Better from America

There have been doubts about whether America would embrace Austin's Grand Prix - but it sure did...

By Adam Sweeting

Will Ferrell's NASCAR movie Talledega Nights featured Sacha Baron Cohen as gay French F1 driver Jean Girard, who was fond of listening to opera, drinking espresso and reading Albert Camus as he lounged pretentiously at the wheel. A farcical caricature obviously, but might the Girard character not have reflected a grain of truth about how the Americans see Formula 1?

He would doubtless have rung a bell with the local Austin radio presenter who described F1 as being "high class for snotty people" during the countdown to the inaugural Grand Prix at the city's Circuit of the Americas, a comment prompted by Fi's chilly technological aura and the fondness of its protagonists for travelling by private jet. Yet as the race weekend progressed, what struck me most was the crowd's enthusiasm and determination to have a good time, greatly encouraged by fine weather and, fortuitously, what turned out to be one of the most gripping races of the season. It would have been no great surprise to hear choruses of "F1's Coming Home" booming from the stands.

"We're huge F1 fans," declared John Claybon on race morning. He'd travelled down to Austin from Oklahoma City with his wife Rocio. "So far it's been great. The whole atmosphere is wonderful, so hopefully F1 will continue to build from here. I know there are a lot of F1 fans in the States, and I hope it gains more traction because we want to come back next year."

Gauran Sardesai, who was introduced to F1 in India but now lives in Chicago, reckoned Fi's US prospects looked bright. "I feel the demographics are shifting; there are enough people here who are interested. There are 120,000 people here in Austin and I think for Indianapolis in 2007 they had 250,000. I disagree when people say F1 won't make an impact in the States. It may take a while, but there's an audience."

"I've followed F1 for over 40 years," declared Allen Humphrey, a Home Counties Englishman transplanted to Austin, and clad from head to toe in Ferrari kit. "I still think it's exciting, even though it's not as competitive as I'd like to see it. But that's the nature of the sport."

Humphrey is such a stoical F1 enthusiast that he has even managed to swallow his disgust over the 2005 debacle at Indianapolis, when flawed Michelin tyres resulted in only six cars contesting the event and left fans feeling righteously vengeful. Crucial to the favourable response to the Austin circuit from teams and punters alike is that it has been purpose-built for F1, in distinct contrast to some of F1's previous American haunts (car parks in Las Vegas and the like).

Humphrey's racing buddy Dan King was wildly enthusiastic about the new circuit. "I've been coming out here for the last year, watching the progress of the track," he said. "There was a question whether it would be built in time, but I think everybody's happy with the outcome. Generally speaking, Austinites have welcomed F1, and I think because the event is so well organised it's going to be seen as very positive. And once you come to an F1 race you're addicted to it. When you hear an 18,000 rpm motor it doesn't matter what you're used to, you're drawn to it. It's a technology laboratory."

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As it happens, the words "technology laboratory" may also describe what Austin itself is morphing into. Traditionally, the city has prided itself on its bohemian-slacker attitude to life, reflected in the slogan 'Keep Austin Weird', and Austin's reputation as a home to all kinds of blues, country and rock'n'roll (dope-smoking country legend Willie Nelson is virtually the town's patron saint, and has his own bronze statue on Willie Nelson Boulevard). But while Austin's South by Southwest music festival has grown into a major international event, it's now dwarfed by the Interactive festival, a showcase for local high-tech industries and digital technologies. With companies such as Samsung, Dell, Sun Microsystems and Motorola based locally, the area has been dubbed 'Silicon Hills', and has been siphoning off brainpower from California's Silicon Valley. Austin may not be a giant metropolitan area comparable to the Manhattan-New Jersey location mooted for the currently delayed 'Grand Prix of America', but it's not a bad fit for the futuristic science of F1.

Meanwhile, COTA is being hailed as a cuttingedge F1 circuit, with its challenging topography, overtaking zones and replications of famous corners from other tracks including Silverstone and Turkey. Kip Kipple, visiting from Vancouver Island with his buddy Bob Mercer, found that it brought back Canadian memories.

"I've been watching F1 for years," Kip confided. "I used to watch the Villeneuves, and I remember seeing Stirling Moss at Mosport Park. This reminds me of Mosport a lot, up and down and hilly with nice hairpin turns. It's fun."

It's also notable for its fan-friendly layout. In the central area near the main gates, you find not only merchandising stalls and food and drink outlets — lengthy queues for the latter was one legitimate cause for complaint — but an open-air amphitheatre designed for (free) live music. Thus on Saturday, the hordes were regaled by Georgia band Collective Soul, while country singer Clay Walker played old warhorses like Sweet Home Alabama while the sun sank gently in the west on Sunday evening. It was a real treat just to lounge around, soaking up the balmy atmosphere and mellow mood.

"This has a whole different atmosphere than NASCAR," said Hilary McNamara, who'd flown in from LA with her Fl-loving fiance. "It's a lot calmer and kinda classier, and it's a lot better to go and walk around. I think Fl is easier for girls to get into than NASCAR. You can listen to concerts and there's good food and drink, so I think it's a lot of fun."

