Formula 1 is famous as a sport where cars go super-duper fast, but most of the vehicles at the United States Grand Prix move at a crawl. Every pickup, limousine, van, and shuttle that buses attendees to and from the Circuit of the Americas endures truly horrific traffic to do so. Unless you’re among the richest and most famous tier of spectators, who arrive and depart by chartered helicopter, your eighteen-mile trip back to downtown Austin at the end of any one of the event’s three days of activities will take hours.
The shuttle I rode back and forth from last weekend’s race was not immune to the standstill. We were a motley crew of journalists, alcohol executives, and other guests of the Italian spirits company Ferrari Trento (no relation to the automaker), which makes the “Official Sparkling Wine of Formula 1,” a.k.a. the celebratory bubbly that gets sprayed all over the winners. It took two hours to drive back from the Circuit of the Americas to the Hyatt on Barton Springs. The Swedish guy across the aisle from me managed to take a nap, and wake up refreshed from said nap, all before we got out of the parking lot.
The traffic chaos is just one part of the hullabaloo accompanying a Grand Prix weekend. Like a multibillion-dollar traveling circus, Formula 1 moves around the globe just as P. T. Barnum and company once toured America. Between the cars, the tools, the tents, and all the other race ephemera, F1 ships an estimated fifty tons of cargo from one Grand Prix to the next. Even the VIP experiences at the Paddock and Champions clubs are standard, no matter the racetrack. You’ll see the same catering and host staff in Austin that you do in Miami—and Monaco.
Trailing behind the official Formula 1 freight and faculty is a tangled web of brands seeking to capitalize on the crowds attending the races. Though this year’s U.S. Grand Prix was held almost twenty miles outside of downtown Austin, there were activations, parties, and concerts all over the city, each with varying levels of exclusivity and different celebrities to help set the mood. I saw Tom Sandoval, a bartender from the reality show Vanderpump Rules (a.k.a. one of “the Toms”) three separate times over the course of as many days. I watched him strut into the bathroom at the racetrack; I saw him get his photo taken next to bottles of Patrón at a pool party sponsored by the tequila company; and I watched him sing karaoke with a live band on the rooftop deck of a members-only club called Soho House.
The Grand Prix has been hosted at COTA since 2012, but this was my first time attending anything associated with it. The only sport I’ve ever really followed is RuPaul’s Drag Race, but my interest in Formula 1 had recently been piqued by the same thing that once got me to care about the Texas Rangers: a crush on a guy who was a big fan. The sport has always been popular in Europe, but thanks to a Netflix docuseries called Drive to Survive, it is finally having a moment stateside. At least that’s what all the sports people in my life were telling me. So when Ferrari Trento offered me, of all people, a ticket for Sunday, it seemed too good to pass up.
In preparation for my day at the races, I watched almost two full episodes of the docuseries and studied the Formula 1 Wikipedia page (I also googled “what to wear to F1?” multiple times). I arrived at COTA patting myself on the back for knowing that Max Verstappen, who drives for Red Bull, had already clinched this year’s world championship. I also knew that seven-time champ Lewis Hamilton hadn’t finished first in a single race this season. He drove for Mercedes, which had long been the team to beat because it had the best cars. But then F1 implemented a cap on team spending and changed car regulations, and now Red Bull was at the top. I had decided I would “root” for Sergio “Checo” Pérez, because he is from Mexico. I was practically an expert.
On Sunday, we arrived an hour and a half early for the 2 p.m. race—enough time for me to get the lay of the land before hearing the engines roar (an experience I was assured would be thrilling, even for me). We were given lanyards with rectangular credentials that had the heft and feel of high-limit credit cards. These passes gave us access to two venues, the standard Paddock Club by the starting line, and the Paddock Club at Turn 19, where guests could dine on Chilean sea bass and côte de boeuf while toasting from one of the 20,000 bottles of Ferrari Trento sparkling wine that were enjoyed throughout F1 weekend.
Even though we were in semirural Texas, it felt at times like we had been transported to Europe. The tent we were in had EU power outlets, and the main Paddock Club had all-you-can-eat Kaiserschmarrn, basically the Austrian version of a funnel cake, which is the height of luxury as far as I’m concerned. And in perhaps the truest continental touch, not only were there numerous outdoor smoking sections in plain sight, even close to the fanciest VIP areas, but the smokers gathered on actual red carpets under their big, industrial ashtrays. It was beautiful.
