Move over, Cowboys Stadium—Texas has a new premier sports facility.
I know, I know. It's not a fair comparison. Football will always have a special place in many Texans' hearts. But the opening race this weekend at the new Circuit of the Americas, just southeast of Austin, definitely put the state on the Formula One map.
Admittedly, I went to the event knowing almost nothing about Formula One racing (aside from what I learned watching the documentary Senna a few months back). But I quickly found out a few things:
- Bring ear protection—no joke, those engines are LOUD. It's like part of the challenge is to defeat your earplugs.
- The only way to tell who's driving is to memorize who's wearing what helmet, since multiple drivers on the same team may drive identical cars.
- European guys all seem to have good hair. Go figure.
Our view from Turn 15—close enough to make you think, "I hope these guys know what they're doing!"
I also expected more of a culture clash, with the casual come-as-you-are attitude of Austin rubbing wrong against the international jet-set crowd that follows F1. But it was soon apparent that this motorsports mecca becomes a world all its own, with about as many people wearing gear for their favorite Texas sports teams as there are others decked out in racing team colors or their national flagsâ€”and all of them in high spirits for this inaugural event.
The sprawling facilities can accommodate about 120,000 fans, or a crowd about the size of the whole city of Waco. By the good graces of someone in the family who won tickets, I had a seat in the third row of the "premium grandstand" on Turn 15—close enough to think maybe the drivers could see us as they slow down to take the curve.
For a seemingly exclusive event, I was pleasantly surprised to see how open and accessible the course was. Though the main grandstand and other premium seats are, naturally, closed off to most, there were general admission areas and other open spots for anyone to see the action from different angles. We moved around during some of the qualifying races just to see what there was to see, like the tower and the pedestrian bridge (which intentionally has any view of the track blocked off to keep people moving, although foot traffic bottlenecked here nonetheless). Swapping seats with friends at Turn 4 during some of the Ferrari and Porsche races on Saturday gave us a sweeping, colorful view of a winding stretch of the course.
The landmark tower of the Circuit of the Americas offers a bird's-eye view of the track for a $35 fee.
Aside from the bridge bottlenecks, the only other place where we hit a snag was in the vendor areas. I was blissfully unaware of this on Saturday, when I managed to sneak in some food and avoided spending a single dollar at the track. On Sunday I went for a tasty chicken-in-a-waffle "taco" from the local Lucky J's food truck, which was one of the shorter lines—and I still waited half an hour for food, then another half hour in a separate drink line. Of course, the food and drinks were pricey, but not as much as I feared—most things seemed to be at least double what they'd cost outside the race (ever the pessimist, I was expecting quadruple). Meeting for lunch with friends at the race also became impossible since cell phone reception also was spotty to nonexistent, depending on the density of the crowd.
On the bright side, the weather was perfect (as long as you remembered to bring sunscreen), and the massive traffic delays feared before the race never materialized. Having attended other big events in Austin, such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival, I can say the logistics of getting in and out of Circuit of the Americas seemed to flow much more smoothly. The only traffic I encountered was the half-hour line waiting to get into the park-and-ride on Saturday. I was shocked to arrive at the park-and-ride at 9 a.m. on race day to find no line waiting to get in, so I was on a bus and at the track in about 30 minutes.
A view of the main grandstand area with the start/finish line, winners' podium (in the middle with the checkered background), and pit area (bottom level) from a general admission area.
FanVision was my electronic "cheat sheet" for learning which driver was in which car.
At the main U.S. Grand Prix race on Sunday, the enthusiasm of the crowd reached its height. By then, I could spot the top four or five cars and got to see a couple of drivers overtake another on the curve in front of us. When Lewis Hamilton passed leader Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull car on Lap 42, just a couple of turns before our seats, you could feel the excitement ripple through the crowd. Then it was a game of people waving their hands to cheer Hamilton on every time he passed our section until he took the checkered flag.
We waited for the drivers to wave to the crowd on their victory lap before hustling for the exit. I dreaded the wait for the buses to take us back to the park-and-ride as about 117,000 people exited the grounds, but the lines kept moving and we were on a bus just 30 minutes after exiting the gates. Friends who left after the podium ceremony told me they waited about an hour. Not too bad, considering the scale of the event.
All in all, it seemed that the weekend went pretty smoothly for most folks. It will be interesting to see how much money came to Central Texas this weekend in the form of hotel rooms, meals and so on. I'm not sure if I'll become a regular follower of Formula One racing, but now I certainly understand what all the F1 buzz is about.