Friday, November 16, 2012
Time for Formula One, Texas style
(by Terry Blount espn.go.com 11-16-12)
Country music, beef brisket, cowboy boots, Tex-Mex, the Lone Star flag and Longhorns football.
Meet skinny jeans, caviar, French fries with mayo, funny accents (that don't speak Texan), fascinators and Ferrari flags.
Oh my. Austin never will be the same.
Formula One, the highfalutin auto racing sport of the world, comes to Texas this weekend, the state of big egos, big football (the kind with helmets and a funny-shaped ball), big hair and big, well, almost everything.
As a Texas boy myself, I can tell you this is a convergence zone of cultures and lifestyles that could rock old Sam Houston right out of his coffin. It's the Monaco elite taking a ride on Bevo; Willie Nelson hugging Sir Jackie Stewart.
Austin has gone ostentatious. Lord, help us.
An event three years in the making, one I didn't believe would actually happen, will take place Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas, a 3.4-mile road course and state-of-the-art racing facility about 15 miles southwest of downtown Austin.
A reported $300 million has been invested in building the place, most of it coming from Texas billionaire Red McCombs, the founder of Clear Channel Communications and a former owner of the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Vikings.
The state of Texas also is contributing $25 million a year to the F1 coffers, a sore point to some Texans, who feel it's a big waste of taxpayer money.
We'll see. I can almost guarantee more than $25 million will pour into the Austin area hotels, restaurants and 6th Street nightclubs. Some hotels in Austin are charging more than $600 a night.
Race officials are expecting a crowd of 115,000 on Sunday. By comparison, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial stadium, a virtual state shrine, has 100,119 seats.
More than 70 percent of the F1 ticket holders are coming from outside of Texas, including more than 20,000 from other countries.
Steve Sexton, president of the Circuit of the Americas, believes those numbers prove it's well worth the investment.
"This is like having a Super Bowl here," Sexton told the Austin American-Statesman. "It's like having a Super Bowl here every year for the next 10 years."
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Only once in its history has Formula One spent 10 years at one U.S. location, and that was more than 30 years ago. F1 raced at Watkins Glen, NY, from 1961 to 1980. None of the other eight U.S. locations where F1 has raced lasted 10 years, including Indianapolis, the most recent U.S. venue for the series.
F1 raced on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for eight years (2000-07), so this is the first event in the U.S. for F1 in five years.
The Indy event was a clear success early on, when more than 150,000 people attended the first two races. But the interest waned, and any chance of long-term viability was destroyed when only six cars raced in 2005. Tire problems caused the Michelin teams to withdraw. Fans were furious, and the Indy event never recovered.
Now F1 is trying again at the most unlikely of places. Maybe opposites will attract and Texans will fall in love with this style of open-wheel racing.
"My wife and I have been big fans of the USA, and also of Texas, for many years," said seven-time F1 champ Michael Schumacher, who once visited Texas Motor Speedway and drove on the track incognito. "I'm particularly looking forward to the race in Austin. I'm excited to see if the American fans will embrace our sport. I think we'll put on a good show.''
It helps that F1 has a close points battle for the 2012 championship with two races remaining. Germany's Sebastian Vettel is trying to win his third consecutive F1 title. He leads Spaniard Fernando Alonso by only 10 points.
This is F1's second time in Texas. It raced in Dallas in 1984, but that was a poorly conceived street course without the support and infrastructure needed to become successful.
Circuit of the Americas is the first purpose-built facility for F1 in the U.S. It appears to have the things it needs to succeed -- big-money backers, a luxurious facility, and the city in Texas best-known for its diversity and progressive ideals. Austinites tend to be open-minded folks.
However, there are plenty of doubters who think this is a passing fancy that has little chance of working over the long haul.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith is one of them. Two weeks ago, during the NASCAR weekend at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Smith made his feelings clear.
"Formula One never has done anything in this country,'' Smith said. "It never has worked."
That's an overstatement, which isn't anything new for Smith. But it's true that Formula One has had nothing more than mercenary status in the U.S. for a long time. F1 -- and its longtime boss, Bernie Ecclestone -- gets its money up front, rides the wave and moves on when things die out.
"I have no doubt that the event will be very successful in its first year,'' said TMS president Eddie Gossage. "But the key point is whether it can sustain that success. That's a much more difficult thing to do."
First-time events of this magnitude often have logistical issues. The Circuit of the Americas venue has rural road access and limited parking space. More than 400 shuttle buses will be used across Austin to get fans to and from the race.
A running event on the track two weeks ago had major traffic problems, with some runners waiting in gridlock for more than 90 minutes to get to the track. That was only 5,000 people. How will that work Sunday with more than 100,000 showing up?
And first impressions are important. Everyone involved, from city and track officials to F1 sponsors and teams, has done everything possible to build interest and make the entire week one big Austin party.
Austin is known for its live music scene, and free concerts are planned on Congress Street every night this weekend.
Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the U.S., and his wife, Lady Westmacott, are hosting a reception for dignitaries and the media.
Stewart, a three-time F1 champ, will attend. I wonder whether Sir Jackie, known as the Flying Scot, owns any cowboy boots?
Austin is in the international spotlight this weekend. The capital of the Lone Star State dances with Formula One. Now that's what I call a Texas two-step.