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.