Back to the basics. The spirit of endurance racing born in a small French countryside town makes its way to a small Texas countryside town. Le Mans and Austin. Bar-B-Que and Bordeaux. September 21st and 22nd was the International Sports Car Weekend featuring a 2 hour and 45 minute ALMS race on Saturday and a 6 hour WEC race on Sunday.
Originally, my plan was to drive down Thursday afternoon and hit the track for practice on Friday – but God had other plans in store for me. There were heavy rains predicted for Friday’s practice, but I’d wait to see how it looks before making any decision on heading to the track. As I’m packing up my car Thursday afternoon, I get a call from Mom. She and Dad are out of town with friends and have hired a dog sitter. The dog sitter called Mom and said my dog, Seamus, is in distress. I head over there and my boy is in serious trouble – his belly is swollen and he’s having trouble breathing. I scoop him up and take him to our family vet. They can’t do anything for him there, so I have to take him to the emergency pet hospital where they tell me he’s suffering from heart failure. There’s nothing we can do, so we decide to leave him there overnight for observation. I’m pretty distraught, so I head home and cry/drink the night away.
Friday – The Drive Down and Dinner
I get up Friday morning and head to the pet hospital. They’ve drained 3 liters of fluid off Seamus’ stomach/chest and that’s allowing him to breathe better. He’s going to stay through the weekend and we’ll get him Monday morning when we’re all back in town. Here he is after a quick bath feeling better Friday morning.
I’m still not entirely comfortable with the situation, but again, there’s nothing we can do now and he needs to be watched over by doctors and nurses. A quick kiss goodbye and, with that, I hit the road. A quick stop off at Competitive Camera where I’ve reserved a 70-200mm lens and I’m on my way to Austin. It’s starting to rain, but it’s intermittent. Not intermittent enough. A trip that normally takes me under 3 hours took 4 1/2 hours due to the rain and several accidents. I actually came to a complete stop twice on the highway. I finally get to Austin and to Emily’s house where I have enough time to relax before I need to shower and meet up with some good friends for dinner.
About 2 weeks before the race, I get a note from my friend Kris in Atlanta. She tells me that she and Jim made a last-minute decision and are making the trip to Austin for the races. It’s Jim’s birthday the week after the race and she wants to plan a pre-birthday celebration and asks if I’d like to join them; but she needs restaurant suggestions. I agree without hesitation, and knowing where they’re staying, my only thought is the Driskill Hotel. I make reservations and tell Kris. We’re all set and Jim has no idea.
After a quick shower, I’m down at the Driskill with Jim and Kris right behind me. We check in and we’re seated at the same table where the Grand Prix Tours group had dinner for last year’s F1 race! We have a wonderful dinner catching up and making our weekend plans. Before we know it, 2 hours have passed. It’s time to call it a night, but not without a quick picture.
Happy birthday, buddy. I’m so very happy we could share the weekend together. I still find it incredible that our brief time together in France over 2 years ago has turned into a friendship that means so much to me.
Saturday – WEC Practice and ALMS Race Day
It’s a glorious Saturday morning, mid-70s and it’ll climb into the mid-80s. It’s a quick trip to the track and parking is a breeze. It’s about 10:30, and while there is a line of cars, there’s still a fairly empty parking lot. I park up close, enter the track, and head around Turns 20 and 19 towards my seats. I grab a souvenir ball cap and settle in familiar territory in Turn 15. The Porsche GT3 Cup support race is on-track. Not much action to write about and I’ve seen these cars several times before, but one stood out. I just liked the red-black livery.
It’s noon, the GT3 race is over, and I get a text from Kris. She and Jim are down in the ALMS paddock where Kris is stalking ALMS driver and actor Patrick Dempsey, who is signing autographs. I make it down to the paddock just in time to find them where we quickly make it to the front of the line.
It isn’t the best picture of Kris with Patrick, but trust me she has plenty and now she has ONE MORE of Dempsey’s autographs. Don’t worry Jim, I’m pretty sure she loves you more than him. If only slightly.
We stick around the paddock where the cars and drivers and mechanics and engineers are scattered about.
Kris heads off to get something to eat while Jim and I make our way from the ALMS paddock to the WEC paddock, where we set up camp right behind the Audi garages. Leena Gade – the first female engineer to win Le Mans – walks by and I extend my hand to congratulate her for the team’s victory in 2011 and tell her I was there with her in Le Sarthe. Various Audi team members milling about including Howden Haynes. Featured in the incredible documentary, Truth in 24, he’s a Le Mans winner, and it’s exciting to see him here in Austin.
This is Audi’s engine engineer/magician/warlock Ulrich Baretzky – the man responsible for Audi switching to diesel and turning motorsports on its ear.
Just behind him comes 3-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish. I first met him at Petit Le Mans in 2011. As he exits the pits, he sees me with my camera and slows his gait, allowing me to rattle off a few shots of him.
I ask around, but no sign of Brad Kettler, but more on that later. The three of us head back towards our seats and for some lunch. The ALMS race isn’t until 3:45 so we have lots of time to kill. Until then, it’s time for the WEC qualifying. Jim and Kris decide to take the COTA Tower tour and I set up shop for qualifying.
Here’s some of my footage from qualifying.
I love the sound of those Audi R-18 etron Quattros hissing by.
Qualifying is over, and COTA has some pre-race festivities for us while we wait for the ALMS race. Drifting through the Turn 15 complex.
I’ll be honest, I don’t get it. Sure, it takes incredible skill and amazing car control to enter a corner sideways and come out pointing the right way. But drifting competitions are judged – like figure skating or gymnastics (two other things I can’t do) – and it seems like a terrific waste to me. I’m sure I’ll hear from someone telling me I’m an idiot, but this is my site and I’m allowed to write what I want. Anyway…
Jim and Kris have returned from their tower tour and it’s almost time for the ALMS race to start. Soon enough, they’re off and running.
This year’s ALMS season has one good thing going for it: the GT class. Corvette versus Viper versus Porsche versus BMW versus Ferrari. They’ve all won and they’re all incredibly close in terms of performance. And they’re right there, 50 feet in front of me.