Everybody in the Paddock Club was covered in lanyards, and there was a seemingly endless tier system of very important Very Important Person passes. My credential couldn’t get me very far, which meant I had no hope of mingling with Shaq down on the paddock’s ground level, near the garages. For a moment, I did spot him from a distance before the race started, and I could hear him deejaying afterward.
Scattered throughout the other thousand or so acres at COTA were tents from ever more brands, from Alfa Romeo to Lenovo. One tent—on top of a hill overlooking Turn 1—gave fans a clear view of the crash that happened ten seconds into the race, when front-runner Carlos Sainz was knocked off the track by George Russell (nobody was hurt). I didn’t see that crash. My seat at the Paddock only gave me a view of the starting line. But I knew it happened because I heard 100,000 fans switch from shouting “yeah” to “ewww” in a millisecond.
I’ll tell ya what, in that moment I learned a lot more about the appeal of F1 than I did from those episodes of Drive to Survive. I know it’s a sport that people watch, but man, what a thing to hear. Every time the sound of those engines hit my ears—with the race cars flying by at more than two hundred miles per hour—it sent through my body an immediate and involuntary need to party. One more serving of Kaiserschmarrn, dear sir!
For the most part, my experience of the U.S. Grand Prix remained primarily aural. There was another, more serious collision that I didn’t see, and fortunately, both drivers once again emerged more or less unscathed. I missed that one while riding a golf cart to Club Cash App, where my invitation promised a chance to mingle with celebrities as disparate as Serena Williams and Brooklyn Beckham, David and Victoria’s oldest son. I was on the golf cart because it was a two-mile walk from the Paddock Club to Club Cash App’s tent—a distance I was able to confirm later, when I couldn’t get any of the ten or so golf carts outside Club Cash App to bring me back. (They had all been reserved for the celebrities as varied as Serena Williams and Brooklyn Beckham, it turned out.)
Having stretched my VIP lanyard as far as it would go, I wandered back toward the Paddock Club through general admission, where thousands of happy attendees sat on bleachers or grassy hilltops overlooking the race. A Ferris wheel, a convoy of food trucks, and a slew of regular funnel cake vendors helped turn EuroTexas back into Texas, Texas, and made the Grand Prix feel more like a rodeo or county fair. By the time I made it through GA, I’d all but decided that Formula 1 should add a livestock show to its Austin festivities.
As I drew closer to some signs identifying Turn 19, I found myself thinking that the walk hadn’t been bad at all, and that’s when I figured out that I was at the same turn but on the wrong side of the track. The Circuit of the Americas was built with no regard for pedestrian crosswalks or underpasses, so I had to trek another mile and a half (past the front gate, through one tunnel, and behind the Shaq-only zone) to get back to the Paddock Club.
I didn’t see the race end, but I heard it when the crowd roared for Max Verstappen, who picked up his thirteenth win of the season. Minutes later, I passed a crowd barreling onto the track for the customary post-race “track invasion.” Had I not been running late for the shuttle, I might have run with them. I don’t care about sports, but I love sports fans.
Feeling like I might have wasted my one opportunity to have an exclusive F1 experience (unless Club Cash App invites me back, I will never be able to afford a VIP package), I arrived sheepishly back at the Paddock Club in time to eat some chilled chocolate fondant with sea-salt caramel and some homemade mint parfait before the caterers closed up shop. Together with the other last-callers, I walked one more mile back to the parking lot. Along the way, we passed a merchandise tent engaged in price-gouging that’d make even Beyoncé blush: $80 for branded F1 baseball caps and $130 for team jerseys.
It took a comically long time to find our shuttle in the parking lot full of identical shuttles. We were supposed to meet at zone A7, but it turned out there was more than one A7, or we were supposed to be at A6, or something. I still don’t understand what happened, but we eventually boarded the correct shuttle, joining the rest of the Ferrari Trento guests, who were handing out snacks and popping more bottles of official F1 bubbly. The Swedish gentleman across the aisle told me his barbecue-flavored potato chips were better than he expected, before he settled down for his nap. When our chariot finally dropped us off at the Hyatt, we’d spent as much time traveling eighteen miles as Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, and Sergio “Checo” Pérez spent driving 3,426 miles in 56 laps around the Circuit of the Americas.