The focus in Austin this past weekend literally and figuratively shifted from live music and college football to hair pin turns and pit crews as Formula 1 racing brought a touch of European fever to the city’s Circuit of the Americas racetrack. Creatively dubbed “How the West Was F1” this year, you might say Grand Prix racing has found a home in Texas. It was the third year Austin hosted the U.S.’s only F1 tour stop and I was lucky enough to attend it for the first time.
How much do I know about racing and about cars in general? Zilch. Bupkus. Zip. I know a little about NASCAR and Indy, but my only foray into the F1 world was the 2013 movie “Rush,” which centered on the rivalry between rival drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
How much did I learn about it while watching Saturday’s races? Not much but it was still very interesting. You see, Formula 1 and the people who follow it make-up a culture all their own. An intriguing and knowledgeable culture. You don’t have to be a race aficionado or a sports fan to enjoy it all. It’s more than a race. It’s an event.
The atmosphere was electric and the pageantry was grand. A total experience, it combined the energy of a Super Bowl with the attractions of a state fair. The place was packed with foreigners too, which made me think how cool it would be to go to the Olympics. Being that it was in Austin, live music was naturally a part of it all.
I did learn a few things from some seasoned attendees sitting near us, including the fact that something that I totally can’t explain was done to the cars to make them not so loud and that an estimated 80 percent of attendees are in all probability foreign. Today at my gym someone mentioned that they heard today, the Monday after F1, is the busiest flight day in Austin, trumping even SXSW and ACL, two events that bring a ton of people to town but many of whom drive to the events.
F1 is money. Helicopters ferry guests in and out and it reportedly costs millions to own a race car, much less sponsor a team. It’s the big leagues yet a league all its own at the same time.
Being that this is Austin though, things were perhaps a bit more casual then at other tour stops like Monaco or Belgium. I went expecting Kentucky Derbyish attire, but what I saw were national flags worn as capes, red Ferrari hats and shirts everywhere, and the occasional cowboy boots. The food was just as eclectic but of course included Fletcher’s famous corny dogs.
It was great to walk around the carnival-like atmosphere hearing so many different languages, seeing race enthusiasts dressed in attire that screamed “I am not from the U.S.,” and to simply people watch. The people, come to find out, are as thrilling and fascinating as the race itself!
Formula 1 racing is big and is big business. Just to enter a race costs upwards of $500,000. Formally called the Formula One World Championship, it is the highest class of single-seat auto racing sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile. The “formula” in the name refers to a set of rules that all teams must comply with. The F1 season consists of a series of races, known as Grand Prix events, held throughout the world on both purpose-built circuits like Austin’s and public roads. Formula One cars race at speeds of up to 225 mph and are the fastest road course racing cars in the world. Trust me, they are fast and they are loud!
Europe is the sport’s traditional base but F1 has a total global television audience of approximately 527 million people. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry and its drivers boast rock star status among fans. They are compensated well, earning the highest salary of any professional drivers, including Indy Car and NASCAR drivers. The highest paid driver in 2010 was Fernando Alonso, who got a $40 million salary from Ferrari, a record for any driver.
Austin’s COTA F1 track is 3.427-miles and the circuit was the first in the United States to be purpose-built for Formula One. The race appears to be getting more successful each year and increasingly popular with the locals, but its conception was controversial at the start, mainly due to cost and a general unfamiliarity with the concept. Still, the facility has fast become the city’s go-to concert venue with everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Brad Paisley entertaining sold out crowds from its glorious outdoor stage. COTA is also home to a new X Games stop and many other racing events year round.
As an all-around sports fan I feel lucky to have attended the event, recommend it to others, and would probably do so again. Would I travel across the globe to see one like so many do? Probably not. It’s all made me long to complete a race trifecta though. Next up: Daytona and Indy! Fingers crossed. Start my engines.