The DeltaWing Coupe. This was the debut race of the radical racer with a roof. Originally seen at Le Mans in 2011 as the 56th garage spot for its innovative design and cutting edge technologies, it has morphed into this chrome-domed racer.
Double checking the time I took this photo and his time sheet, this is Sean Edwards driving the NGT Motorsport Porsche GTC Cup car. Sean died during a private training session at Queensland Raceway in Australia on October 15th. He won the 2013 24 Hours Nürburgring, conquering the Nordschliefe, and won earlier this year at the ALMS race at Long Beach. He is the son of former F1 driver Guy Edwards, who is known as being one of the drivers who pulled Niki Lauda from his burning Ferrari in 1976 at the Nürburgring.
We’re nearing the end of the race, and I head to the newly constructed and branded Crown Royal Club over looking Turns 18 and 19.
I’m not feeling my best, so I decide to call it a day. I find Kris near the Tower who tells me Jim is down overlooking the Esses. I tell her I’m calling it a day. She has to fly home early tomorrow morning for work Monday morning. I tell her to tell Jim I’ll catch up with him in the morning. And with that, I’m off. Emily and Andy are going to the Texas/Kansas State football game so it’ll be me and the kids for the evening. I order a pizza and we watch Texas soundly beat Kansas State. Emily and Andy are home early and we call it a night.
I didn’t write much about the action at today’s race, and well, that’s because there wasn’t much. For almost 3 hours, we raced uninterrupted – no safety cars. It was great to be back out at the track, but it’s difficult to keep up with the race action going on just in front of us.
Here’s a nice recap from the ALMS of the race.
Sunday – Brad Kettler and The 6 Hours of Austin
Before we get started, here’s a quick lap around the track with Allan McNish.
It’s one thing to love the track as a spectator, it’s another to hear from one of the competitors saying how much he enjoys this track as a driver.
It’s Sunday morning and there’s the pit walk followed by the 6 Hour World Endurance Championship race. Just as I’m getting up, I get a text from Jim; he had to drop off Kris at the airport because she has work Monday morning. He texts me saying he’s seen the sunrise at Le Mans, and now he’s seen the sunrise at COTA. Similar, but not quite the same. I’m out the door and down at the track in no time. Walking up to the main gate, I ask the track workers where to go for the pit walk and they usher me towards the tunnel under Turn 1. Walking up to the tunnel, I’m joined by a gentleman with a bag in-hand and wearing an Audi shirt. I mention it a beautiful day for another Audi victory and he responds: “We hope so”. We continue chatting about the track, how it compares to other tracks, our favorite tracks – Le Mans, Spa, Nordschleife, and Silverstone, as well as the next WEC round at Fuji. He’s more than engaging as we walk through the main gate. It was a pleasant conversation and we bid each other farewell. I see a short line forming for the WEC pit walk that’s set to begin at 8:30. Minutes later, I get a call from Jim, he’s walking down towards the paddock. I turn around, looking up towards the tower and raise my hand, Jim responds with a friendly wave and he joins me shortly. All around us, again, are various car and tire engineers, scurrying about. Looking behind me now, the line is quite substantial – we got here at the right time. Soon enough, the gates open and a flood of fans descend upon the pit lane.
The competitors are laid out in front of us with very little keeping us from the teams themselves. We set up camp right in front of Audi where they’re practicing driver changes.
We’re soon joined by Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich – the head of Audi Motorsports.
Moments later, here comes Brad Kettler joined by the same Audi gentleman I walked into the track with.
Back in 2011, when I met Jim and Kris as well as Clayton in Le Mans – oddly enough, all from Atlanta – they’d convinced me to join them for Petit Le Mans. I was so taken with Le Mans racing, I couldn’t resist. Along with my best friend Ted and Dad, we flew down to Atlanta and enjoyed the 10 hours of Petit Le Mans. While at Petit, Dad and I were down in the pits during scrutineering. I recognized and rattled off a few shot of Audi engineer Brad Kettler overlooking the new Audi R-18.
When I got home, I found Brad’s company website and reached out to them. I had a few more photos of Brad, and if they’d like them, they’re theirs. A few weeks later, I received a note back from Brad’s wife, Lisa, thanking me for the photos. As I was planning my 2012 Le Mans, and once I found out I’d be across the track from the Audi pits, I wrote Lisa again and told her where I’d be and I’d send whatever pictures I had of Brad and the team. Alas, I didn’t have any specifically of Brad. Once they finalized the full details of the ALMS/WEC race weekend, I again wrote Lisa and told her of my weekend plans. She wouldn’t be joining us, but would pass onto Brad a note that I’d be there. I waited for Brad to finish his conversation with that Audi gentleman and I called out his name where he walked over to me. I introduce myself, and while we’re shaking hands, I say: “I know this sounds funny, but I’m the guy e-mailing your wife”. With a wry smile, he responds: “Oh yea, I heard about you.”
Thanks to Jim for taking these pictures of me meeting with Brad. We chat for a few minutes about the track, Austin, and the race ahead of us. I wish him good luck and let him get back to the business at hand. Lisa, I said it before: it’s silly, but meeting Brad was a real treat for me. Thank you for passing a note onto Brad. I hope you’ll make it to Austin in the next few years and our paths will cross.
With that, Jim and I continue down pit lane.
Watch for the sparks when the right-rear tire changer takes the gun to the wheel nut.
Just as we’re watching the teams put the finishing touches on their cars, suddenly, there’s some rumbling through the crowd. Turning around, I see what is causing such a stir.
My photo hosting site, Flickr, gives me stats on my photos. I’ve been a Pro member for almost 2 years. I have over 1,000 photos on Flickr. Mostly racing, some of family and friends, and other random projects I’ve worked on. But the funny thing is, these two photos are the most viewed in my inventory. And they’ve only been online for 2 months. Either my photography is getting better or I’m taking pictures of the wrong subjects.
Turning our attention back towards the cars, I’m immediately greeted with an internet celebrity – Leo Parente of the YouTube channel /Drive and host of their Shakedown episodes.
I’ve been a fan of Leo’s for a while now so I introduce myself and Jim takes a quick photo.
We continue up and down the pit lane where I get up close and personal with several of the drivers.
