Part of Epstein's confidence that COTA's USGP can thrive with or without a U.S. national in the field is the fact that his track, located within easy travel distance of the Mexican border, is positioned to widen the traditional definition of “local hero.”
Referring to the news that F1 will have two Mexican drivers next season – Sergio Perez at McLaren and rookie Esteban Gutierrez at Sauber – Epstein says, “Having an American – strictly a U.S. citizen – would be nice, but the fact that there are two drivers from North America is great also. The influx of the Hispanic population into the United States is a tremendous force – it's a large part of our population and it's become an integral part of our culture, so I don't think that they're looked at as foreign as it might have been 20 years ago. There were a lot of flags for Sergio here!”
November's race drew a significant majority of attendees from outside the state, Epstein says.
“Outside Texas, based on ticket sales, was near 70 percent,” he relates, but adds that he is optimistic that attendance will be bolstered for year two by additional amenities. “We have some expansion plans for next year and I think some of the growth in the infield areas that we are going to open up will probably attract more of a local audience. So the percentages may skew downward but the net overall number, both from in-state and out-of-state, will go higher.”
The more-the-merrier theme also applies in Epstein's view to the signs that COTA's exclusive position as F1's American home might be brief, whether or not New Jersey's GP of America at Port Imperial answers the bell (it's been postponed from next June to 2014). In the aftermath of last month's USGP, F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone suggested he was eager to stage a third F1 race on America's West Coast. Yet Epstein views the prospect of multiple USGPs as a rising tide that will lift all boats.
“I don't think it hurts to build a fan base. It's a pretty big country,” he notes. “If you look how far apart venues are in Europe, we're a lot farther from New York. I think we compete from different markets. The numbers of people that attended our race from the New York area, if we lost those to the New York race, I think that would be overwhelmingly exceeded by the number we would pick up from the additional fans in the country, just by growing the fan base by having a bigger presence.”
The circuit's presence also will soon transcend F1, with events for Grand-Am, American Le Mans, MotoGP and the U.S. race debut of V8 SuperCars (RIGHT) all planned for year two. Epstein says it's all part of the plan to make COTA a year-round center of racing.
“I would anticipate four or five major race events. Of those, in some ways the customer demographic can be very diverse,” he explains. “MotoGP has some overlap with F1 but it also has some unique audience as well – it tends to be a younger fan base. The Grand-Am and [American] Le Mans races, I think there are people who know and appreciate that style of racing that are not necessarily the F1 or MotoGP crowd, so I think you'll see a varied crowd.”
The most obvious missing piece to the track's 2013 lineup is the IZOD IndyCar Series, but Epstein says that's not the result of any choice from his team's side: “We're open to every race series, and hopefully they [IndyCar] will be receptive to us as we gain credibility over time and as the fans lend their input into the different race series' decisions.”
Certainly, that credibility is on a high after Circuit of The Americas' first race, and the next step is fixing the USGP/football date conflict. Epstein said he expects an announcement regarding the date “in the next couple days. There's still an effort being made on everyone's part to come up with a different weekend. Bernie [Ecclestone]'s aware of our concern and I think if he can do anything about it, I think he'll make the effort.”
A swap with the Brazilian Grand Prix currently set for the following weekend (an open date for UT football) might do more than solve a scheduling conflict – what better way to demonstrate F1's newfound commitment to the U.S. market than to offer its race the status of the season finale and, quite possibly, its championship decider? What say you, Bernie?