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.”
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?