Texas showdown: COTA gears up for its latest Formula One US Grand Prix

Having now shaken off the ‘new host’ tag, the Circuit of the Americas' (COTA) founder and chairman Bobby Epstein says the fun part is just beginning.

This weekend the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) will host its fourth Formula One US Grand Prix. Having now shaken off the ‘new host’ tag, Bobby Epstein, COTA’s founder and chairman, says the fun part is just beginning.

Following its completion in 2012, the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas was added to the Formula One calendar and this weekend the venue will host its fourth Formula One US Grand Prix. Fashioned to ‘challenge the world’s most exacting competitors while providing a thrilling spectacle for audiences’, the 3.41 mile purpose-built F1 track is the conception of renowned designer Hermann Tilke, the German having collaborated with US firm HKS to create the circuit’s acclaimed layout.

Tilke has been involved in the designing or remodelling of close to half the circuits in use during the current Formula One season. While he has come in for criticism for some of his tracks – with some believing they are uninspiring and don’t allow for enough overtaking – COTA is widely regarded as one of his finer achievements. 

Everything has to be bigger and better in the US, so the saying goes, and this notion certainly applies to COTA. The track offers a combination of hairpins and elevation changes of up to 40 metres at its 20 turns, with large run-off areas distinctive of the modern Tilke-designed circuits, fashioned as they are to satisfy the FIA’s safety standards. With seating for 120,000 spectators, COTA boasts an expansive Grand Plaza, a 251-foot observation tower and the Austin360 Amphitheatre outdoor music venue, which will be rocking to the sounds of international music icon Elton John, no less, for the post-race show this year.

Speaking to SportsPro ahead of this weekend’s race, Bobby Epstein, the founder and chairman of COTA, says the ambition for the US Grand Prix has evolved to become more than just another stop on the F1 calendar. If the first year, he says, was “all about getting there and putting on the first event and the logistics of just moving people in and out of a venue, now it’s about creating and improving on the fan experience. And that’s a lot more fun.”

SP: What is your vision for the US Grand Prix and the circuit?

BE: Our vision is to make the Formula One US Grand Prix a ‘don’t miss’ event on people’s calendars. Something people look forward to each year, and then when they return home they’re talking about how great it was and how much they’re looking forward to going back. And not only do we want them to have a great experience; we want them to get great value, and so to that extent we continue to add new content and challenge ourselves to make it more fun. Our goal is to really build on our successes and continue to increase the fan experience; both on-side at the track as well as in the city – you know, Austin is learning how to embrace it. I like to think that our city is big enough to host a Formula One event and small enough to really embrace it and in coming together and letting it really consume the city while it’s here. I think that that’s really been a good match that’s come together.

The way we designed the circuit, it really lends itself to a sort of village discovery walk experience. That’s really what we tried to accomplish. People who just go to their seats and don’t wander around the grounds are finding out that they’ve missed a lot of the entertainment, a lot of the engaging exhibits and theme bars; and frankly a lot of the fun. What we can’t control is the on-track activity and competition and so what’s left to us is to focus on…we want people to spend the day, to spend the weekend and how do you programme out eight-hour days to really keep people engaged and always entertained.

“Americans are going to respond to a winning F1 driver. I don’t think they’ll care about a guy who finishes at the back of the pack.”

What specific ways are you promoting this year’s race?

It’s twofold: the die-hard F1 fan already knows about it. You don’t have to reach them. They put it on their calendar, they know the event is a must-attend, must-see event. So it’s how you reach the others. One of those ways this year is to hold an Elton John concert as part of the race day. It’s going to be a full two-hour concert that begins after the race concludes. And that’s something new, that’s a really major addition. So getting word out about that reaches people who might not otherwise be here; wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be aware of the event even. Or it puts them over the edge to say: ‘I want to come and check out Formula One, I’ll go to this year’s race.’ So we certainly have commercials and billboards and print ads, but when you have somebody who’s as big a superstar as Elton John – who’s got his own fan base – it reaches an entire different audience through other media channels.

