Now that the first rush of excitement from Formula 1's return to America has passed, attention is being focused on how best to harness the momentum from the spectacular inaugural United States Grand Prix at Austin's Circuit of The Americas to make a lasting success of the event, and of grand prix racing in this country. Circuit chairman Bobby Epstein is already hard at work on doing that.
First on the list is addressing an issue with the schedule for the second running of COTA's USGP. Next year's race weekend is currently scheduled for Nov. 15-17, which conflicts with a University of Texas home football game in downtown Austin against Oklahoma State on the Saturday. The demands of both events on traffic and hotel accommodations could push Austin's limits, and Epstein is working with F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA's senior American representative, Nick Craw, to adjust the USGP race date. He says both are amenable to working with COTA to alleviate the situation and is confident a solution will be found.
“We would like not to be on the same weekend,” admits Epstein (LEFT). “There's advantages and disadvantages to being in a smaller market. One is that the whole city can embrace it and become a wonderful community-wide event. The other is our hotel supply is a little limited and the university's a big part of the city.”
Might that mean a major or minor shift in the race's position on the calendar? Epstein says it could go either way. “We like the fall date, but certainly spring or fall are great times to be here in Austin. We're comfortable that we won't end up in the summer months but, outside of that, we don't have a strong preference.”
That comfort level was obviously reinforced by the critical and commercial success of his first USGP, which attracted an officially estimated three-day crowd of 265,000, including 117,000 on race day. Epstein took it as more a confirmation of expectations than a pleasant surprise.
“Someone asked me if I was surprised how great it went, and I said, ‘Well, we knew how great it could be, and the surprise would have been had people not liked it. I think it was a good chance to show everybody what we've done, what we've created, and in terms of things that went wrong, in terms of concession-related lines and merchandise lines, those are things that show there is demand and that we can fix by next year. But the facility itself, the drivers' reactions and the fans' reactions to what's been created were very rewarding.
Epstein insisted that the track had not deliberately gone conservative in terms of food and beverage service. “No! We thought we were erring on the other side. We have…room to improve there,” he concedes. “But no, we did not scale back at all. We planned on that size crowd, but it's a new venue and it was our first major event and we've got a few more coming up in the spring and we think that'll go better. But as far as the racing experience, the fan experience standpoint, we were anxious to get the feedback and see if people would walk away with the experience that we wanted them to have and if their impression was going to meet our expectations. And I think it did – I think it validated a lot of the thought process and planning that went into making this into something that we think is really special and represents the next generation of racing entertainment facilities.”
Of course, in order to fully enjoy a facility, you've got to have a fairly stress-free time getting to and leaving it, and there had been dire predictions about gridlock between Austin and the track, some 14 miles out of town. But USGP Carmageddon never happened and Epstein says that shouldn't have surprised anyone, either.
“The traffic predictions that you refer to were largely made by people without experience at actually calculating traffic flow,” he says. “If you look at the experts that we hired, they said that they could calculate that x number of cars could move through an intersection or down a street at whatever speed and it cleared out relatively easily. Normal traffic in Austin is worse than what there was on race day.”
In fact, race traffic was such a non-issue that the Travis County government decided last weekend not to proceed with a road-widening project it had originally pledged, saying the expense was unnecessary, and “I don't think that we disagree,” Epstein says. “I think there are other improvements coming as the facility grows and develops regarding the state highways.”
The COTA chairman believes incremental improvements will also solve the other primary objection from fans – the significantly spiked cost of hotel rooms in Austin over race weekend. While maintaining that they were not out of line with those of other current and prospective F1 venues, Epstein says hoteliers will soon find the sky's not the limit on pricing.
“I'm not sure our hotel prices were extraordinarily higher than they would be in other markets – certainly in New York,” he says. “Certainly, they were much higher than they would be in a normal week in Austin. Now, we have three other large hotels under construction, which should help.”
He adds that the proximity of San Antonio, located 79 miles to the southwest, can also alleviate some of the hotel crush.
“I think people will begin to appreciate that San Antonio is almost a sister-city to Austin and has a big convention hotel presence there, too, so I think that over time you'll see this event consume both cities and as a result, hotel prices will stop going up.”
Beyond logistical hurdles for the facility, the issue of broadening Formula 1's appeal always comes back to the continuing lack of a local hero in the field for Americans to rally around. Epstein acknowledges it's an issue for his event, but with a few caveats.
“I don't know that it's critical…but it wouldn't hurt! As a facilities operator, in creating an exciting and entertaining experience, I think we can do that. But for us, the audience of a couple hundred thousand people is significant – that's how many we need to attract to the site for us to be viable. And in order to grow the sport nationwide, and create a viewing audience for television, I think that's where the sport stands to gain the most. I think the American driver helps everyone but it helps grow the TV audience most.”