2013 V8 Supercars Austin 400

24 Hours of Le Mans…Done.  United States Grand Prix…Done.  Time to catch up on my writing and focus on my most recent trip to The Circuit of the Americas: The V8 Supercars Austin 400.

V8 Supercars?  Yes, V8 Supercars.  To say it’s Australia’s version of NASCAR is unfair to these drivers and cars, but for now, go with it.  In Australia, there are two major car manufacturers: Ford and Holden.  Sure you can get other makes and models, but the debate Down Under is Blue vs. Red – Ford vs. Holden.  This year there are two new marks to enter the fray: Nissan and Mercedes and Volvo recently announced their return in 2014.  Tracing it’s roots to 1960 with the Australian Touring Car Championship, the series has gone through various name changes, manufacturers, and teams.  Since 1993, however, the one thing that has remained the same: the engine.  A 5.0 liter V8 engine producing 600+ BHP powering a 4-door touring car.  Fire-breathing beasts that are built like tanks and drivers who follow the rule “rubbin’ is racin’ “; the V8 Supercars is extremely entertaining.

In October 2012, V8 Supercars announced they’d be traveling overseas for the first time ever to The Circuit of the Americas in May 2013.  After watching V8 Supercars for years on Speed, I put it on my calendar that I’d be down in Austin that weekend.  Of course, while I’m planning my trip, I reach out to my friend Tessa at Grand Prix Tours and offered my assistance.  I’m already going and if I can help GPT out – and make up for more than a few mistakes over the USGP race weekend – I will.  So, in the months and weeks leading up to the race, GPT started filling up their roster of guests attending the race.  We didn’t think we’d need a bus for the race, so I made a deal with Tessa – pay for my gas to and from Austin, rent a nice van, and I’ll take care of the rest.  As we get closer to race weekend, our roster is set with 5 Aussies.  We don’t need a van so I make arrangements with my brother-in-law to borrow his Yukon.  And as it turns out, his truck was in the shop so I’d have a brand-spankin’ new truck to taxi our guests to and from the track.  Perfect.  The week before the race, I received my care package from Tessa: official GPT shirt, roster, itinerary, and tickets.  I’m driving down Thursday before the race and am to meet my guests in the Hyatt lobby Friday morning.  I’m all set.  The drive down Thursday was a snap.  I made sure I packed everyone’s tickets and did not repeat my US Grand Prix mistake.  I catch up with Emily that afternoon, watch my niece show off her gymnastics moves, have dinner and call it a night at their new house.

Friday – Meeting my guests and practice

Friday morning I’m to meet my guests in the hotel lobby at 8:00.  Friday is an open day for the group – no trip to the track planned but I’m definitely heading out for V8 practice.  Shortly after 8, my guests meet me in the lobby.  Ian and his mate David, then Bobby, and finally Phil and his wife Hazel.  While talking with Phil and Hazel, another Australian couple overhears our conversation and politely raise their hands.  They ask about transportation to and from the track.  I tell them they’re basically on their own.  They tell me that back home in Australia, when they visit a track, the track has transportation arranged for the patrons.  While COTA and the city of Austin did have free shuttles for the F1 race, they’re not doing it this weekend.  I tell them a taxi will take them to the track and there should be taxi’s for the return trip.  I have a full load otherwise I’d take them.  They thank me and we all go our separate ways.

It’s 8:30 or so and there isn’t any V8 action until 10, so I head back to Emily’s.  I change shirts, gather up my camera equipment, and I’m on the road to the track.  Tessa got me/us a parking pass in the main lot so I know right where I’m going.  Traffic is light and I’m at the track in no time.  I park next to a couple of blokes from Australia.  We chat on our way to the main gate.  One of them is a marshal for the series and was at last year’s race at Abu Dhabi.  He had some hot sport opinions about the Hermann Tilke designed tracks and the lack of action they ultimately promote – lots of runoff areas, wide racing surfaces – something the other tracks on the V8 schedule don’t have.  While he’s excited to be here, he’s not expecting the “typical” show on-track.  I’m cautiously optimistic because the race officials decided to run the “short track” that cuts out Turns 7-11 with the goal of keeping the cars bunched together.