Last year we had a theme: ‘How the West was Formula One’. And so wherever you wandered around the 3.41 miles of the track – the idea is you wander from village to village – and that’s what a lot of people may not realise when we created this, is that it’s meant to be a wandering experience. And as you wandered around last year there was a saloon and longhorns and sheep herding and there was pop-up entertainment. There are a lot of music venues and spaces all around the track. But other things we’ve added for this year, there’s going to be a pop art component with some of the world’s finest pieces of art on display, as well as autograph sessions. So it’s a matter of getting the word out that there’s so much to do. 

To what extent when you first conceived the track did you base it on other Grands Prix circuits around the world? Or did you go at it with a unique approach?

I think we had a combination of designing a track that the drivers and fans would like. We incorporated elevations; not just elevations for the drivers, but elevating the fans up above the circuit and trying to get them near the action – which we learned worked successfully in other places. I don’t know whether that’s unique, I just hope that we did it as well or better than anyone else. But where we added is we made greater, wider public spaces – borrowing a little bit from the success of the Australian Grand Prix, and creating areas that you could provide entertainment when there’s not activity going on on the track. Because there is substantial time when there’s not racing. So we really looked at that from an American entertainment point of view which is: what else can you do at a festival? So I think we added a festival model that was unique to our event. 

How will you assess the success of this event and each event?

Well you just base success on return rate each year: do people come back.

So it’s as simple as the number of fans at the track for a race weekend?

It is. As much as anything it’s the number of repeat visitors and our return visit rate is very high. And that’s telling us, I think, that that’s part of measuring success.

Two-time world champion Lewis Hamilton won last year's US Grand Prix and could secure his third title this weekend.

Do you think the time of the race in the calendar is best for your event – would you prefer it to be moved to a different time of year?

I think F1 has worked with us really well. Weather is one of the biggest components and October in Texas is pretty beautiful so we’re happy with it.

Do you think the lack of US drivers on the grid affects the popularity of the event?

Well we don’t have one so we don’t really have any way to measure the answer. But I will say that Americans are going to respond to a winning F1 driver. I don’t think they’ll care about a guy who finishes at the back of the pack. I just don’t. An American driver is one thing; an American that’s winning is a totally different thing. Americans, just as anyone, we all have national pride and we want to embrace a winner. But I don’t think a driver necessarily has to be an American to win the fans’ adoration. I think he or anyone they see just has to be a human and somebody that connects with people and that’s what really works.

What’s COTA’s capacity on a race weekend?

The capacity of the venue is yet to be tested. You have 150-200,000 people over the race weekend. But we expect in excess of 80,000 people on race days. 

Do you think the popularity and wide reach of Nascar and Indycar in the US is a positive – for fans to switch across to Formula One? Or are those motorsports something you feel you’re competing against?

I think it presents an opportunity for us. It tells us that there’s a very large base of race fans and while the sports parts are tremendously different – if you compare Nascar and Formula One – I think there’s the opportunity to certainly grow our base.

Do you profile the fans coming to the race track on the day to measure that correlation?

I don’t know that we do. I don’t know that we do a great job of profiling the fans. It’s much harder to be an F1 fan in the US. Not because of the lack of driver, but just because of the lack of broadcasts that are live in our time zones. Because in today’s era if you wake up at ten o’clock and an event has already occurred you’re going to know the result, and people tend to want to watch something… when it comes to sport you want to watch it when you don’t know how it ends. It’s the same with anything at the movies – you don’t want to go to the movies and know the end. You don’t want to turn a sporting event if you already know how it ends. So the opportunity for Formula One is to get more events in our time zones and more broadcasting in our time zones and that’s the only way you’ll capture the Nascar or the Indycar fans. In my opinion it’s because that fan wants to be regularly engaged by the racing. So to that extent right now the audiences are distinctly different.

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