On a brisk Friday morning in mid-November, under a postcard-perfect blue sky, I'm greeted by dozens of beaming ushers dressed in crisp red, black, and white uniforms outside a pristine entrance plaza. "Welcome to Circuit of the Americas," several of them chirp as they vie to hand me a track map. For a brief, disorienting moment, I feel like I'm arriving not at the spanking-new venue for a revived United States Grand Prix but at a bizarrely friendly Austin, Texas, version of Disneyland.
I walk into the imposing grandstands overlooking the front straight. Across the black ribbon of track, I can see the blocky garages and hear the shrieks of Formula 1 cars being warmed up for the first practice session of the weekend. To the right, the track rises majestically, like a cresting wave, toward the wide entry and improbably angled apex of turn 1. The track looks genuinely spectacular -- the most impressive road course in America. To be honest, I'd arrived in Austin expecting a train wreck of Texas-sized proportions. But all I feel right now is admiration for the people who managed to pull this off despite an insanely tight schedule and almost universal skepticism.
Suddenly optimistic about the race weekend, I ask a nearby usher how I get into the paddock. His smile dissolves into a frown as he consults his map. He calls over another usher, who also doesn't have a clue. The two of them lead me to a third usher, who calls a supervisor on a walkie-talkie. She shows up with a larger map and dubiously points to a pedestrian bridge that appears to be halfway to Dallas. "You've got to be kidding," I say.
She smiles weakly. "We're all pretty new out here."
Since 1959, the U.S. Grand Prix has been held at nine venues ranging from a bucolic road course in Watkins Glen to a street circuit snaking between adult movie theaters in Long Beach, from the storied bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to a parking lot in Las Vegas. Many of the races have been failures. Several have been fiascos. The USGP in Phoenix in 1991 was reportedly outdrawn by a local ostrich race. Even more embarrassing, a tire debacle at Indy in 2005 resulted in only six cars taking the green flag and ticket holders being offered refunds.
Circuit of the Americas -- in Texas, even the names are big -- is the first American track designed specifically for Formula 1. During the past two years, $400 million has been spent on the facility, and it's a magnificent piece of work. Still, the circuit is only part of the equation. Traffic on the two-lane roads leading to and from the track is expected to be hellacious, and the last F1 race in Texas -- the Dallas Grand Prix in 1984, which was almost boycotted by the drivers -- was a legendary calamity. Plus, I'm wondering how the planet's most expensive, most exotic, and most insufferably arrogant form of motorsports will play in an arty, green, left-leaning city -- the birthplace of progressive country and postuniversity slackerdom -- whose unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Weird."
After trudging a couple of miles in the wrong direction, I finally stumble across the tunnel leading to the paddock. At the security gate, another bright-eyed COTA worker says, with just a little bit too much enthusiasm, "Have a great day."
"I'm doing my best," I tell him, trying not to grind my teeth.
No matter how many fans are in the stands or how frenzied the action is on the track, the paddock at an F1 race is an oasis of preternatural calm. Not because the teams are so professional or because the schedule is so structured. It's a function of the most restrictive access policies this side of a maximum-security penitentiary.
In contrast to NASCAR and IndyCar races, paddock passes aren't available to spectators no matter how much they're willing to pay. So practically everybody in the paddock is either working in some capacity, an invited guest, or a bona fide celebrity. (Hey, isn't that guy in the Darth Vader hoodie George Lucas?) As a result, the paddock is a remarkably small and provincial club where outsiders who don't know the secret handshake are ignored.
After the first practice, I join Williams F1 executive director Toto Wolff in the team's lounge. Wolff speaks eloquently about why F1 has returned to the United States ("It's such a big market and has such a large fan base") and what it can do to succeed this time around ("I think it's a matter of educating fans about the sport"). But when I ask him for his impressions of Texas, he sheepishly admits that he hasn't seen much besides his hotel room and the racetrack.
It's a funny thing. We think of Formula 1 as the apotheosis of international glamour. But in reality, the insular F1 world is essentially the same whether the race is in Austin or Abu Dhabi. As Wolff puts it: "You kind of lose the feeling of where you are." The track is empty, but Al Mays's eyes are still wide with wonder. A large, chiseled man who looks like the professional football player he once was, Mays has been working at the track since construction began, and his business card identifies him as the guest services coordinator. But he's never been to a race before, and until this morning, he'd never heard a full field of F1 engines.
"At first," he recalls, "I couldn't see them because they were still in the garage, but it sounded like buzzing bees. Then it got louder, and they sounded like wild animals! Then they shot out of the pits, and they looked like Scud missiles, and I started going, 'Woo! Woo! Woo!' It was crazy!"
I search for lunch behind the grandstand. The walkways are surprisingly crowded. (Attendance was later pegged at 65,360, which is astonishing for Friday practice.) I grab a spot on the tail end of a long line for an opportunity to pay $12 for really lame pizza. Standing in front of me are two men wearing hats from the Snetterton Circuit. Yep, both of them are Brits. Serious race fans, too. Colin Blakemore lives in England, and his son Dale flies Boeing 777s for Emirates airlines out of Dubai. They crossed the pond just to attend the race, and they've got nothing but praise for the circuit, the viewing areas, and the free shuttles to and from Austin. "They've done a brilliant job here," Dale says as he and his dad hike off to watch the second practice.
COTA track designer Hermann Tilke looks exhausted but relieved as he munches on a bagel in the patio of the Mercedes AMG Petronas lounge. A lot of skeptics doubted that the circuit would be finished on schedule. But Tilke, whose German engineering firm is responsible for creating virtually all of the F1 tracks built during the past decade, met the deadlines. And the early reviews of COTA are excellent, with so many drivers calling the circuit "fantastic" that it sounds like an official FIA talking point.
"The only flat part of the circuit is the start/finish straight," Tilke says. "Other than that, we tried to use the topography and keep all the hills. The first turn, I believe, will be the landmark." When I mention that I've heard complaints about all the blind corners, he shrugs. "The drivers get paid to drive," he says blithely. "The most important thing is the spectators."
Ironically, it's the spectators who appear to have been shortchanged in the rush to complete the track. Not, mind you, the VIPs in their luxury boxes or the beautiful people sipping champagne in the Formula One Paddock Club, but the hoi polloi dealing with bare-bones landscaping, narrow and rocky walkways, insufficient food stands, and concessions selling nothing but "official merchandise," which is F1-speak for "heinously overpriced tchotchkes."
A Red Bull polo shirt for $140, anyone? How about a Bernie Ecclestone puppet for $50? Cash only, by the way. There's more to F1 than racing on the track and business in the paddock. There's also world-class partying. In downtown Austin, nine square city blocks have been closed to traffic for an array of live music and vendors known collectively as Fan Fest. When I arrive Friday evening, the rappers on one stage outnumber the spectators in the audience. But it's early yet, and other acts are drawing bigger crowds.
My first stop is Lounge 88, a dance party where tables for ten are going for as much as $50,000 a pop. Although the media preview has been canceled, I'm still invited to hang out on the red carpet to meet arriving celebrities. Unfortunately, I don't recognize any of the first four to appear. (Granted, this probably says more about me than them.) So when I'm told that no more big names will be arriving for a while, I decide to bail. "But don't you want to see Carmen Electra?" a PR person plaintively calls to me as I leave.