Before we know it, the pit lane walk is over and we’re ushered out of the area. Jim and I make our way back to our seats where the race is about to begin. There’s a familiar buzz in the air as the Confederate Air Force/Commemorative Air Force makes its flyover.
And so it begins.
The 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas is off and running. Unlike yesterday’s ALMS race, we have an incident in the first corner bringing out the safety car. A few laps later, they’re back at it.
After almost 2 hours of good racing, Jim and I decide to get something to eat and get out of the sun. Right behind us, at the Turn 15 complex, is a wonderful collection of food trucks and regular track food stuffs. Having done this just a few months ago for the V8 Supercars race weekend, I find the food truck serving Australian meat pies – think of it as a hand-held potpie. We find an official WEC tent with a live feed TV and plenty of shade; Jim and I chow down and watch the race.
After a brief respite from the sun, Jim and I head off to a new pavilion overlooking the exit of Turn 18 and the short straight into Turn 19. It’s shaded, air-conditioned, and a great vantage point over the track.
After some time in the Crown Royal pavilion, Jim and I decide to check out the rest of the track. Heading over the bridges that cross Turn 16 and then Turn 4, we make our way down past the Esses towards Turn 10.
This was as far as we could go. There was a track official who drew the short straw and had to watch guard over the spectators to keep us from going any further. Quite a shame, actually. I think there are some great racing moments and picture to be had down at Turn 11. We stick around for a bit before heading back towards our seats in Turn 15.
We’re nearing the final hour of the race but there’s still plenty of action ahead.
The #2 Audi and the #8 Toyota swapped the lead position the entire race. The Toyota had better fuel economy and was easier on their tires, but they were marginally slower. In the final 30 minutes of the race, Audi decided to double stint their tires – the first time they’ve done it all day. And the gamble worked. Audi took the lead with 15 laps left and won the 6 hour race by a 34 seconds. Six hours of racing comes down to half a second. Not quite as close as the 2011 Le Mans – where Audi won by 13 seconds – but for 6 hours of hard racing to come down to 30+ seconds, it’s pretty amazing.
It was a glorious two days of racing highlighted by the GT battle yesterday and the LMP1 battle today. Jim and I gather up our equipment and make our plans to catch up in November for the F1 race.
Here’s Toyota’s race recap.
While this interview Allan McNish was filmed just before qualifying, /Drive published it after the race and I think it has some interesting stuff.
I decide to stay the night at my sister’s and drive home Monday morning. About a week or so after the race, I get a text from Jim confirming my address. I just figured he and Kris were updating their Christmas card list. A few days later, there’s a large box is sitting on my front porch. Inside, is this beauty.
The creation of racing artist Randy Owens, Randy set up shop at the track. Friday night at dinner, Jim told me about Randy and that they’re old friends. I found Randy’s tent at the track on Saturday, introduced myself and saw this lithograph on display. Later on, I told Jim and Kris I met Randy and saw some of his works. Well, little did I know, Jim and Kris also made a visit to Randy’s tent where they bought a framed copy for me as a gift. I now have this beauty hanging in the man room. Thanks again guys!
It’s now the week after the Austin F1 race – I’ll get to that report shortly – but it’s time for me to turn my attention to 2014 and specifically Le Mans. I missed it terribly this year. The cars, the event, the Tenths guys, Paris, Tours, French food and the French people. There are several new cars coming to Le Mans in 2014 – the new Corvette, the new Viper, a reworked Audi R-18, an updated Toyota TS030 and, of course, the return of Porsche to La Sarthe. This is one not to miss. And I will be there.
See you all in Le Mans in 7 months.
I’ve had several questions and I probably should have said something earlier, but, for all of you who have asked, yes, Seamus is fine. I got home Monday morning after the race and met mom at the hospital. Seamus has a failing heart, but with the proper medication, we can control his heart issue. We have to “tap” him and drain the fluids off his chest about every two weeks. He’s not in any pain and is still the happy, 13 year-old puppy he’s always been. The vet tells us he’s a strong boy and will go on until he tells us he’s tired. Until then, every time I see him, and he knows daddy is home, I sweep him up into my arms, let him rest in my lap, and love on my boy.
Tomorrow is the opening day for the ALMS/WEC International Sportscar Weekend at The Circuit of the Americas in Austin. What is quickly becoming my home track, the American Le Mans Series will race for 2 hours and 45 minutes on Saturday and we’ll have a 6 hour race on Sunday for the World Endurance Championship.
Between the two series, I’ve seen most of these cars at Le Mans.
I was supposed to drive down to Austin and stay with my sister and her family tonight and spend most of tomorrow at the track, but God had other plans for me today. So, I’ll get up early, head to Competitive Camera where I’ll pick up a new lens for the weekend and, weather permitting, I’ll hit the track.
Fox Sports 1 – originally SpeedTV – was set to broadcast Sunday’s WEC race, they’ve since cancelled those plans. ESPN2, however, will broadcast Saturday’s ALMS race on Sunday. Set your DVR’s.
Until then, here’s what you can expect from this weekend:
Here are Andy Blackmore’s fantastic Spotters Guides.
From the manufacturers themselves.
Toyota will be back.
Audi will defend.
Porsche will return.
2014 will be epic. And I will not miss it.
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.
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.
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.
I settle in and take in some of the action. These cars have an awesome growl about them.
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.
One of the cooler features of the Tower is the glass floor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With my Le Mans report published, and having recently returned from COTA for the V8 Supercars Austin 400 – where I learned it’s been 6 months since this race, I can now finalize my USGP report.
For the first time since 2007, Formula 1 racing is back in the United States. Our host for the first time in 5 years is the brand new, purpose-built Circuit of the Americas down in Austin, Texas. The return of F1 to the US soil has not been an easy road – for neither the race organizers nor the location.
