The Pilgrimage to Austin
“[Covering this race] is a very ominous assignment, with overtones of extreme personal danger” – Hunter S. Thompson
The words immortalized by Hunter Thompson to frame the theme of his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” were so fitting to covering the first Formula One race in the U.S. since 2007 that it became the motto of the trip. Several indications that this was in fact not an ordinary trip were apparent as early as the airport, where the majority of guests flying on the Southwest flight from Atlanta to Austin were dressed in motorsports apparel, representing their favorite teams in colors galore. Statistically speaking, some 80% of all visitors were from outside of Texas, with 35% coming in via international flights. The entire crowd was estimated at 120,000 visitors on race day, Sunday. The only conversations on the plane of course were centered around the anticipation of the track, the drivers, and the sound of trumpets played by divine beings – the exhaust notes. Airplane travel was the only possible mode of travel for many, being an average of three times more expensive during this particular weekend than any other when traveling to Austin, Texas. So after a year of anticipation, fans from around the globe finally set off to travel to our very own “promised land” – Circuit of the Americas.
Located just southeast of Austin’s international airport, the track truly is off the beaten path. While it was possible to park in the unpaved lots close by for the exorbitant price of $200 for the entire weekend (a grand ten times more than we paid in the city), only a select few chose this much more convenient perk. The select few included several high-end cars, overshadowed by the mighty Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, which was a consistent crowd magnet, even during the race. The track itself is rumored to be the fastest in F1, giving an advantage to cars whose strengths lie in high-speed corners given that their cars produce a lot of downforce. It is a rail-free roller coaster of 3.4 miles consisting of 20 turns in a counter-clockwise direction. The entire project took a whopping 1,300,000 hours to complete. It is imperative to point out at this moment, however, that this number is slightly skewed towards finishing the track than finishing the venue. When we arrived, several improvement suggestions we could come up with immediately included finishing the half sod/half dirt lots which made up most “grassy” areas of the entrance and grandstand areas, as well as avoiding the bridges during peak seasons. This is a survival tip to remember for anyone attending the race in the future – do not traverse the bridge during peak season (before/after a race) if you do not wish to die should a panic break out. A final nuisance was the credit card system, which failed for all vendors on Friday, and most on both Saturday and Sunday, forcing all visitors to withdraw cash from ATMs charging $4 for access to one’s own money. Inevitably, this outage created massive lines at the few scattered ATM machines in the venue, but was no match in comparison to the astronomical lines experienced in the food lines of vendors serving up a variety of “stadium food” such as hot dogs, nachos and burgers, as well as a select few alternatives including all-vegan, and Texas BBQ favorites.
Most fans arrived on Thursday and immediately experienced what an amazing city Austin really is – live music playing from every rooftop of every bar, very friendly and helpful people welcoming you for race weekend, gladly assisting you with directions and recommendations alike. The drinks were plentiful and food was served in copious variety and quantity by the famous food trucks of Austin as well as hole-in-the-wall eateries. There was something for every taste imaginable. While some made the honorable commitment to rising early to head to the track, we soldiered through the nightlife of Austin, hoping one of the drivers would make an appearance. We lucked out when Jenson Button made an outing at the Mobile One tent, giving a brief speech on motor oil and answering questions from the fans. After he went off stage and we departed the tent, sad that we were not able to get closer. As we stood there for a little while, I felt someone brush against my left elbow. My friends turned pale and stuttered “J-J-J-JENSON!!!” – he had just walked by us without any security en route to his vehicle. Of course, we followed him within safe distance and right before entering his car to head back to the hotel, he waved and gave us the thumbs up. We all felt incredibly accomplished and returned to Fan Fest to continue the party.
