This will be the 10th time the Circuit of the Americas has hosted the US Grand Prix, and the big birthday bash promises to be an unforgettable one.
F1 estimates that 440,000 fans will attend the race from Friday to Sunday, which will make it a record-breaking weekend. While the glamor and glamor of Miami, and of next year, Las Vegas, are attracting a lot of hype, neither can boast the sheer numbers of Austin.
The race has come a very long way. Earlier this week, F1 shared a video from its social media accounts from the race in 2017. It was the race in which F1, in its first US public award since Liberty Media completed its takeover of the series, attempted to inject a slice of American entered the sport into the proceedings by hiring famed boxing broadcaster Michael Buffer to help familiarize the drivers.
Even a simple compilation of drivers who came up with their exaggerated introductions from Buffer really summed up how things have changed. Lewis Hamilton – then only three-time world champion – and Daniel Ricciardo are the only ones who sucked the air. Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen seem unfazed, the latter being one of the nine drivers who raced at COTA in 2017 and are no longer on the F1 grid. Valtteri Bottas doesn’t even have a beard.
Watching it feels like a huge step back in time. It’s got the old F1 crest wearing the billboards, the grid girls helping the drivers in. But at the time, it was F1’s first effort to appeal to American fans by trying to adapt to their usual tastes.
At the time, opinions were divided. Those who have concerns about the impact Liberty’s ownership will have on Formula 1 have seen that this is the kind of Americanization they don’t want near the Central European Championship. But many took it for what it was: yes, it was a bit cheesy, but it was also a sign that F1 was not taking itself seriously – after many years of doing it under Bernie Ecclestone, when there were things like YouTube and social media. It was not worthwhile.
It also showed an immediate awareness from F1’s new premiership that it simply couldn’t go on with things the same way if it wanted to break America. He had to try new things, whether that was designing a new logo or trying to increase network introductions, or getting his own theme music. F1’s now-loved introduction only came to light at the start of 2018, which once again faced criticism from those feeling uneasy about these new initiatives.
Towards the end of the 2017 season, plans had already begun to speed up for F1’s biggest game-changer in the US: Drive to Survive. Then-commercial president Sean Bratch was very quick to realize the need for a documentary series after seeing what it had done for other leagues and sports. The Box to Box production team has done its first surveys about Brazil and Abu Dhabi, showing off teams who have some skepticism about the plans. Again, how will things change…
It was also a major turning point in Austen’s fortunes. After a Formula 1 struggle until the end of 2014 when only 18 cars showed up to race at COTA and the aberration that affected the race the following year, the US Grand Prix seemed to be on shaky ground once again as fans’ interest waned. The children’s market was a problem that simply could not be addressed. In 2016, the track secured Taylor Swift to perform her only concert in the US that year, which was a huge boost to ticket sales and helped turn many of Swifties into F1 fans. It was an unorthodox approach, but then again, F1 had to do things differently to get America right.
Taylor Swift in concert
Photography: Jerry Andre / motorsports pictures
It’s a realization that has allowed F1 to go only one way in the US since then. The idea of ’destination cities’ has been outlined from day one by Liberty Media and new F1 chiefs, yet it is hard to fathom that both Miami and Las Vegas would happen without COTA showing the growth opportunities on offer and the hunger of American fans. The idea of F1 taking an active role in promoting a race and even paying $240 million for a plot of land in Vegas to help run a Saturday night race sounds like a fantasy from the pre-freedom days. But F1 realized that this was the way to achieve the race and make a big coup, and get the long-awaited event along the sector.
The estimated crowd of 440,000 this weekend will be another three-day record for F1. But it will continue to fuel competition between huge fan races, the Silverstones and Melbournes, to continue to push that number higher. Clearly, the demand is there to exceed this number. It is just a case of the tracks ensuring that the existing infrastructure and facilities can accommodate such a bulge in fans without hampering their experience. COTA needed to adjust quickly, noting that the crowd number for 2019 is ‘only’ 268,000 over three days – but it coped well, remained a fan favorite and kept bringing people back.
The 10-year mark is a sign that seemed a long way off for COTA in the 2015 recession. But it’s still here: It’s thriving, and it remains a barometer of F1’s health in the US.
Aerial view of the Circle of the Americas
Photography: Jerry Andre / motorsports pictures