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.
Next up is a bar where Will Buxton -- he of the breathless pit-lane reports on Speed -- is hosting a karaoke benefit. To my amazement, the place is packed, and it requires some serious jostling to burrow my way to the edge of the stage. (Sorry about spilling your beer, dude.) There, Buxton is toasting a local woman for helping Austin land the race. The guy standing next to me -- a young executive type, dressed in business casual -- has his glass raised and is woo-hooing each of Buxton's remarks.
"So who's the woman he's talking about?" I ask. Barely pausing between woo-hoos, he says, "I have no idea." Saturday morning, I drive along Elroy Road, paralleling the east side of COTA, when I spot a handwritten sign: "Welcome to Elroy, Texas, y'all." I pull into a dirt driveway and am greeted by a firecracker of a woman wearing a blue work shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. "You know what I almost wrote in small print at the bottom of that sign, don't you?" she says with a laugh. "Welcome to Elroy, Texas. Now, go home!"
Cathy Olive is a goat farmer and president of the Elroy Neighborhood Association. Two years ago, when rumors began circulating that a racetrack might be built in rural Travis County, several potential locations were mentioned. "And I thought to myself, 'Please, dear God, don't let it be Elroy,'" she recalls. Unfortunately for Olive, it was Elroy (and the nearby town of Del Valle). Even worse, it was on property where the neighborhood association had previously resisted Austin investor Bobby Epstein's plans to build a housing development. Now Epstein is one of the founding partners of the racetrack, and Olive is convinced that he still holds a grudge.
"I'm not one of those 'Keep Austin Weird' people who's against progress," she says as helicopters ferrying spectators to and from the circuit thunder overhead. "I'm against the management of the track and the tacky way they got things done. Also, I'm not putting down the sport. But what about the people who live across the street from the track? I'm worried about what it's going to do to our neighborhood."
I climb into Olive's Kia Soul -- emblazoned with a "Texas Women Shoot Their Own Snakes" bumper sticker -- and cross Elroy Road to visit Donald Haywood. A retired Austin police officer, Haywood moved to Elroy for the country living. Now, his back yard has a panoramic view of turn 11. (In fact, several of his neighbors are watching Ferrari Challenge qualifying for free.) Meanwhile, his front yard, which used to be so densely wooded that he couldn't see Elroy Road from his house, abuts a gigantic, dusty parking lot.
As aromatic smoke rises from the turkey legs on his grill, Haywood tells me that he hopes the race is a big success. This comes as a shock, since I know he's angrily fighting a lawsuit with COTA over the cost of a water line. Haywood points to a For Sale sign near the edge of the parking lot and grins mischievously. "I'm hoping to sell my property," he says, "and I figure the better the race does, the better I'll do."
I spend the rest of the day sampling barbecue joints and roaming around the sprawling University of Texas campus and nearby shops on Guadalupe Street, better known as The Drag. Aside from a guy in a McLaren shirt who's scarfing down pork ribs, I don't see a single sign that there's a race going on in Austin.
Obviously, a lot of people are here for the grand prix. But the jacked-up rates being charged by hotels in the area -- at one point, I saw rooms at a Best Western going for $450 a night, with a three-night minimum -- suggest that most of the fans are out-of-towners. The contingent from Mexico is especially strong; at the track, Spanish seems to be as common as English. No doubt, thousands of Austinites are attending the race, but I've talked to others who'd sooner contract herpes than patronize COTA. But the vast majority of locals seem to be oblivious to the event, and the prevailing sentiment is summed up by a priceless headline on the cover of the Austin Chronicle, the city's alternative weekly: "WTF1?" Sunday morning, I'm worried about race-day traffic, so I leave my hotel superearly and troll up and down the main road on the south side of the track until I find a local resident offering parking for a measly $10. (He's undercutting neighbors charging $20 to $40.) Better still, he says I can cut through the back of his property, skirt around the helipads, and then enter the track through the gate behind turn 1. Pure genius.