Meanwhile Austin's reputation for laid-back hospitality and a wealth of after-hours entertainment makes it a magnet for tourists, and the visitors appreciated the proximity of downtown music bars and restaurants to the race track. It may sound inconceivable to habituees of Silverstone, but by most accounts the 500 free shuttle buses laid on by the Austin organisers took the crowds to the circuit and back again with the minimum of delay, and Austin's free downtown bus then whisked them to Sixth Street's clubs and shops. A chunk of downtown was made traffic-free, open-air stages had been set up for music, and Red Bull and McLaren had interactive exhibits where passersby could experience simulated high-speed g-force or practise pitstop wheel-changes.

I buttonholed Andrew and Amy Clark, natives of Adelaide but now living in Denver. Andrew was clad in Red Bull livery in homage to his favourite driver, Mark Webber.

"Yeah, I'm a fan of Mark and anti-Vettel, absolutely. But Austin's doing a fantastic job. The Grand Prix is everywhere, you can't miss it. Everyone's talking about it."

"We're from Adelaide so we've both grown up with the Grand Prix, and then it got stolen away to Melbourne," added Amy. "I guess we've got a connection with it because it was such a big thing for Adelaide. "

But Amy works in marketing, and her shrewd eye had noted that on the bus out to the track, "the crowd were all older, so there weren't people aged 20 or younger getting into it. It was either 40-somethings with their kids or people maybe in their 60s who perhaps remember the races from years ago."

Besides that, she felt that while the Fl word may have been resounding loud and clear around Austin, it might not have been spreading too far beyond. "People in Denver didn't know about it. We said we're going to the Fl and they were like 'what?' They're doing a great job in Austin, but outside I'm not so sure."

What remains baffling is how the ever-canny Bernie Ecclestone has taken Fl to the furthestflung territories on earth, yet still hasn't managed to get the US market nailed down, even though Fl debuted in the States at Sebring as long ago as 1959 and raced for 20 years at Watkins Glen. It may be that the sport presents a daunting learning curve to the casual observer, as another fan I spoke to, Chicago-based Jordan Calloway, suggested.

"You have so many other sports going which are larger like NFL, NBA, and other sports Americans focus on because they can watch part of it and understand it. You're contending with a very short attention span. With Fl you need to be fully invested, you need to understand everything and how it differs from other sporting events. I don't think anybody knows the solution; all we can do as fans is support the venue and the city of Austin."

He still wasn't entirely convinced that Austin was the perfect location for Fl. "Whether they'll be fully able to capitalise on this is hard to say, because this is not a major city. It's a big city but it's not like New York, Chicago or LA. The locals I've spoken to so far have either embraced the race or said 'we're getting out of town'."

With IndyCar and NASCAR running events weekly or fortnightly, Fl may need to up the ante and saturate the US market with sheer volume. If Austin were joined by Fl events on the east and west coasts, it would surely stand a better chance of breaking through into the wider consciousness. Besides, it's not hard to imagine that many of Frs chief playmakers would prefer additional races in the States to slogging away in the hinterlands of Korea or China. After the first practice session in Austin, Red Bull's team principal Christian Horner spelled out the significance of the American market to the sport.

"It's hugely important," he reflected. "America is Red Bull's biggest market, it is [Nissan luxury car brand and Red Bull partner] Infiniti's largest market. It's important for all our partners, so America is crucial for Fl. We have more guests and corporate entertainment here than any other circuit. There's a real buzz and enthusiasm about Austin and I think this will be a very popular race on the calendar. If we can get another race in the USA as well, that would be fantastic."

Mercedes-Benz's Norbert Haug didn't beat about the bush: "Our target is to sell more cars and use the US Fl race as a platform."

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An issue frequently raised is the importance of finding a homegrown driver whom American fans and media can get behind. Scott Speed spent a couple of erratic seasons with Toro Rosso before legging it back to NASCAR, while California's Alexander Rossi is currently a test driver for Caterham, but there's no immediate sign of the next Mario Andretti hoving over the horizon.

"An American driver would certainly help," said Christian Homer. "In Spain, the circuits were quite empty before Fernando Alonso's success and now they're rammed. Red Bull brought Scott Speed into Fl but just bringing a driver in isn't enough. He's got to be successful; at the end of the day everybody loves a winner."

I put the 'American driver' question to Chuck Aksland, VP of Motorsports Operations at the Circuit of the Americas. "Everybody's excited to have the US GP back here in Austin," he said, "and obviously the next step would be to try and have a following for an American world champion. My background was in MotoGP, and we've seen with American riders the popularity of MotoGP rising in the US. It's important for fans to have a driver to follow, but it takes time. There are some good American drivers coming up. Hopefully they'll get their shot."

There's some consolation for the Texan site in the fact that Mexican driver Sergio `Checo' Perez is surfing a media wave, thanks to his upcoming move from Sauber to the vacated Lewis Hamilton slot at McLaren. The extensive Mexican population in Texas and the proximity of Austin to the Mexican border meant that a substantial chunk of tickets were sold to Mexican fans. I talked to a couple of them, Alex Contes and Christian Martinez, but they barely spoke any English, though they were able to convey their wish that either Perez or Alonso would win the Grand Prix. Plans are allegedly afoot to relaunch the Mexico Grand Prix, not staged since 1992, with Tavo Hellmund (who was involved in creating COTA until he had a falling-out with his partners) taking a leading role. Two or three GPs in the States and one in Mexico... Could an elaborate Bernie-esque masterplan finally be coming to fruition?