The USGP raced for 20 years at Watkins Glen, from 1961 to 1980. Since then, the USGP has been held in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Detroit, and my home town of Dallas, Texas. I actually went to the race weekend here in Dallas almost 30 years ago when F1 visited in 1984. My father took me down to the make-shift track in Fair Park, near downtown where the Cotton Bowl is and the home of the Texas State Fair. Fletcher’s corn dogs, prize pigs, Texas/OU, and Ayrton Senna…they all go together so naturally, don’t they? Mix in the fact they held the race in August, the hottest month of the year for Dallas where temperatures are routinely above 100 Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) , and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Keke Rosberg won the one and only USGP held in Dallas which is famous for Nigel Mansell not only earning his first pole position but also pushing his car across the finish line where he promptly collapsed from heat exhaustion. Before the race, the drivers were putting aluminium foil on the top of their helmets to reflect the heat.
After that debacle, the USGP was held in Phoenix, another town known for it’s extreme heat. From 1989 to 1991, F1 raced through the buildings of Downtown Phoenix. My good friend, and fellow Le Mans visitor, Jim sent me these pictures he took from the 1990 race. Recognize anyone special?
From 1992 to 1999, there was no US Grand Prix. In 2000, USGP was held at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway – home of the Indianapolis 500. Raced on a infield anti-clockwise road course, the track was widely regarded by both fans and drivers as “uninspiring” and “dull”. Sure, there was quite the celebration when F1 returned for the first time since 1991, it still had a forced, round peg in a square hole feel to it. Mix in the Ferrari “photo finish” in 2002 and the Michelin tire controversy in 2005 that resulted in only 6 cars racing, and you’ve got a sour taste in your mouth if you’re a F1 fan in the United States – or the world, for that matter. Ultimately, it was announced in 2007 that the IMS could no longer afford to host the USGP and F1 departed our shores. Both fans and F1 management were happy to see an end to what felt like a shotgun wedding.
So, how in the world did F1 wind up in a sleepy central Texas town? Tavo Hellmund, that’s how. Tavo Hellmund is an Austin native and son of Gustavo Hellmund-Rojas. Gustavo Hellmund-Rojas was responsible for getting F1 to return to Mexico City where they raced at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez from 1986 to 1992. Tavo spent some time in Europe competing in the British Formula Three Championship in the mid-90’s as well as SCCA sanctioned events here in the States. Because of his father’s working relationship with Bernie Ecclestone, Tavo developed a friendship with Bernie. With outside investors and funds approved from the state of Texas, Bernie announced in May of 2010 a deal with Tavo, and his group Full Throttle Promotions, for F1 to return to the United States. From that announcement, however, to the start of construction in December 2010 and the waving of the checkered flag in November 2012, there were more plot twists than a mystery novel. Here’s a quick timeline of the events that transpired.
May 2010: Texas State Comptroller announces the approval to release $25M to fund Bernie’s travelling circus. A few weeks later, Bernie announces a deal with Full Throttle Productions to bring F1 to the US.
December 2010: The track design is approved by the FIA and construction begins.
April 2011: The circuit is officially named The Circuit of the Americas.
November 2011: Bernie publicly doubts Austin will happen. The track owners claim they do not have a contract to host the race and construction is halted. Panic ensues.
From May 2010 to November 2011, things looked good. So what happened to make things go sideways?
Money and politics.
One of Tavo’s outside investor was billionaire Texas oilman Red McCombs. Bernie and F1 signed a deal with Tavo’s group Full Throttle Productions, not with Red. Red and other investors wanted controlling power of the race and how to run it. Tavo wouldn’t give it to him. Why would he? Tavo negotiated the deal with Bernie, Tavo sketched out the original design of the track, and Tavo put together the investment group. But Red followed the Golden Rule: he with the gold makes the rules. Tavo was forced out. But Bernie still held all the cards. Technically, he didn’t have to negotiate with anyone else. Red and his group wanted a new contract. Eventually, a new deal was signed between Bernie and Red. A lawsuit followed shortly thereafter between Tavo and Red. Ultimately, it would be settled out of court. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but that’s business.
Construction resumed in early December 2011 after a new deal was struck between Bernie and Red. Construction crews worked day and night until the track’s certification in September 2012. They even had the ability to build the track 24 hours a day – something they never had to do.
While all of this is going on, I’m still planning my trip down to Austin. With Austin only a 3 hour drive south, it’s not like I would be put out if they cancelled the race. So while all the political and financial back-room dealings continued, I kept talking with my good friend Tessa with Grand Prix Tours.
In the months and weeks leading up to the race, I was, for the lack of a better word, the Grand Prix Tours Texas representative. We’d chat weekly, if not daily, about what to do, where to go, restaurants, nightlife, all things Austin. She’s ask a question, I’d drop a note to my sister Emily, who lives in Austin and would give me an answer, and I’d relay that back to Tessa. Slowly, over the course of a few weeks, various details were hammered out.
Through our e-mail conversations, I asked about the possibility of a couple of open seats on one of their tour buses. I was looking to hitch a ride for me and Dad during the race weekend. At first, Tessa didn’t think their’d be room. Slowly, as the GPT group grew, and additional buses were needed, there might be room. And then I got a note from Tessa asking if I’d be willing to help. I’d have a spot on a bus, but I’d be a GPT representative responsible for their clients and directing the bus to and from the track. I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve done two trips with Trevor to Le Mans. How hard can it be? Considerably more difficult than I could have imagined. But we’ll get to that shortly.
Wednesday – The drive down, FOTA, and finally meeting friends.
I’m packed and on the road down to Austin. I have an event with FOTA – Formula One Team Association – for a fan forum. It’s being held in the new downtown Austin Hilton. Tessa was kind enough to get me on the invite list. Somewhere between Waco and Temple, I start thinking about some a recent text between me and Jim in Atlanta.
When my tickets arrived, they were generic gray tickets with bar codes at the bottom, like the kind you’d get for a concert. I found it odd, but chalked it up to the fact I bought my tickets so long ago, they hadn’t been given the proper design yet. I shot Jim a text with a picture of my tickets and Jim responded with a picture of his tickets. Jim’s were quite fancy with a F1 car on them and were substantially larger in size. And then it occurred to me: I’VE LEFT MY TICKETS IN THEIR ENVELOPE ON MY ENTRY-WAY TABLE AT HOME. Crap. Well, it’s Wednesday, and I don’t need them until Friday, we can get this sorted out. I call mom, who has a key to the house. I explain the situation, tell her where the tickets are, and ask that she get them to dad where he can FedEx them to Emily for Thursday delivery and I’ll have them for Friday. Crisis averted.