V8 Track Layout

V8 Track Layout

We pause at the main gate where I offer to take their picture with their camera.  We shake hands and head inside.  The first of what will be several excellent interactions with some friendly visitors.

The Main Gate

The Main Gate

Through the gate and turn left…I again have seats in Turn 15, but this time a little closer to the apex of the corner.

Turn 15

Turn 15

I settle in and take in some of the action.  These cars have an awesome growl about them.

Mark "Frosty" Winterbottom

Mark “Frosty” Winterbottom

Erebus E63 AMG V8 Supercars

Erebus E63 AMG V8 Supercars

James Courtney

James Courtney

The first and second practices are done and it’s getting hot.  I decide to call it a day and head back home.  It’s great to be back at the track for the first time in six months.  I’ve said it before, it’s a beautiful facility and with the concert amphitheater complete at the base of the tower, it’s damn near perfect.  I’m back at Emily’s in no time where I spend the rest of the day just goofing off and relaxing.  That night, Emily, my brother-in-law, Andy, and I have dinner plans downtown.  We hit this awesome little tappas place for an excellent dinner before heading to one of their favorite spots where we take in a U2 cover band.  It was a great show but it was over all too soon and we call it a night.  Tomorrow is a big day.

Saturday – Qualifying and Racing

Saturday morning I’m up and dressed and out the door.  Yesterday, I told the group to meet me in the lobby and we’d make our way to the track.  Waiting for me in the lobby are Phil and Hazel with Bobby just behind them.  Ian and David, however, are nowhere to be seen.  We have an 8 AM departure time and everyone is eager to get to the track.  I call up to their room.  No answer.  I head up the escalator to the restaurant to take a quick look…nope.  I call up to their room again, this time I get an answer.  A very groggy Ian picks up and says: “No thanks, mate.  We’ll take a cab.”  With that, I gather the others and we pile into the truck.  Hazel jokes, that because we had to wait, Ian and David will have to sit in the far back seat the rest of the trip.  We all laugh and make our way out.

On the way to the track, the four of us are chatting it up and getting to know each other.  Asking what a Texas Ranger is, what I do back home and if I have a horse, where they’re from, and what they do in Australia.  Just like yesterday, we’re at the track rather quickly.  We find a parking spot and unload.  I have my seats in Turn 15, Phil and Hazel are in the Paddock Club, but Bobby has a general admission ticket.  Knowing this from yesterday, I grabbed a folding chair from Emily and gave it to Bobby.  We also all have a go with the sun block.  It’s a cloudless day and it’s going to get hot.  And like that we’re off.

It’s about 9:00 and the World Challenge cars are on-track.  I head off to my seats and watch some of the World Challenge – Mazdas against BMWs against Hondas against Minis.  While it is a race, there isn’t much action going on, so I get up and start wandering around the track and watch from Turns 16-17-18 at the base of the Tower.

There’s a tent with several COTA representatives offering Tower tours for $20.  I strike up a conversation with one and decide I need to check out the scene from the top.  I was told I could go up for 15-20 minutes.  I make my way to the base of the Tower and into the elevator where I notice there are only two buttons: “1” and “2”.  Well, sure, that makes sense.

In the elevator with me are several members of various Porsche GT3 teams.  Heading up, they’ll have a bird’s eye view for the Porsche GT3 qualifying about to begin.  They all have 2-way radio headsets to talk to the drivers.

Stepping off the elevator, I’m treated with these amazing views.

Turn 1

Turn 1

Looking towards Turn 11

Looking towards Turn 11

One of the cooler features of the Tower is the glass floor.

Looking Down

Looking Down

It’s 22 stories tall, 250 feet high, a little breezy, and surprisingly stable.  It’s not that I was expecting it to sway back and forth, but it felt as planted as a 22-story office building.  The Porsches are taking to the track for a quick 20 minute qualifying session.  It’s a fantastic perspective watching the cars from this high up. 

