Thursday, 21 November 2013

Postcard from Austin

'There's lots that we can learn from the American way of doing things'. The words of Sebastian Vettel, Formula One World Champion, after last Sunday's United States Grand Prix, the second to be held on Austin's Circuit of the Americas.

And you know what? Having been in attendance myself, I know exactly what he’s on about.

Photo: Octane Photography
There were plenty of sceptics about the Austin round in advance of its debut in 2012. Perhaps with justification: F1 has had plenty of attempts to conquer the States all of which had resulted in a an eventual retreat; some hasty, many cringe worthy. Illustrating this, Austin was no fewer than Stateside venue number 10 in F1 history. No other single country comes close to that total.

And of course Austin had a few problems of its own in the build-up, including delays (the race contract was even terminated for a while), financial problems, the forcible sidelining of Tavo Hellmund who was the driving force behind the project, to name but a few. Plenty of sceptics, as I said.

But as Mario Andretti has noted, Austin is doing a very good job of proving the sceptics wrong. And having been in Austin attendance this time, in the circus's visit number two to Texas, I had first hand experience of it so doing.

Furthermore, those who insisted that F1 was flogging a dead horse in the USA frankly didn't know their history. Rewind back to 1980 and the sport had a dream ticket: two US venues, both feeling permanent, both popular, both with a large enthusiastic and passionate crowd watching on, one a street circuit, the other a road course, one west, the other east - these being Long Beach in California and Watkins Glen in upstate New York. Yet for reasons that need not detain us here (though they can in the broadest sense be summed up by 'Bernie' and 'money' - plus ca change…) by 1984 both were lost. And F1 in the USA floundered ever since. F1's lack of a place to call home has been a major impediment; which is where Austin Texas came in.

And even there were reasons to think that F1 in Texas wasn't the worst idea. Yes, the concept before Austin meant Dallas in 1984, a solitary stop-off viewed mainly as a curious - and rather disastrous - aberration. The track broke up, the safety standards were poor (Martin Brundle injured his ankles in a crash there, injuries that still pain him to this day), cranes to remove stricken cars were missing, the July slot (though hardly the Dallasites' fault) ensured that the heat was intense. Yet less well-remembered is that the event actually had a pulse: 80,000 turned up to watch the race despite the total charmlessness displayed by much of their visitors ('Not only the engines whine' was a local newspaper headline after one of its scribes had encountered a few sulky F1 pilots). There was plenty of money around - mainly new - and therefore plenty of potential for glitzy F1 to establish itself. Sadly though, someone did a runner with the race’s takings, which cooked the Dallas goose.

More broadly: F1 should be in America. It's the world’s largest economy, and sports-mad with it, and for anything purporting to be a world championship to turn its back on the place seems incredibly incongruous. Furthermore, there is likely no country on Earth more wedded to the automobile and the open road than the States - the land of Route 66 and the like - as well as that most Americans don’t half love a bit of European mystique…

And in Austin you find a city delighted to host an F1 event, determined to embrace it, to make the very best it can of it and taking extreme pride in it. And just about everyone there it seems wants in on the act, to roll out the red carpet, to show themselves and their city in the best possible light. As soon as you step off the plane at Austin Airport you can see the evidence: the place is bedecked in banners and billboards which reference the Grand Prix; 'Austin welcomes race car fans' is a common refrain. It's similar in downtown Austin: every pub, shop, restaurant it seems has something referencing the race, be it chequered flags draped, signs welcoming race fans, or similar. I now am well aware as to why even the hard-bitten F1 troupe was so charmed by the place when they first descended on it in 2012.

Austin seems perfect for an F1 round too. It's a lively college town with plenty of bars, nightspots and things going on; it's outward-looking, expressive and as the self-styled 'Live Music Capital of the World' it is used to putting on large events and giving visitors a thoroughly warm welcome. And it seems just the right size for - in that weekend at any rate - the race to be Austin and Austin to be the race.

As its centrepiece there was Fanfest, the 'free downtown Grand Prix party': wherein 12 blocks downtown were closed for four days so to set up a variety of memorabilia stands, simulators, food and drink stalls, live music and a vast range of other activities.

Furthermore when you turn on local TV and radio stations most times the race is what is being talked about. The local TV station broadcast on the event round the clock on race day from early in the morning, even reporting from local shuttle services taking people from the city to the track. The next day they reported from the airport on the fraternity's getaway… And on the same day a picture of a celebrating Seb on his Red Bull took pride of place on the front of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper alongside a race report and an article on why football and F1 can co-exist.

Hardly a dissenting local voice could be found at what Austin was calling its 'Global Superbowl'. We know by now there are plenty of hosts wherein there are local difficulties, wherein people take the ticket revenues, subtract the mammoth hosting fee, and conclude that the race is making a loss and conclude therefore that it's not worth having, without considering the less tangible benefits of the annual global exposure - that nothing else can match - that an F1 race brings, as well as the benefits from visitors spending their money locally. On listening to local Austin radio on the way out of the circuit on Friday the DJs were well aware of these benefits: not only in promoting the city internationally but also that the community will get 'a whole lotta dollars' (their words) from the visitors.