So I get to the new Downtown Hilton without issue and find the parking garage. Making my way into the lobby, the Caterham F1 team has a car on display.
It’s about 4:30 and I have an hour to kill before the forum begins. I make my way to the bar where I enjoy a nice Le Mans favorite: Woodford Reserve on the rocks. There are two gentlemen from the Portland area just down from me who are also headed to the FOTA event. We chat about Austin, the track, and the upcoming events of the weekend. And like that, an hour has passed. They settle their tab and make their way to the elevators. I’m shortly behind them. I grab the next elevator where a gentleman is standing with several credentials around his neck.
He asks me if I’m in town for the race and where I’m from.
“Oh yea, I have a house up in Allen.”
He hands me his card. Geoff Moore, Chief Marketing Officer with Circuit of the Americas. He used to be with the Dallas Stars and moved to take a new position with COTA. We chat for a while in the lobby where we’re approached by another gentleman. I can’t remember his name, but Geoff comments he’s glad this gentleman finally made it. I ask if he had troubles. 24+ hours of travel and he’s just now getting to the hotel. Flight delays and incorrect directions from his in-car GPS led from one setback to another. I joke that I shouldn’t comment on my 3-hour drive down from Dallas. He just shakes his head and laughs. The event is starting shortly. We shake hands and I make my way inside.
Up front is a stage with microphones. Shortly, Geoff takes the mic, introduces himself, makes a brief statement before he turns it over to our host for the evening: SpeedTV on-track commentator Will Buxton. Will is having some issues with his lapel-mic, but he makes due the best he can. He introduces us to the first panel: Sam Michael, Sporting Director at McLaren F1 Team, Nick Fry, CEO of Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Robert Fernley, Deputy Principal at Force India F1 Team, and Graeme Lowdon, CEO of Marussia F1 Team.
They take questions from the audience and discuss matters ranging from a salary cap, tire management, the track, the season, and the upcoming race. And like that, an hour has flown by.
Soon thereafter, Will Buxton announces the next group: Heikki Kovalainen, Finnish Driver for the Caterham F1 Team, Alexander Rossi, US Test Driver for the Caterham F1 Team, and Esteban Gutierrez, Mexican Test Driver for the Sauber F1 Team. The drivers chat about their path to F1, their racing history, and future plans. Just like with the first panel, another hour has flown by.
I get a text from Tessa that she and Cherry are down in the hotel lobby bar. I make my way to the bar where we finally meet face to face. 2+ years of e-mail and the occasional phone call and we finally meet in person. It’s like catching up with an old friend. She introduces me to Cherry, her Grand Prix Tour coworker and someone else I’ve actually spoken with at GPT. We chit-chat for a while before we decide to grab a bite to eat.
Based on Emily’s recommendation, we cross the street to Carmelo’s Restaurant. Housed in the old Austin Hotel Depot, the building dates back to the 1870’s and is an historic landmark. Over dinner, we discuss the weekend plans and our time table. After dinner, they ask what’s a fun place to go and have a good time. Checking my map, we’re a block off 6th Street – the Austin party/bar scene – and I find an old favorite: Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar. But before we make our way there, it’s time for some happy fun-time pictures.
Pete’s is packed. Tessa gets us drinks while Cherry and I secure a table. There’s a very international crowd in here. We all laugh at the two pianists and their banter back and forth as well as their song selection. The highlight of the night was their cover of the 1995 Dutch remake “Alice”, where the singers laments: “For 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”. Whereupon the crowd responds with: “Alice!?! Who the fuck is Alice?!?” It’s great. We finish our drinks and call it a night. I’m beat from travelling and ready to get some rest.
Thursday – Lunch and Dinner with Friends.
There’s nothing planned for Thursday outside of grabbing lunch with my buddy John Greenwood and dinner with the full GPT team at the Driskill Hotel. John and I used to work together when he lived in Dallas, but he and his smokin’ hot wife moved to Austin a few years ago. He’s a LSU graduate (if there is such a thing) and we have a running LSU/Arkansas football bet. Arkansas lost in 2011 and I owe him lunch and we need to renew the bet for the upcoming game. He works for Frost Bank downtown so I meet him at his office. We walk down the block to The Roaring Fork where we saddle up to the bar and order lunch. We catch up for a bit before he starts asking all sorts of F1 and track related questions. He admits he’s a bit curious about the weekend’s festivities, but he also admits he knows next to nothing about the drivers, the cars, or the sport. I tell him what I know and how these cars compare to NASCAR and Indy. Finishing up, we head back to the Frost Tower with another Hog/Tiger bet in place – one that I predictably lost. I putz around for a bit before heading back to Emily’s house to get ready for dinner. I’m joining Tessa, Cherry, and two other “free agents” of Grand Prix Tours for dinner at the Driskill Hotel.
Built in 1886, the Driskill Hotel is not only on of Austin’s historical landmarks, but also home to one of Austin’s finest restaurants. I find Cherry and Tessa upstairs in the bar and we’re quickly joined by Mike Merriman from England and Tony from New Jersey. Mike is an Englishman who works for another racing tour group based in England and Tony has his own business on the East coast and has worked with Grand Prix Tours in the past. Both are in town to help Tessa, Cherry and GPT owner Barry guide the tour group.
Looking over the wine menu – something I’m quite comfortable with thanks to Mom and Dad as well as Anne and Francois – I spot a personal favorite. I make a deal with the table, I’ll buy the wine, but you guys are buying my food. They all agree and I order a bottle we jokingly call “House of Candy”.
After some fantastic dinner, excellent wine, and wonderful conversation we switch into work mode. Tessa hands us all packages with our itineraries. Tessa quickly shoots me a text and tells me not to pull out what’s in my bag and not to say anything – I give her a knowing nod. We go over our timing, our hotel assignments, and our guest rosters. I’m to be at the downtown Omni by 7:30, valet my car, meet Cherry in the lobby, and lead my group out to the track. Simple enough. But as I’ve said before, easier said than done. We finish up and call it a night.
Friday – Practice (both for the cars and for me).