Pirelli GT3 Cup

Pirelli GT3 Cup

Kelly Moss Racing

Kelly Moss Racing

Pirelli GT3 Cup

Pirelli GT3 Cup

The Porsche GT3 Cup qualifying is over and the V8 Supercars will be taking to the track shortly.  When I took the quick trip up the elevator to the top of the Tower, again, I was told I’d have 15-20 minutes before being ushered back down.  Looking around, there are only about 12-15 people on the observation deck with me, and no one telling me it’s time to go.  I move over to the side overlooking the Turn 15 complex and take in the V8 qualifying.

I settle in next to a gentleman wearing a Stone Brothers/SP Tools V8 shirt and we start talking Texas, V8 racing, the cars, the track and all things racing.  By now the cars are taking to the track and I want to get some footage of the cars trying to set a fast time for Race 1 later on today.

You can hear Glenn sharing some of his knowledge with this V8 rookie.

I take a few more photos, but our conversation is too enjoyable to be stuck behind the viewfinder.

Michael Caruso

Michael Caruso

Alexander Premat

Alexander Premat

Glenn and I swap V8 stories of what I’ve seen on TV and what he’s seen in person.  He asks me if I saw the incident from Sydney last year where Shane Van Gisbergen’s steering column broke and he collided with the medical car.  I have seen it and it’s one of the more bizarre incidents I’ve seen in racing.

Glenn goes on to tell me he was at that race and was lucky enough to be down in the pits after that incident.  While the team is rebuilding the car, he strikes up a conversation with one of the mechanics and asks what they’ll do with the damaged door.  After a quick handshake, Glenn owns one of the more unique souvenirs I’ve seen.

The Door

The Door

Glenn and his door

Glenn and his door

All the way from Dapto, NSW – south of Sydney – Glenn and his family are in town for the race, obviously, but he’s also on an amazing cross country motorcycle trip.  14 days and 3,000 miles on a motorcycle through the Colorado/Canadian Rocky Mountains.  On one hand, he’s riding through some absolutely beautiful parts of the country, on the other, it sounds completely mad.

Checking our watches, the first qualifying is done and qualifying for Race 2 will begin shortly.  What was supposed to be 15-20 minutes in the Tower has turned into almost an hour and a half where I had the pleasure of meeting Glenn and adding another race friend to my experiences.  Glenn, it was a genuine pleasure to spending time with you up in the tower.  Good luck on your next ride and hopefully our paths will cross again soon.

We shake hands and make our way down the 419 stairs to the ground.  About halfway down, the cars are making their way round and I have a great view of Turn 1.

James Courtney

James Courtney

Alex Davidson

Alex Davidson

Finally back on solid ground, it’s time to get something to eat.  I’ve got about 3 hours before the first V8 race, so I’ve got lots of time to kill.  Based on the recommendation of Tessa and the crew this morning, I seek out and find a food truck serving Australian meat pies.  A hand-held, meat filled chicken pot pie.  I got a fajita chicken/pepper filled pie and it was quite good.  Finishing lunch, a three-some asks if they can share the table.  I tell them I’m finishing up and the table is all theirs.  I ask where they’re from and they all reply “Australia!!!” and proceed to laugh hysterically.  Alas, it isn’t the first time I heard that joke, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last time over the course of the weekend.

It’s hotter than usual for this time of year and I’m doing my best to stay hydrated and in the shade as much as possible.  The first V8 race isn’t until 3:15, so to keep us entertained, the Pirelli World Challenge is holding a round of their GT/GTS championship.  Cars ranging from exotics such as the Audi R8, Nissan GTR, Mercedes SLS and the Cadillac CTS-V.R to race-prepped everyday cars like the new Chevy Camaro, Acura TL, and the Ford Mustang.  It’s not exactly the type of racing I was hoping to see, but it’s racing nonetheless.

Pirelli World Challenge GT field at Turn 19

Pirelli World Challenge GT field at Turn 19

The field at Turn 1

The field at Turn 1

Johnny O'Connell

Johnny O’Connell

Where I’m standing in-between Turns 19 and 20, it’s dusty, hot, and completely void of shade so I head back to near my seats where I find some trees and get a quick reprieve from the heat.

The track is now silent as the Pirelli GT/GTS race is over.  Race 1 of the Austin 400 will begin shortly.  The 2-day race weekend is broken up into four 100 kilometer races – two today and two tomorrow.  I’m not used to these sprint races, but it’ll be interesting to see four unique races.  I’m back at my seats and before I know it, we’re off and running.