Shuttle service to the track began at 7am and lines of epic proportions formed as early as 8am. Although I made the mistake of showing up at 10:30 on Friday “morning,” I was surprised at how well the organizers had handled the immense onslaught of fans which filled every parking garage and side street parking spots in downtown Austin. We were on the bus by 11:45 and at the track by 12:30. It was this bus ride that truly put in perspective how distances are perceived differently – when the average Texan tells you it’s “right outside the city,” they do not mention with a lisp the 45-minute commute through the middle of nowhere and a brief stint on the interstate. Every minute on this route, the anticipation grew measurably more intense – any sightings of the track were immediately pointed out, however, only the tower was visible from far away until we reached the drop-off zone. When departing the bus, expect a mix of loose gravel and dirt graced with porter potties on what used to be a cornfield. The surface does not change for the half-mile walk up to the main entrance of the circuit, just golf carts zip by with the fortunate few guests who can afford such luxury. However, as soon as the tickets are scanned, the bags checked, and you are welcomed into the venue, everything changes and the entire ordeal of getting there is drowned out with excitement. Vendors line every side of the grand entrance, each team displaying their overpriced but beautifully crafted merchandise. Others sell beer and other refreshments, sometimes in excess of $8.50. When I finally made contact with a friend who was brave enough to wake up for the 7am shuttle, it was time for Practice 1. We made our way to a grassy hill overlooking turn 18, with visibility across the track to the far distant but incredibly steep turn 1. Finally, over the loudspeakers came the long awaited announcement that Practice 1 was officially underway, and across the entire track sounded the crescendo of revving Formula One engines screaming to peaks of unbelievable power as the cars left pit lane.
For as long as I shall live, I will never forget the sound, the fury, the mind-boggling assault on my senses from that first encounter with a Formula One car in real life flying past me. The screaming sound of a 2.4-liter 8-cylinder engine with a biblical 18,000 RPM redline is reminiscent of the Queen of the Nights soliloquy in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. While I was advised by many to wear earplugs or similar protective equipment, I protested with the stereotypical “the sound of horsepower has never bothered me” attitude. But nothing could prepare my senses for the aural assault produced by these amazing machines. Sebastian Vettel was the first driver to pass and the crowd roared in a mix of cheer and excitement, which was dwarfed only by the thunderous applause when retiring world championship record holder Michael Schumacher raced by in his Petronas car. In this very special moment for fans, when their favorite drivers pass them by within a few short feet, and the world around us disappears, any conceivable emotion gives way to happiness, and a calm, zen-like feeling engulfs the entire body. The pain in the ears is secondary at best. While our body may try to tell you that this kind of exposure is dangerous to our hearing, our adrenal glands are pumping endorphins in full force, countering the distress signal with “MORE! MORE! MORE!” It is truly a FANTASTIC experience!
Another protip – please don’t leave when the F1 events are over each day! This venue has so much to offer, so don’t even think about heading back to the shuttle – stick around and enjoy the GT2 cars and the Ferrari Challenge, go stand in line at one of the food trucks (potentially for food if you get lucky), check out the grandstand area for a great view of pit lane, or enjoy a live concert in “the bowl,” the custom made amphitheater right behind the main entrance. Either way, stick around! It’s worth it! When we finally left each day at dusk, the shuttle lines still took some time, however, I want to once again give kudos to the organizers for making it a considerably rapid exit for the well over 120,000 guests over the entire weekend. On the bus ride, some people caught a quick nap, others shared stories or photos and some just admired the desolate landscape of southeast Austin. Once we arrived back at the drop-off zone off 15th Street and Trinity, “Fan Zone,” the epicenter of party activities for F1 fans, was just a few blocks away. Fan Zone is a very interesting set of blocks in downtown Austin, where vendors exhibit merchandise of all sorts, hole-in-the-wall shops provide delicious foods, and bars have people buzzing in and out, usually over packed with fans, most still in F1 fan gear straight from the track. The whole place in fact had a highly communal attitude about it, everyone was there for the single purpose of the race, which combined with the setting, provided for a great time. On Friday night, we made an appearance at Will Buxton’s Big Time Bash, a charity event benefiting Meals on Wheels, where the suggested donation was around $5. We donated generously and enjoyed the electrifying atmosphere provided by Fado’s Irish Pub, the venue for our festivities. Austin is an amazing place to go out, enjoy a concert and especially amazing to attend the Formula One race. It was an absolute privilege to be part of the inaugural race weekend, and I am officially reborn a F1 Fanatic. It was one hell of a great time that I cannot wait to do it again!
See you at the circuit.
Official Austin F1 Picture/Video Thread