I’m up and dressed in my new official Grand Prix Tours shirt. Out the door and I’m at the Omni in no time. Originally, my nephew Cameron was set to joing me out at the track. Unfortunately, he didn’t make his grades and, alas, he wasn’t allowed to join me. Reluctantly, my sister took his place. She’s dropped off my niece at school and is about 10 minutes behind me. Cherry is waiting for both of us in the lobby and introductions are made. Slowly, several members of the Ferrari team start gathering in the lobby. Various mechanics and engineers as well as Ferrari test driver – and 2009 Le Mans winner – Marc Gene are standing 10 feet from me. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone up to him and introduced myself. Several of our GPT guests make their way to our table and ask about our departure time. We’re just waiting on the bus and the rest of our group. It’s 8:00 and no sign of our bus. I have the driver’s phone number so I give him a call and ask where he is. He’s still at the depot. Crap. I hand the phone to Cherry and she tells him to get his butt in gear and to the Omni ASAP. Cherry calls and gets one of our other buses to the Omni and we load up about 20 of our 50 guests. A dreadfully long 30 minutes later, our bus arrives and we load up. Based on information we’ve been given from track representatives, we’re told to expect about a 2 hour journey into the track and a 3 hour return trip home. A father and son ask how long it’ll take to get to the track and I give him the grave update that we’re most likely going to miss the first F1 practice.
We’re taking the 183 Highway to the west of the airport versus the tollway on the east side. And just like that, the track is right in front of us. We actually pass one of our other buses exiting off the 130 tollway. We’re in the parking lot and as our guests are exiting the bus, the glorious sound of F1 engines firing up as the cars take to the track fills the air. A 2 hour prediction turned into closer to 45 minutes.
Everybody unloads and makes their way to the track. Part of the package Tessa gave me last night were two tickets to the exclusive VIP Paddock Club located above the pits. These are not your typical tickets, these puppies are hard plastic with microchips inside – very high tech. Those of us with these VIP tickets board a shuttle bus that takes us beneath the track to the paddock area. We scan our tickets and make our way upstairs. Wow. The Paddock Club is broken out into large, private suites. Each with their own balcony overlooking the track. We find our suite and make our way inside. F1 practice is over and the F1 Classics have taken to the track. Just beneath us are the garages for the teams. We can feel the vibrations from the engines on our feet.
Stepping out onto the balcony seats, we’re treated to an exceptional view.
The backside of the Paddock Club looks out over the support facilities and the iconic tower.
The F1 Classic cars are on-track and it’s a cool trip down memory lane.
While in our private suite, we were treated to a fabulous buffet lunch and two special treats. For our first treat, a local artist was painting an Austin F1-themed piece that would be auctioned off later in the day.
After lunch, we were treated with a question and answer with a living legend: Sir Jackie Stewart himself.
We were seated in the back of the room, near the track, and the speakers were struggling against the roar the F1 engines below. He spoke about how wonderful he thought it was that F1 was back on US soil, the safety improvements in the sport, and his time behind the wheel. I wish I could have heard more of his Scottish accent, but just being in the same room with him was special enough for me.
After Sir Jackie left, we’re told, because of our VIP passes, we’d get to walk the pit lane and get to see the cars and teams up-close and personal. Almost immediately, we’re told cameras would not be allowed. A bit disappointing, but I wasn’t going to try to sneak my camera down to the pit and then be told I had to take it back upstairs. We file outside and get in line to be let onto the pit lane. We make our way though the gate and almost immediately we hear someone yelling “Garrigan!”. Off to our left is a friend of Emily and Andy’s, Dr. Drew Fielder, chief trama surgeon at Brackenridge Hospital. He’s the acting chief medical officer at the track for the weekend. After some quick introductions and conversation, he offers to take our picture.
We say goodbye and proceed to take in the pitlane tour. The first thing I notice: everyone has cameras. Damn. Looking back, not having my camera isn’t such a bad thing. Too often, I’m stuck on the other side of the lens, and not really taking in all that I can. So, this isn’t really a bad thing. We are down on the pitlane and quite close to the cars and teams. We get down to the Lotus pit where there’s a crowd gathered. The team is graciously showing off one of their steering wheels. Emily takes a hold of it and has a great smile on her face. She passes it to me. It is feather-light – around than three pounds in weight. And when you consider the average cost of a F1 steering wheel is around $50,000, it’s a shocking what I’m holding. I hand it back to the Lotus engineer and congratulate her for Kimi’s win at the last round in Abu Dhabi where we got the wonderful Kimi radio comments to his engineers: “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” and ” Yes, yes, yes. I’m doing all the time. You don’t have to remind me every second.” Great stuff. Upon handing back the steering wheel, we run into another one of Emily’s friends. We chit chat for a while before our tour is over and we’re ushered off the track. What an amazing experience.
We head back to our suite and grab my pack, we’re going to take a tour of the track. We’re inside turns 2-3-4 and outside turns 16-17-18, just opposite the observation tower. It’s an incredible structure.
We cross the track on one of the two pedestrian bridges. They’ve put up tarps on either side of the bridge to prevent people from stopping bridge traffic and watching the cars. The tarp, however, isn’t very tall nor is it hard to pull down and view some of the action. I grab a few shots and this video of the cars out of turn 15 and screaming beneath us.
We get a good idea of where my seats are for tomorrow and begin our walk back to the Paddock Club. Just opposite the tower, a group of gentlemen are walking towards us. I immediately recognize one of the gentlemen as Tavo Hellmund himself. At that moment, one of the gentlemen speaks up “Emily Garrigan?” It’s Emily’s friend – and Tavo’s attorney – Casey Dobson. Quick introductions are made, but Tavo and the other gentlemen are a few paces away. I was a bit taken aback and I really wish I’d asked for an introduction just so I could have thanked Tavo for his hard work and tell him how pleased I am with what was his project.
We head back to the Paddock Club where we settle in and watch the rest of the practice sessions and take in the people watching and the free champagne. Our day is winding down and it’s time for us to head back to the buses. We get back and find our bus, catch up with Tessa and the other GPT group. While our bus this morning was only picking up from the Omni, our return bus is filled with guests from the Omni, Four Seasons, and the Hyatt. I have no idea where the Four Seasons is and a vague clue where the Hyatt is. Emily steps up to the plate and promptly hits it out of the park. She tells the driver where to go, how to get there and what do to.