Here are my favorite pictures from Races 1 and 2 both won by Jaime Whincup.

Craig Lowndes and Jaime Whincup at Turn 15

Craig Lowndes and Jaime Whincup at Turn 15

The Pack led by Craig Lowndes and Fabian Coulthard entering Turn 12

The Pack led by Craig Lowndes and Fabian Coulthard entering Turn 12

Jaime Whincup

Jaime Whincup

Race Action

Race Action

Lowndes making an inside move on Coulthard

Lowndes making an inside move on Coulthard

Making the move stick

Making the move stick

James Courtney

James Courtney

When we arrived at the track this morning, Bobby, Phil, Hazel and I all agreed that we’d call it a day after the second V8 race and skip the final Porsche GT3 race.  Race 2 is winding down and I want to get out of the sun and get the car cooled off before everyone gets there.  I’m back at the car in no time and Andy’s new loaner truck has first-class air conditioning and it’s cooled off rather quickly.  I am, however, spent.

Race 2 is over and here comes the crowd.  I scan the parking lot for my guests and I spot Phil and Hazel.  We get their equipment loaded up in the back and I’m just about to shut the rear gate when Bobby comes walking up.  He’s a nice shade of lobster red from his day in the sun.  Even though everyone sprayed on 100 SPF, I think Bobby underestimated the Texas sun.  I get a text from Ian and David – they’re taking a taxi home and will take a taxi back to the track in the morning.  Ok, that just made tomorrow that much easier.

On our way back we discuss tomorrow’s schedule.  Phil and Hazel want to get to the track early-ish for an autograph session.  Considering I how tired I am and the fact I have to drive home tomorrow night, I tell the crew I’ll pick them up in the morning, get them to the track where we’ll pick a rendezvous spot, head home to relax before heading back to the track for the return trip home.  It’s all settled.  I head back to Emily’s where I shower, order a pizza, and call it a night.

Sunday – College Lacrosse and V8 Racing

After a good night’s rest, I’m up and at the Hyatt in no time.  Waiting for me out front are Phil and Hazel.  No sign of Bobby.  I call his room but no answer.  Phil and Hazel want to get to the track now and Bobby knows the plan, so we hit the road.  With very little traffic, we get to the track quickly and make our way into the parking lot where we find a lot marker and designate that as our rally point.  Phil and Hazel are on their way and I’m headed back to Emily’s.

At Emily’s, it’s your typical lazy Sunday morning at the Garrigan residence.  Lily and Cam are up and moving about with Emily sitting at her laptop finishing some work and Andy lazing on the couch.  We’re watching something random on TV, when Andy switches it over to ESPN for the second round of the college lacrosse playoffs.  As long as I’ve known Andy, he’s been a lacrosse coach.  From high school club teams, to private summer lessons, to eventually being named the University of Texas lacrosse club head coach earlier this year, it’s been a long time for Andy to finally get the recognition he deserves.  Andy’s taught me a thing or two about the sport and I genuinely enjoy watching lacrosse.  Today is Duke/Notre Dame and Denver/North Carolina.  I don’t remember much about the Duke/ND game, but the Denver/North Carolina game was awesome.  Denver was down 8-1 or something like that when they went on a ferocious comeback to win the game 12-11.  As cool as that was, this is a racing report, not a lax report.

It’s about noon when I call back to Bobby’s room.  This time he answers and I tell him my plan for the day.  He was a bit spent from yesterday’s activities and decided to sleep in.  And when you consider the races aren’t starting till 3:00, we’re not missing much.  I tell him I’ll pick him up around 2 and we’ll be there in time to catch the first race.  Done.  So I get some lunch – and learn the magical qualities of crock pot cooking – and we watch some more lacrosse.

Right at 2:00, Bobby is waiting out front and we make our way to the track.  I park as close to our rally point as possible and we head in.  Just as we enter the gates, we’re treated to another flyover, this time right down the main straight, a B-25 Mitchell flanked by three T-6 Texans.  Bobby makes his way up Turn 1 and I set up camp just past the start/finish line – I’m not about to make the walk up to Turn 15 again.

