‘We created the model’: COTA boss Bobby Epstein on why the circuit is still F1’s American heartland

Now host of one of three races in the US, the Circuit of The Americas has been at the heart of considerable change since entering the world of Formula One in 2012. Ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix, Bobby Epstein, executive chairman of the circuit, discusses the new events in Miami and Las Vegas and what impact they will have on the sport’s American home in Austin.

In 2012, 100,000 fans descended on the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) for Formula One’s American return. Hosting the first race in the country for five years, COTA became the third venue to host the United States Grand Prix since 1991. Yet this was just the tenth US race in that 21-year timeframe.

Fans turned up in their droves for an event that up until this point had struggled to find a permanent home. This was a purpose-built track for Formula One and the first real step towards providing the series with a base in a previously untapped and underserved market.

There was no such thing as Drive to Survive when COTA first came on the scene and the circuit struggled in its early years, which might come as a surprise when considering the success that Formula One now appears to be enjoying in the US.

“I think we struggled early on more with finances than we did with attendances,” Bobby Epstein, COTA’s executive chairman, tells the BlackBook. “I think we’ve seen improvements in both and I think we’ve seen steps of growth pretty much every year since 2016 that were pretty significant steps forward.”

The mention of 2016 is noteworthy as it was unclear at that stage whether the US Grand Prix had a future on the Formula One calendar. That isn’t to say the race had not been successful. It was and still is a hugely popular race but, as Epstein outlined, it was struggling financially.

In 2016, Motorsport.com reported that the Texas Major Events Trust Fund had reduced its annual payment to COTA from US$25 million to US$19.5 million. Those cuts created numerous issues, so a calculated risk was required. It came in an unlikely form: Taylor Swift.

“The Taylor Swift concert [of 2016] brought a new demographic, a new fanbase [to the circuit],” Epstein recalls. “We were rewarded for taking that risk and saw immediate results the next year.”

The 2016 US Grand Prix delivered a weekend attendance of 269,889, which was a record at the time and marked the first occasion COTA had exceeded the turnout for its inaugural race weekend.

Now, as it prepares to stage the US Grand Prix for a tenth time this weekend, COTA is the longest-serving host of the race since Watkins Glen, which was the home of Formula One in America from 1961 to 1980. Having tradition and history, as Epstein puts it, means that the race can hopefully have a long future.

However, those traits alone do not seem to be enough anymore. By way of example, there have been constant rumours that Spa-Francorchamps, which first staged the Belgian Grand Prix in 1925, could drop off the calendar after 2023, highlighting the need for Formula One’s host circuits to continue to innovate if they want to remain on the schedule.

With a contract signed until 2026, the Texas circuit’s immediate future is secure, but it has never had to compete for attention on its own shores before. The recent addition of Miami and Las Vegas to the Formula One calendar may well present new challenges.

Miami managed to secure a ten-year deal for its place on the calendar, representing an unprecedented length of time for a new race. In contrast, Las Vegas only signed a three-year contract, but its race has been the subject of considerable investment, with Formula One spending US$240 million of its own money on a 39-acre site to finalise the circuit design and create space for the pit and paddock facilities. It therefore seems likely that the initial three-year deal will be extended.

Liberty Media, the owner of Formula One, is also taking the unusual step of promoting the Las Vegas event itself through a subsidiary, Liberty Dice, in association with American global entertainment firm Live Nation. The race will also form part of a season-ending double header with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2023, ensuring all eyes will be on the event, especially if the battle for the world championship is as close as it was in 2021 between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

Formula One has not only invested US$240 million into a 39-acre site, but will also be promoting the Las Vegas Grand Prix itself

Brandon Snow, commercial managing director of Formula One, recently went as far as to say that “Las Vegas will be the home of F1 in the US”, which could suggest that the series is looking away from Austin. But is that a potential worry for COTA?

Rather than compete for attention, Epstein believes that all three US races should theoretically complement each other and help to continue to grow Formula One’s popularity in the country.

“We’ll never have the celebrity or the glitz and glamour of [Miami and Las Vegas], but we’ll certainly do our best to keep the focus on the fans and the sport,” he says.

The hope is that COTA’s fan-first focus will be enough to keep the circuit on the calendar for the long term, and all signs point to that being the case. Miami and Las Vegas are expensive outings for the average fan, and it does not help that the former received poor reviews for its hospitality offering at its inaugural event. While not uncommon for a new Grand Prix, Miami also recorded an operating loss in its first year.

In any case, Epstein thinks a much better comparison point for the US Grand Prix would be the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl, rather than other Formula One races.

“I think we’re a worthy comparison, it’s something to strive for,” he explains. “When we came in and gave F1 a home, we really redefined what the Grand Prix weekend was about, and I think we really created the model that we’re seeing other circuits lean into today.”

In keeping with that theory, COTA is constantly looking to make improvements every year, an effort which is also supported by its partners, and this year has shown that global brands remain keen to align themselves with the ‘original’ American race, even with Miami and Las Vegas now on the scene.

The fan experience this weekend will be aided by sponsors such as Cash App and Ascension Seton. The former will provide attendees who use its card or app with an automatic 15 per cent refund on their food and beverage purchases, while the latter is supplying shade tents and sensory rooms for spectators who need a break from the action. Ecommerce platform Fevo, meanwhile, will sponsor the general admission fan lounge, with technology company Lenovo putting its name to the private hospitality area at turn one. 

In addition, fans travelling from Waterloo Park in downtown Austin will be ferried to COTA on Google Chrome-branded shuttles, with other new sponsors this year including Balcones Distilling, Tecovas, Tequila 512, Ticketmaster and Yamaha.

This season will also be the first the showcase the venue’s newly constructed infield grandstand, giving fans an unobstructed view of the ‘S-Curves’. Plus, there are numerous sustainability initiatives being implemented, with a focus on recycling and reducing single-use plastics.

“We’ve won several awards for our sustainability efforts here,” Epstein points out. “We’ve increased our bus shuttle system to eliminate a lot of vehicular traffic and reduce our carbon footprint. We have a massive recycling programme on site. We have refillable water stations. We purchased a significant amount of free renewable energy for our power needs.”

It’s a strong position to take and somewhat of an antidote to the excess associated with events like Miami and Las Vegas. You only need to look at reports that Formula One packages could be going for as much as US$100,000 in Las Vegas to see the difference between the events.

But Epstein is very supportive of Formula One’s efforts to expand, highlighting that the number of visitors Las Vegas already receives every year means that more people should get a taste of the sport as a whole. That can only be a benefit to the series’ rising tide of popularity across the US.

“We certainly think [the current growth] is going to be sustained,” Epstein says. “And it can grow more. The more we expose people to it, and the more they have good experiences, the better the future is.”


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