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.