driver had retained control the whole time. 

This was what speed felt like—the force that draws the fans, the very core of the whole mega-business. I knew it then. For in that moment when I visualized my impending doom, a protest rose in me like a five-year-old’s whine, and it had nothing to do with the family or friends or life I would leave behind. All I could think was “I’m going to miss the whole race.”

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