It’s not long before the V8’s are on-track for their warm up.  Race 3 is moments away.

It’s again blistering hot, so I don’t take many photos, but here are my favorites from Races 3 and 4.

Into Turn 1

Into Turn 1

Garth Tander

Garth Tander

Lee Holdsworth in the AMG E63 leading David Reynolds in the Ford Falcon

Lee Holdsworth in the AMG E63 leading David Reynolds in the Ford Falcon

Russell Ingall and Tim Slade

Russell Ingall and Tim Slade

Tim Blanchard - No relation

Tim Blanchard – No relation

The cars fly past me one after one.  There isn’t much to see from my vantage point and there isn’t a whole lot of action into Turn 1 – not as much as at the Turn 15 complex – but the one thing that stays with me: the sound.  The deep throaty growl of these engines, especially being this close, is amazing.  Turn your speakers up.

Fabian Coulthard finally broke through and won Race 3 while Jaime Whincup returned to the top step of the podium for Race 4.  In between Races 3 and 4, I got up to get some shade and a bite to eat.  While chowing down on a burrito wrap, I struck up a conversation with another Australian.  I asked what he thought of the track, the race, Austin, and his overall experiences being here in Texas.  He loved the track and was quite impressed.  He was a little disappointed in the race action; he thought they were too passive.  He understood why they held back, but it wasn’t what he was used to.  He has thoroughly enjoyed his time in Austin.  The locals were more than helpful getting him around town and telling him what to see and do.  He couldn’t have been more engaging.  We chatted for a while until it was time for the final race to begin.  We bid each other safe travels and went back to our seats.

Race 4 is about halfway over and I need to get back to the car – both to get out of the heat and get the car cooled off the the group.  Bobby makes his way to the car without issue and we drive to our designated spot.  Just as we get there, Phil and Hazel are flagging me down.  Perfect timing.  On our way back up 130, we’re passed by a Mustang “racing” with a Ferrari 458 – it wasn’t even close.  But it was funny to watch the Mustang try to keep up.  We get back to the hotel and exchange handshakes and business cards.  It was a great weekend spent with some new friends.  I genuinely enjoyed my time with Bobby, Phil and Hazel.

I get back to Emily’s for a much needed shower.  I pack up my stuff and I’m on the road by 7 and home 3 hours later.  Part of me is glad to be home, the other part wishes I’d stayed the night and left in the morning; I’m exhausted.

Looking back on the race weekend, some things were great, others need some major rethinking for next year.  I absolutely loved the V8 cars and the people I met.  Just seeing a different style of racing than what I’ve previously experienced was well worth the trip.  The track was, again, brilliant.  The Australians I interacted with were fantastic.  The schedule, however, was poorly done.  This was a V8 Supercars race weekend but there was more racing from the support races than the actual V8s.  In the grand scheme of things, there was far too much time in between the V8s being on-track.  Qualifying at 11 and then the race 4 hours later?  I don’t know who did the scheduling, but that was far too long to wait for the main event.  Sure there were support races to keep us entertained.  But I wasn’t there to see Minis race Civics or even the beautiful R8 versus the SLS.  Granted, had it not been as hot as it was, my opinion might be different.  Looking back on the schedule, on Saturday and Sunday, the V8 cars were actually on the track for around 2 hours a day – 4 hours total!  The other series combined were on-track for 3 hours on Sunday alone!  I understand why they did this, but, come on.  I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Scheduling issues aside, the race weekend was a success.  With Jaime Whincup winning 3 of the 4 races in front of over 68,000 fans for the entire 3-day event.  Granted, that’s not F1’s 250,000+ for 3 days, but it’s still pretty good.  Currently, there are scheduling conflicts between the V8 series and the ESPN Summer X-Games being held at COTA in 2014, but I’m sure they’ll work it out in the coming months.

I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the V8 racing and the people I encountered.  From my GPT guests to Glenn and other random Australians I met and interacted with over the weekend, I loved every minute of it.  While I am excited about the ALMS/WEC race weekend next month as well as the return of F1 in November, I am equally excited about the return of V8 to American shores next year and I look forward to catching up with new friends and making many more.

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