Culturally and politically, Austin is a tiny blue dot in the red sea of Texas, and at the track, there are very few obvious signs that we're in the Lone Star State. But then I spot two powerful pieces of Texas iconography -- cowboy hats worn by members of the UT Longhorn Band milling around near the front straight and cowboy boots on the leggy grid girls sashaying through the paddock. "They've got fringe, and they've got Western yokes," says Ross Bennett, the twenty-nine-year-old fashion designer responsible for the outfits of the so-called COTA Girls. "But we didn't want them to look like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders."
There's still plenty of time before the race, so I'm able to corner Bob Fernley in his temporary office. Now the deputy team principal of Sahara Force India, Fernley was running a Can-Am team at the ill-fated Dallas Grand Prix in 1984. "I remember that it was hot," he tells me.
"Does anything else stand out?" I ask.
He kicks back in his chair and thinks it over. "It was really hot."
"Jesus Christ, it was Texas in July!" Nigel Roebuck, the dean of F1 journalists, says when I find him in the media center. "I can't ever remember heat like that."
Conditions were so brutal that the track literally crumbled. A few hours before the race, several F1 drivers threatened a boycott. But when Roebuck asked the famously blunt Finn Keke Rosberg if there would be a race, the chain-smoking Finn disdainfully replied, "Of course, there will be a f---ing race." There was. And Rosberg won it. I watch the race from a general-admission area overlooking the slow complex of corners after the back straight. This entails standing on my feet, zealously guarding a tiny sliver of real estate, for two and a half hours. But it gives me a great vantage point, and I see at least a dozen competitive passes.
The race is far better than I expected. So is the crowd -- 117,429 on race day, bringing the three-day total to 265,499. Back in the paddock, race steward Emerson Fittipaldi, the two-time world champion who scored his first F1 victory at Watkins Glen, is thoroughly jazzed. "This is a new era of Formula 1 in America," he tells me. "This is the place America has always needed."
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh is another happy camper. His driver Lewis Hamilton had just beaten odds-on favorite Sebastian Vettel with a late-race pass at nearly 200 mph. But Whitmarsh is equally pleased by the turnout. "Formula 1 can learn a lot from NASCAR," he says. "We're not natural-born promoters and marketers of our products. We can't just arrive with our big tent and expect people to show up. So this bodes well. But we've got to make it stick."
Although I'm a huge fan, I'm worried that F1 -- like soccer, vegemite, and Mr. Bean -- will always be a tough sell in the United States. Remember, the first USGP at Indy drew 225,000 fans before fading into irrelevance. Nowadays, the most popular road-racing venue in the country is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, but that has less to do with its merits as a sporting event than the fact that it's been embraced by Southern California as an annual spring happening, and it's hard to imagine hippy-dippy Austin forming a long-term relationship with F1.
Then again, a race in Texas will draw thousands of fans from south of the border, especially if Mexican Sergio Perez becomes a star driving for McLaren. COTA also benefits from a cozy relationship with the state of Texas, which is picking up the tab for F1's rapacious $25 million sanctioning fee. So maybe, just maybe, the race in Austin will turn out to be too big to fail. By the time I'm ready to leave, the race has been over for more than two hours. Although delays getting to the track had been negligible, lines for the shuttles heading back to town look interminable. (I later learned that there was even worse traffic in the shuttle parking lots in Austin.) At the helipads, there are so many choppers coming and going -- more than 1000 flights -- that it looks like the fall of Saigon.
I'm perversely gratified to see the big spenders who shelled out at least 500 bucks for helicopter rides queued up in long lines. It takes me a mere ten minutes to reach my $10 parking space. Ten minutes after that, I'm boogieing down State Highway 130. When I spot a "Speed Limit 85" sign, I realize that this must be the tollway that was recently anointed the fastest road in America.
But even as I crank up the cruise control, a thought comes to mind: Fastest road in America? Hell, for a couple of hours earlier this afternoon, it wasn't even the fastest road in Travis County.