Photo: Octane Photography
It continues when you're at the track. The attendance numbers dwarfed those of most other venues: 58,000 on the Friday; 78,000 on Saturday; fully 113,162 on Sunday. The last figure was down marginally in last year's debut total by around 4,000 but still is mighty healthy - and achieved despite in another piece of, um, interesting F1 scheduling it took place in the same weekend as a big match for the Texas Longhorns, Austin's staple diet college football team, against Oklahoma State that attracted somewhere in the region of 100,000 spectators.

When you're at the venue the warmth of Austin city and its people continues too: everyone is smiling, everyone is engaging, everyone is wishing you well. Music encroaches from every direction, seemingly never-ending grills barbecue sausages, chicken, burgers and other meat products (not sure how long vegetarians would last here); corn dogs are in plentiful supply; beer is sold by a vast army of those yelling in their best Foghorn Leghorn vox ('why think when you can drink?' was my personal favourite). Enthusiasm, buzz and friendliness is all around you.

The crowd itself is an eclectic mix: many F1 fans from the States, plenty of open-minded locals keen to be part of the local happening, a few Europeans, rather a lot of Mexicans who are easily spotted given the boisterous way they cheer for Sergio Perez mainly (one did wonder how much merchandising dollar McLaren lost out on last weekend by not delaying its Perez announcement by a few days).

Live music - in keeping with Austin's idiom - at the track is laid on to an extent that would make up a small rock festival. Its set-up for driver signings as well as the general availability of drivers and others for appearances both in the track and the city are the best I've seen. Then of course there are the cheerleaders, the Texan brass band, the range of classic cars for the drivers' parade, The Star Spangled Banner being sung from the top of the 251 foot COTA tower just before the race start - it all adds up to a genuine feeling that nothing has been spared, that other Grands Prix are being put to shame, as well as that you could not be anywhere else.

Photo: Octane Photography
Organisationally the race was just about perfect too and it's here as much as anywhere that other F1 hosts could learn. The supply of ever-smiling workers, be they at the circuit, the city, the airport or even plenty of places in between, as well as the frequent signage, made things close to foolproof and ensured things moved much more painlessly than might have been the case. There were delays getting out of the circuit (but not in) each day, but they struck me as unavoidable.

I've been to plenty of other F1 races, some well-established ones, and it's not unusual for getting in and out to appear something of a free-for-all, and to be a mile or two outside the circuit gates and feel as if the Grand Prix may as well have been in Siberia rather than nearby, such was the lack of clues as to its presence. I recall visiting the Hungaroring one year, and after alighting from a train at the nearest station having to scrabble around for signs directing us to the track, eventually finding one…only to discover after a while's hike with suitcases later that it’d actually (for some reason) sent us off in the opposite direction from the circuit. That caused some gaiety.

American comedian Doug Stanhope not so long ago had this to say on his home country: 'Life in America is actually fantastic. Everything works. Come here, I want you to be here, get a flight...walk down that ramp and tell me if you can't immediately sense there's something really good to the beach, there'll be half a dozen Cabana Bars open, it's only eight o'clock in the morning, and they're waving at you, smiling at you, waving at you to come on in, they want you to be there.' For the first time last weekend I understood exactly what he meant.

The race day temperature was a record high for that day of the year; bright and sunny throughout meaning almost all forgot about Friday's foggy false start and the curious case of the missing medical helicopter. Had F1 turned up a few days earlier it'd have encountered record low temperatures. A few weeks earlier it’d have encountered localised flooding. And - on a point that should elicit a sigh of relief from everyone - one local noted that had the recent flooding taken place 12 months earlier instead then the debut race, with its preparation only just completed on time, likely would have been subject to a rather inauspicious cancellation. Austin, unlike some other F1 US venues of the past, appears to have luck on its side.

Photo: Octane Photography
The race itself was a rather tepid - Seb's victory never being in doubt and not the most action happening behind him - but in spite of the self-recrimination I read in one or two British race reports at this, I got the impression that it only put the most minor of dampeners on things as far as the paying public were concerned. There appeared an appreciation of a worthy victor in Sebastian Vettel, as well as an appreciation that he is currently in the middle of achieving something rather special. Also, there was acknowledgment that this sort of thing happens in sport sometimes. 'It's like Alabama in college football' opined one local radio DJ.

And as far as Austin as a city is concerned the F1 race is just the beginning. The city has decided that being 'Speed City' is entirely in keeping with its image. Unlike some other new F1 venues wherein the track hardly in opened for the rest of the year, many other series have pounded around COTA’s challenges already: MotoGP, the World Endurance Championship, the American Le Mans Series and others. And it doesn't stop there, Austin’s even hosting the X Games next year…

Seb's absolutely right - far from the Austin round being the itinerary's raw newcomer, it's quickly become the standard bearer and the rest of us have an awful lot to learn from it. And on another point, if F1 - finally - doesn't get it right in America from here it can have no one to blame but itself.

Photos from my Austin visit are available for your viewing please on my Facebook page.

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