We’re loaded up and on our way out. Going back to this morning, our bus was late and we only loaded up about 30 people. On our way back into Austin, Tessa texts me and asks how many I had on my bus this morning and how many I have on my bus now. I have no clue how many I had this morning. I was in a panic about the late bus I failed to take a head count. Without knowing how many we had this morning, there’s no way to know how many – exactly – we were taking home. Big foul up on my part. Add that in with a few other minor things I didn’t do this morning, and my first time as a GPT staffer isn’t exactly going according to plan. The traffic out is a breeze and we’re back in downtown Austin in about an hour. Thanks to Emily, we get everyone back to their hotels and in good shape. Good job sis!
We head back to Emily’s house and settle in. It’s been a long day and we have a long day tomorrow. Dad is flying in tonight and the three of us – me, Emily, and Dad – are supposed to have dinner tonight, but I’m beat and decide to stay in. Em picks up dad, they have a nice father/daughter dinner and get home. I make sure we’re all packed and good to go for tomorrow. We have to be out the door by 6:30 AM, so it’s not a late night and we all turn in.
Saturday morning – Qualifying.
After a good night’s rest, we’re up, dressed, and out the door. Just as we get to the car, Tessa calls to check in. We’re on route – this time to the Hyatt. We park, catch Tessa and Cherry out front, and set up shop in the lobby. Our bus arrives on-time and with a roster, I take a head count and we head out without issue. Just as we’re leaving the parking lot, I get a call from Tessa, another bus hasn’t show up at the Omni. We make our way there and pick up a few stragglers including GPT chief Barry. Not quite silky smooth, but we’re finally off.
We take a different route to the track than yesterday – this time we’re on the new 130 tollroad – but just like yesterday, we make it to the track in less than an hour. We unload at the front gate, point to where the buses will be this afternoon and we’re off. Yesterday, Emily and I didn’t get to see much of the track, and considering this is dad’s first time at COTA, we decide to climb the hill and check out Turn One. It’s a crisp Hill Country morning keeping the temperatures down, but the uphill climb is enough to get me sweating. But the view is more than worth it.
We continue our climb.
We crest the hill outside of Turn One and watch some of the action as the cars scream downhill though Turns 2, 3, and 4. It’s a great spectacle watching the cars flow past us.
We get to the first pedestrian bridge, crossing the track where we get a great view overlooking the Esses.
It’s about 10:30 and I get a text from Jim and Kris – my Le Mans friends from Atlanta – they want to catch up. We make arrangements to meet up near the reflecting pool on the backside of the Tower and the Amphitheater. Dad and I find a spot and a short time later, I feel the grasp of two strong hands on my shoulders. It’s Jim and Kris! The four of us give each other hugs and catch up. It’s close to noon and time to find something to eat.
Surrounding the pool are food trucks and various food stands ranging from BBQ to hot dogs to pizza to burgers and beers from around the world. We all get what we want and find a place on the lawn where, over good food and great conversation, we enjoy lunch. And like that, it’s time for F1 qualifying. We’ve made plans to get together for dinner tonight, so we say our goodbyes and head off to our seats. Jim and Kris are over looking Turns 3-4-5 while Dad and I have our seats a short walk away in the Turn 15 complex. It’s a quick walk to our seats where we finally get a chance to take in our surroundings.
The Turn 15 complex is a wonderful collection of turns similar to the stadium complex at Hockenheim in Germany. The cars exit Turn 11 at the far end of the track before rocketing off down the main straight where they’ll near 200 MPH. They’ll be hard on the breaks towards us into Turn 12 where we’ll get our first glimpse of the cars. Out of Turn 12 and through Turns 13, 14, 15 and into 16, we’ll get a great view of the cars in action.
It’s time and the cars are on the track. Immediately in front of us are a timing tower and a jumbotron showing the international feed.
The cars scream by us, creating this wonderful symphonic melody as the cars move up through the gearbox.
Q1 is out done and the usual backmarkers are eliminated. Q2 has come and gone, and again, nothing to write home about. Q3 was again without surprise. Sebastian Vettel sets pole with the fastest lap of the weekend – 1:35.6 – easily 2 seconds faster than they were lapping yesterday. Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber round out top 3. The surprise was Romain Grosjean out-qualifying his teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Romain would suffer a 5-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox, but still, pretty impressive considering the season he’s had so far.
We stick around and watch the Ferrari Challenge and Porsche Cup practice before heading back to the buses. We get everyone loaded up and with a firm headcount in hand, we head back to Austin. Dad and I are meeting Jim and Kris tonight for dinner – something that’s become sort of tradition with the four of us.
We’re back at Emily’s house in no time where we’re quickly showered, changed, and back out the door on our way to Jasper’s in The Dominion. The Dominion is a wonderful mixed-use multifamily/retail development filled with shops and restaurants. We find the place and grab our table. Jim and Kris are right behind us. Dinner was quite good in spite of the less than stellar service. Given the activities of the day, however, as dinner wore on, our conversation became less and less as the four of us are winding down at the table. It’s time for some much needed rest. We call it a night and head home. What started out as a quick introduction in France 18 months ago, has become a wonderful friendship that I truly cherish.
Sunday – Race Day.
After some much needed rest, Dad and I are again out the door and at the Hyatt. Our bus driver from yesterday, Richard, pulls up right on time. Everyone knows what to do and where to go. We’re loaded up on the bus without issue and on our way to the track. Today is a full day. Yesterday, Dad and I went up to Turn 1 and made our way around the track. Today, we make a direct line around Turn 20 and behind the Tower to our seats. Again, it’s a wonderfully crisp morning and we spend the morning just enjoying the track and it’s wonderful facilities.
We have our two support races right off the bat. The Pirelli GT3 Porsche Cup followed by the Ferrari Challenge.
With the support races done, it’s lunch time. We need to get some lunch and we have some time to kill. We get up and begin to explore the grounds around the Tower. I can’t tell you how impressive this structure is.
We stroll around the grounds for an hour or so, just checking out the scene. Vendors booths, manufacturers booths, team booths, there are souvenirs galore all around us. We waste some time before we head back to out seats. The drivers parade is about to start.
