A View From The Berms – The U. S. Grand Prix @ Austin

Damon Hill signs for fans.  [Paul Gohde Photo]

Damon Hill signs for fans. [Paul Gohde Photo]

Fans fill the track during the post-race walk.  [Paul Gohde Photo]

Fans fill the track during the post-race walk. [Paul Gohde Photo]

Intrepid writer. Paul Gohde, starts race from Felipe Massa's spot.  [Paul Gohde Photo]

Intrepid writer. Paul Gohde, starts race from Felipe Massa’s spot. [Paul Gohde Photo]

The crazy guys in red, Ferrari Tifosi all, were relaxing on the track after the race, happy about the run to fifth place by their driver, Fernando Alonzo.

Soon I, in my vintage British Racing Green Jaguar F1 team shirt, joined them for a group photo and a rambling discussion about the old German Nurburgring circuit and its dangers. That solved, we launched into happy chatter about our experiences at Sunday’s U. S. Grand Prix.

And happy chatter was what you heard all weekend long as more than 250,000 fans of Formula One racing from several continents gathered at the two-year-old Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX.

From the time visitors arrived at the track, located near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in south-east Austin, they were treated to “Good morning, y’all” and “Glad you’re here” from the hundreds and perhaps thousands of welcoming track workers and volunteers who were striving to make your experience Texas-friendly. Seldom was heard a discouraging word and the skies were sunny all day at this racing home – home on the range.

Shuttles, actually a large fleet of Austin city busses, circulated frequently around the perimeter of the huge facility, transporting fans to lofty grandstands or grassy viewing mounds, each designed to produce views of multiple portions of the track.

With a General Admission ticket and an on-site parking pass in hand, I set out to experience the “Event” that in many ways almost overshadows the race itself.

When fans arrived at the well-planned Grand Plaza entrance, they realized that much planning has been put into the design of the spectator zone as well as the racing facilities.

A wide variety of food was readily available: Greek, Italian, Tex-Mex, Western, Asian and even a German Beer Garden were options at nearly every grandstand.

A modern 15,000-seat concert amphitheater that is used year-round (an energetic “Pitbull” concert drew a full house not too long after the checkered flag flew) and a 251-foot viewing tower dominate the landscape while a walking trail leads ambitious hikers to any part of the facility. And hike I did, watching both practice and qualifying from various berms, hoping to find prime viewing areas for Sunday’s race.

The hill (christened “Phil Hill”) that runs from the pit exit up to Turn 1 may be one of the most exciting and crowded spots to watch a race in North America, and it was my choice for viewing the standing start. With a steep climb up the hill from their starting grid spots, drivers jockeyed for the proper line before turning sharply left for a run back downhill to turn two and the series of esses that follow. The course, unlike many modern tracks designed by the Hermann Tilke Engineering group, feels more like a natural terrain circuit than Tilke’s mostly flat, video-game type designs seen at other venues. For a new track, this one has some character.

And if you stopped to listen between turns two and three, cars literally sang as their engines played musical notes while drivers changed three gears in a short span.

Video screens and scoring pylons kept fans well informed around the facility, and the sound system was easily one of the best in road-course racing.

Many private Clubs and Suites were also available to cater to high-end business and social groups, but the flag-waving, face-painted fanatics on the hills and in the stands provided the real atmosphere that sets F1 racing in Austin apart from Indy Car and even NASCAR events.

Formula One has had an up and down history in the United States, with successful runs at Watkins Glen (NY) and Long Beach (CA) overshadowed by short-lived appearances at Sebring, Las Vegas, Dallas, Phoenix and Detroit. Even Indianapolis couldn’t sustain interest in F1 after a strong start.

Austin provides easy access for thousands of Hispanic fans from Mexico and the Southwest. International spectators can easily land in Dallas-Ft. Worth or San Antonio; both of which provide nearby access to the track.

ALMS and Rolex Grand-AM events, Australian V8 Supercar races and vintage race meetings have not met with the enthusiasm that F1 has generated at COTA. Rumors of an Indy Car race, perhaps as soon as 2015, have been heard, but is even big-thinking Texas ready to support three Indy Car races as well as F1, all within the DFW-Austin-Houston triangle? Many fear open-wheel oversaturation could jeopardize several of these events. And if that occurs, only the strong will survive; but which ones?

For now, F1 looks to be the strongest with a race-day crowd of 113,000+, nearly even with the 2012 inaugural event. Race fans seemed to have fun here, and expensive beer ($10 for a 10-ounce cup in the Beer Garden/$8-$10 in other areas), along with no carry-ins to the spectator area, made for a pleasant experience without the crowd being over-served.

Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber (among 22 F1 drivers from 10 nations) claim to love not only the track, but also the vibe that is downtown Austin, which hosted a multi-block, race-weekend party. And, with the University of Texas playing host to more than 90,000 Longhorn fans on Saturday, that area was really rocking.

So as race day wound down, with yet another historic Vettel win, the hordes of fans were invited to take a post-race track walk which turned into a joyous, full-scale invasion by thousands.

Fans were sitting in lawn chairs on the pit straight, former F1 champion Damon Hill was signing autographs through the pit fence, almost everyone posed in a drivers’ starting grid spot pretending to be driving a race car while having their picture taken – I posed in Felipe Massa’s. Others climbed “Phil Hill” and found out just how steep the ascent really was, while many gathered rubber “gumballs” in Turn 20, thrown from the soft compound Pirelli tires. These were just some of the activities that fans enjoyed at their post-race track party.

As you read this, Austin is already planning for 2014. So find your most comfortable hiking shoes, bring the sunscreen and make hotel and travel plans early; you’ll like the event – and probably the race, too.

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