AUSTIN SPREADS THE WORD
Favoured by F1 personnel, Austin’s feelgood vibe seems to be rolling out across the US
Having sampled ten different venues, it feels as if Formula 1 has finally found a home in the United States with the race in Austin. The venue has established itself as a favourite, as much for the fun to be had off-track as the great racing on it. But now it’s time to spread the message further…
From the moment you touch down in Austin, you are aware this is a city unlike any other. Weird is an understatement. The giant Les Paul guitars that adorn the luggage carousel in the airport, accompanied by a blues soundtrack in the arrivals hall, remind you that Austin is the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world. But it’s not just blues, soul, rock or jazz. There’s good ol’ fashioned country, too. This is Texas, where boot-cut jeans, oversized belt buckles and Stetson hats swing in time to the classic Cottoneyed Joe line dance.
Texas was once a part of Mexico. But it broke free to establish itself as an independent republic between 1836 and 1845. That strong sense of identity, which again came to the fore during the American Civil War, has never left Texas. It is a proud state with the unofficial motto ‘Don’t mess with Texas’, while its state capital’s slogan is: ‘Keep Austin weird’.
Austin is the largest American city without a professional sports team, which perhaps helps explain why Formula 1 has had such a massive impact here – and, equally, why F1 has so fully embraced Texan tradition. The sport is still not on the radar of the wider nation, but this week is all about changing that perception. Starting here in downtown Austin.
Truluck’s is an upmarket ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ eatery, close to the banks of the Colorado river. As the piano tinkles and the vocalist croons, F1R ventures downstairs to discover a most unlikely sight. Wearing a ten-gallon hat and attempting to get to grips with line dancing is none other than Williams’ engineering brains, chief technical officer Paddy Lowe. The dancing is a small sideshow in a Q&A evening hosted by sponsor Acronis, a tech company that works in cyber protection. At no other event on the 21-race calendar would it be considered a good idea to break proceedings with a little two-step dance routine, but in Austin, it seems, anything goes.
F1’s embrace of the unusual doesn’t end there. Four blocks away is a bar called The Rustic Tap. To one side is a stage normally reserved for rhythm and blues bands, but tonight it features a mock-up monocoque of a Red Bull F1 car. Max Verstappen is here taking on the bar’s regulars and out-of-town F1 tourists in a tyre-changing challenge. This is Mobil 1’s way of taking F1 to the people, and Max’s relaxed manner belies the fact he’ll be charging around the Circuit of The Americas in Friday’s first practice session the next morning. And for those who get their hands on the free drink tokens – shaped like plectrums – the next morning could be a struggle…
Over on the other side of town, more fun and games are taking place – this time behind closed doors. Trinity Hall is perhaps best described as ‘an event space’: an industrial venue with a modern twist. The venue’s own literature describes the “sexy brass light features”. Right in the middle of the room is a fully made-up bed – duvet and all. It is a prop awaiting the arrival of Valtteri Bottas. His role here is to extol the virtues of Bose’s latest innovation: tiny, noise-masking headphones that are designed to help you sleep. Perfect, no doubt, for helping him doze off for real once he’s back at the Westin Hotel opposite, by blocking out the pumping live music emanating from all the bars.
Valtteri’s week finishes with a trip over to Atlanta to watch the Falcons play the New York Giants in the NFL. He’s accompanied by Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and team-mate Lewis Hamilton, at the appropriately named Mercedes-benz Stadium.
The week of the US Grand Prix has been a busy one for Wolff and Hamilton, too. Prior to Austin, they visited the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ’S headquarters, where an image of Lewis was projected from the facade of the building across Times Square. While in NYC, Lewis also appeared on the chat show circuit, taking in Good Morning America and the satirical news programme The Daily Show.
As F1R chatted to various locals in downtown Austin, each reiterated the fact that wider America has no clue what Formula 1 is. People are aware of NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500 but assume F1 must be another part of the Indycar series. Having Austin as a permanent home is the first step in trying to engage with the huge US market – but there is a long way to go. PR parties in Austin, while popular and fun, are just the tip of the iceberg.
“Formula 1 is one of the biggest sports in the world, with millions of people watching it, but in America just as many people have no clue what it is,” says The Daily Show’s anchor Trevor Noah to Lewis Hamilton. “When I try to explain Formula 1 to people, they say ‘what is that?’”
To the Americans, Lewis is a sportsman in the mould of an NFL star, transcending his sport to succeed in the fields of fashion and music. And for the TV executives, that makes him the only box-office draw of the 20 drivers on the grid. He’s doing his bit to sell ‘the show’, but if Formula 1 is to achieve the same level of interest, it must reach beyond the drivers.
On the same weekend as the US GP in Austin, Formula 1 hosted a fan festival in Miami, with Renault and Red Bull demonstrating cars along the streets of the city. The highlight was a health and safety headache of a stunt, in which David Coulthard performed a series of donuts on the top floor of a 700ft, 62-storey skyscraper.
Formula 1’s commercial chief Sean Bratches was in attendance in Miami and spoke again of his continuing desire to hold a second US race in the Florida city. A bid for a grand prix to be held here in 2019 was scuppered, but there is still hope for 2020.
The economic impact of the grand prix in Austin should not be underestimated. Figures compiled by business analysts, including IMPLAN and Angeloueconomics, cite that since opening in 2010, the Circuit of The Americas has had a cumulative economic impact of $5billion on the Austin metropolitan area. Within that, $423 million has come from direct visitor spending and there is also a $306 million annual payroll for Austin-area workers, attributable to COTA’S operations. Perhaps, then, what Austin is doing isn’t so weird: it’s simple financial sense. For this race and F1’s long-term future in the US, long may the party continue.
Time for a change? Max Verstappen takes on customers at the Rustic Tap, in both a quiz and a tyre change challenge
Paddy Lowe goes from serious to considerably less so as he shakes a leg at Truluck’s…
Valtteri demonstrates the latest tech from sponsor Bose – noise-masking ‘sleepbuds’, perfect for F1 racers with an early start the next day…
Logistics, health and safety are all overcome in the name of a few donuts by DC on top of a Miami skyscraper
Sharing the message: Lewis and Toto take to the US talkshow circuit