Austin, Texas, international racing town?
For the past two years, many residents of the state capital have looked askance at the Circuit of Americas’ plan to bring Formula 1 racing to Texas, and the F1 world was skeptical right back.
Well, one race does not an institution make, but now that the United States Grand Prix has actually happened, with Lewis Hamilton beating out favorite Sebastien Vettel, most skeptics are smiling.
“When the green flag drops, the bullshit stops,” wrote Mac Morrison of Auto Week, using what is apparently a motorsports cliche, but sounds memorable to us newbies. As Morrison recalled:
In July 2010, an unknown character named Tavo Hellmund caused just about everyone who follows F1 and especially those in the media—and that includes many of us at Autoweek—to roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, good luck with that.”
Could you blame us? Hellmund said he had a longtime relationship with family friend Bernie Ecclestone, and it was this unique status, he proclaimed, that would allow him to succeed where who knows how many others had failed. He would build a state-of-the-art F1 mega circuit in the wholly obvious location of Elroy, Texas, about 20 minutes outside of hip and thriving Austin. Approximately 120,000 fans would flock, he said. “Oh, this is going to happen,” he told me after I answered a call from a blocked number on my cell phone one rainy night not long after his initial announcement.
I did not believe him. I know I was not the only one. Other than his words, there was little reason to—and even less so when you considered F1’s history in this country.
And even less reason to believe it in the many months that followed, which were bogged down with a lot of questions about financing (both from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund and private investors), and eventually a lawsuit (since settled) between Hellmund and the COTA’s owners.
But race weekend eventually arrived, and Morrison could not have been more impressed: Both with the track itself (“as a complete, modern facility, it stands absolutely unrivaled by any racing venue on this continent”) and with the whole experience. He continued:
Yes, yes, but year one was always going to be easy, we had all said. Years two, three and four would be the acid test. Will they come back?
If any reasonably large number of people who came here Sunday answers “no,” then F1 is indeed forever doomed in this country unless a race in the New York City area really is the only answer. What more could it do at COTA? This inaugural Grand Prix was mesmerizing compared to many of the events on the F1 calendar. The layout allowed for enough passes throughout the field that I lost count–when was the last time we said that about a Formula One race?–including a fantastic one for the lead after Lewis Hamilton stalked championship leader Sebastian Vettel for lap after lap, trading fastest times during a tense battle. We saw remarkably clean racing throughout the field, even in the most unforgiving and close-as-possible (without crashing) wheel-to-wheel moments. Even the hardened F1 press corp inside the media center let out a collective gasp or two as F1’s stars put on their best show of the season. I write these words an hour after Hamilton raised the winner’s trophy on the podium, and I am still a bit . . . stunned is too strong of a word, but . . . we knew the track held promise for a nice race, but not that nice.
The entire experience this weekend, I suspect, has been great for everyone who participated. I managed to party a little bit in an electrically charged downtown scene, listened to knowledgeable and jazzed-up fans rave about the circuit and its amenities, walked the entire grounds, and witnessed one of the best dry-weather F1 races in years. Even the traffic into and out of the two-lane road bordering the circuit—a major concern from day one—turned out to be little more than an inconvenience; it moved slow, but it moved.
At the Austin Chronicle, which has been anything but boosterish about the race (it mixed service with skepticism in its “WTF1” cover package last week), writer Richard Whittaker also had a positive impression. He wrote that Turn One was “as everyone expected, spectacular,” and that the traffic and the helicopter noise was not nearly as apocalyptic as predicted. “But possibly the biggest thing you can say about the event is that people were talking about the race.” Whittaker continued:
The event also defused a lot of myths about the F1 crowd. Is there money floating around the sport? Absolutely. But it’s not like the folks in the boxes at Longhorns games are short a penny or too. The majority of the crowd in attendance were, like any other F1 race, polite, mostly middle and working class tourists. Oh, and a lot of locals like Alamo Drafthouse boss Tim League, who admitted he has become an F1 convert. Locals who went out saw what a Formula One race is, saw that it’s a full three days of racing and practices and qualifiers and support races. They got it, and that’s been the biggest challenge to date, just explaining what a Formula One weekend looks like.
Now they know, and it simply wasn’t that scary. With general admission running at a comparable cost to an ACL pass, and one day passes for Friday’s practice sessions and qualifiers on Saturday running for a lot less, it seems likely that many more will attend next year, or head out for MotoGP in the spring.
Economically speaking, some restaurant and bar owners told Mary Ann Roser of the Austin American-Statesman that they had some of their biggest sales days ever, while others didn’t see as large a benefit. Time of day and location seemed be the major factor: businesses near the closed streets of the event’s “Fan Fest,” as well as the Austin Convention Center and the W Hotel, did well, while it was more business-as-usual for many bars on 6th St., as David Maly of the Daily Texan reported.
The economic impact report commissioned by the City of Austin as part of the process to receive money from the state’s Major Events Trust Fund projected that the race weekend would generate close to $300,000,000 in economic activity, for a total state tax gain of more than $26 million. The city and COTA are seeking approximately $25 million in annual subsidies from the METF.
You can expect there to be debate about those numbers as the METF process moves along, but considering that Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Treasurer Susan Combs were all on the winners podium on Sunday, you can also expect the money to be allocated.
As Jay Root of the Texas Tribune noted, some activists and legislators hope to do away with subsidies like the METF entirely, but unless that happens, Combs “has the discretion to say whether an event meets the criteria to access the tax money in it.”
Of the sales tax calculation, Governor Perry said, “I will let the numbers do the talking.”