Riding around in classic American convertibles, the drivers make their way past us, waving.
Over the loud speaker, we hear Greg Kramer announce the flyover. At first, looking around, we don’t see anything. But at the last second, here comes the formation with a P-38 Lightning in the lead, with 2 P-51 Mustangs on either wing and a F-16 Fighting Falcon taking up the rear.
It’s not long now before the safety cars tour the circuit, tires screeching as they make sure all is right with the track. It’s about to get serious, but before it does, a bit of levity from the track marshals.
Almost immediately in front of us, there is some loud tapping. Even over the hum of the crowd, you can hear this rhythmic tapping. Looking up, one of the marshals is tapping/banging his flag on the Armco barrier. He screams out loud: “1! 2! 3!” and raises his hands. Another few taps followed by a louder “1! 2! 3!!!” and he raises his hands again. This time the crowd gets it.
The grand American sporting tradition…The Wave.
And before we know it, they’re off.
The race action is amazing. The track-side speakers do a wonderful job relaying the action over the scream of the engines. All is pretty much normal until lap 17, when Mark Webber’s RB8 breaks down right in front of us with what would later be diagnosed as an alternator failure.
Again, the race continues with the action is playing out right in front of us. With Vettel in the lead and Hamilton close behind things are playing out accordingly.
And then they start lap 42. Vettel has caught up with backmarker Narain Karthikeyan in the Esses and is unable to pass him. This allows Lewis Hamilton to close the gap. And with the long straight from Turn 11 to Turn 12, that includes the DRS (Drag Reduction System) zone that allows the trailing driver to open a flap in his rear wing giving him less drag, and thus higher top speed, Hamilton is able to make the pass on Vettel going into Turn 12.
It wasn’t easy, but he made it stick. There are 10 laps remaining and still lots of time for Vettel to mount a comeback. Personally, I’m quite happy. Nothing against Vettel, but I have a soft spot for Lewis Hamilton. Back in 2007, I took Dad to Montreal for his 60th birthday. There we saw, then rookie driver, Lewis Hamilton take his first victory at the Grand Prix du Canada at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The cars continue to scream past us. The great thing about our seats is the almost 6 corners right in front of us. And when you mix in the fact the leaders are lapping 2-3 seconds a lap faster than the slowest cars and the field is now quite spread out, we get cars racing in front of us for a good 30-40 seconds at a time. They just don’t flash past us and we have to wait another minute and a half for the next car, they’re always in front of us.
We’re nearing the checkered flag. 2 laps to go.
Three minutes later, it’s over. Lewis Hamilton wins the 2012 United States Grand Prix and the inaugural race at Circuit of The Americas!
With the race complete, we get the traditional congratulatory waving of the flags from the marshals.
Lewis takes his victory lap, and slowly cruises past us.
Dad and I stick around for a few minutes as the cars take their final lap. We say goodbye to our race neighbors and make our way back to the buses. It’s been another successful race. So successful, in fact, that in May 2013, the SportsBusiness Journal would name the United States Grand Prix the “Sports Event of the Year”. More than 250,000 fans visited the track over the three-day event. Quite impressive.
We make our way back to the buses. After rounding up everybody and getting them loaded on the bus, we bid farewell to Tessa and the rest of the GPT group before we head back to Austin. Just like yesterday, we drop off everyone at their hotels before heading back to Emily’s house. A quick shower, and we’re back on the road to Dallas. After a long day, the 3-hour drive home felt double that.
It was an incredible weekend at an amazing facility. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting some of the finest race tracks in the world. Nothing can compare to the event, the atmosphere, the cars, or the history of Le Mans. But Circuit of the Americas is the finest track I’ve ever visited. Turn 1, the Tower, the Turn 15 complex, it’s all simply brilliant. If you haven’t been, and you’re a race fan, you simply must go.
Sorry it took so long to get this report complete. I’ll get started on my V8 Supercars report shortly – that was another amazing race weekend where I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderfully friendly Australians. It’s only been 2 months since that race, but considering I have the ALMS/WEC race weekend in September, I can’t let my race reports get too backed up.
With two races down in Austin in the next 4 months – WEC and F1 – I’m planning those trips now. I need to start planning if I’m going back to Atlanta in October. With the merger of ALMS and Grand-Am, I fear Petit Le Mans could be a thing of the past and I need to go. My hope is that I finally get my media/photographer credentials for one of these races. If and when I do, you’ll know it.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the track.
Today is Tuesday, June 18th, 2013. The 90th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is 4 days from now. On Saturday, June 22nd, at 3:00, Jim France of NASCAR, and now United Sportscar Racing, will have the honor of waving the French tricolour to signify the start of the race. I’m not going to lie, I’m beginning to regret my decision not to go to this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. But, alas, here we are.
In preparation for this year’s race, I’ve gathered some thoughts and information that should help you, my loyal readers, know what to look for and what to expect.
Our two main heavy weights are Audi and Toyota. I based my decision on not going this year on the fact there aren’t any major rules changes from 2012 to 2013. But that doesn’t mean these two manufacturers haven’t made some substantial changes to their cars.
Audi rolled out their R-18 Longtail for better aerodynamics. You can see the difference here:
Successful at Silverstone and Spa, this updated machine is the one to beat.
Not to sit idly by, Toyota has been busy updating the 2013 TS030 for La Sarthe.
There’s nothing major in the LMP2, GTE-Pro, and GTE-Am classes. Porsche is fielding two new factory supported (not privateer) 991 cars. They’ll have their hands full against the battle-hardened Corvette C6.R, the Ferrari F458, and a fleet of Aston Martin Vantages – including the beautiful Art Car.
To help us know the cars we’re watching, Andy Blackmore finalized his 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans Spotters guides.
I’ve promised the Tenths boys I’ll be up early – 5AM – to share a drink with them while they meet. 3 hours later, I’ll be tuned into Speed and online to watch as much of the 24 Hours as I can. Can’t believe I’m missing this one, but that should make next year’s race that much more special. I’m in the final stages of finishing my US Grand Prix report and then I can start on my V8 Supercars report. Soon….