I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Formula 1 US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas last week and want to write up my thoughts after the event. This is not a review of the race itself but rather a review of the venue from a fans point of view and how it compares to other race events I have been to such as IndyCar (Infineon), NASCAR (Infineon) and the 2002 F1 USGP at Indianapolis.
Getting to and from the track
Having read nightmare predictions about parking at the race I decided to use the free park and ride shuttle from the Travis Expo center instead of shelling out $200 for a parking pass. I was quite concerned about how long it would take to get to the track but the folks at the shuttle did an excellent time and it took ~10 minutes to park and no more than 15 minutes after that to board the shuttle. The shuttle ride itself took only 20 minutes which means the total time from entering the paring lot to getting to the track was under 45 minutes which is pretty good for a first time event. Once the shuttles drop you off it is a longish walk (~0.75 mile) to the track gates themselves so you are going to want to wear some comfortable shoes.
The return trips had a long line to get on the shuttle though once again they were very well organized. Friday was a 10 minute wait with Saturday in the 20 minute range. As expected Sunday was the longest wait at ~45 minutes which again is not that bad when you have 110,000 people trying to leave at the exact same time.
Having spoken to some other folks who took the parking passes it appears that they had zero issues parking and you could have saved a bunch of time by using the pass. I’d recommend getting a pass for $200 and then splitting the cost among 7 people in a minivan
The facilities were pretty well laid out and the first thing you saw on entering the track were the large merchandise booths. They were pretty crowded during the day and actually ran out of many items so I’d recommend buying the stuff you want asap on Friday morning (which is when this photo was taken).
There were a lot of food options at the track with things like Outlaw Grill, Po’ Boys, pizza, Krispy Kreme, nachoes, etc… Apart from the pizza and a few vegan tamales the veggie options were a bit thin so you may want to plan for that. The worst problem though was that the lines at every single outlet were soooo long that after day 1 (~60,000 attendance) we just smuggled our own food in as it wasn’t worth it to stand in line for 30+ minutes just to get a burger. The track really needs to get more concessions ready for the next race.
There were a huge number of porta potties lined up right behind the stands and also in the shuttle area which meant that we did not have long rest room lines. The track was also actively trying to improve during the event. People complained about a lack of trash cans in the stands and they brought them in to the stand stairwells for day 2 and 3. All in all the track did a great job serving a huge crowd in their very first year and I am confident that they will only get better next year.
I was sitting in Sec 9, Row 33 of the T12 stand which put me ~10 feet past the apex of T12. These were the most expensive seats ($500+) in the race and the price was justified by the view. Apart from the excellent view of T12 (above), you could also see turns 13, 14 and 15 up close, turns 5, 6, 7 on the other side of the course and you also had a distant view of turn one though it was too far away to be able to tell which cars were which. One issue with sitting high up was that its too hard to read the text on the big screens (sec 9 is equidistant between 2 screens which exacerbated the problem) which makes it hard to follow the race in details. If I was doing it again I would sit towards the bottom of the T12 stand as you are closer to the cars and the loudspeakers at the bottom will let you follow the race better. Since most of the passing happens at T12 anyway you dont really miss too much by losing the view of the far side of the track. The following video was taken during the installation laps from Sec 9, Row 1 at T12.
Turn 3 was a stand which received rave reviews from the assembled journalists. The painted runoff areas lead to some spectacular photographs and the drivers love the high speed sweepers which are reminiscent of Silverstone. However as a fan I’d rather watch some passing or passing attempts and with only two moves being pulled off at T2 all race I’d suggest sitting in a different stand.
The general admission areas of the track has some spots with excellent views as long as you come early and camp out. The prime spots IMHO were in front of the T15 grand stand (allows you to see down the straight), T19, exit of T20 (great acceleration + view of the podium, pic below) and the entrance of T1 (packed on all 3 days). If you are willing to come in early and camp out I’d suggest doing that as it will save you a lot of money and be a more memorable experience. You can also try going into the tower which gives you a spectacular view of the track but you will likely need binoculars or a long lens to be able to identify cars and follow the action.
The track had autograph sessions for all the drivers but the drivers were there for just 15 minutes which is truly pathetic when you have 110,000 paying fans at the event. FOM should really force all drivers to have at least a 30 minutes session and extend it to an hour for the more popular teams and drivers (Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Kimi, Schumacher, etc…). Compare this to NASCAR and Indycar where you can get a garage pass and chat with the drivers, F1 is extraordinarily fan unfriendly. As a friend of mine said later – welcome to F1 where the fans come last.
Once other thing that F1 really needs to learn from NASCAR is in easy identification of the drivers. While the cars themselves are very easy to identify, it is almost impossible to tell the team mates apart. Some drivers use very different helmets (Michael and Nico, Alonso and Massa) which make them easy to identify but to many of the team mates use helmets that are too similar to differentiate at 100 mph from 20 meters away. And to top it off people like Hamilton and Vettel actually changed their helmet on each day of the race which made them even harder to identify. The only team with a clearly readable number on the car was McLaren. Even the HRTs which have a large number of the car have put the significant digit on the sidepod such that it is difficult to read(below). FOM should force team mates to have clearly differentiable helmets and also make drivers carry the helmet (or a replica) on the parade lap so that fans can tell who is who.
This is a mobile controller that you can rent for $69 for a weekend and gives you access to multiple video and audio feeds as well as live data statistics. I decided not to get one as I expected to use earplugs the entire weekend which would have made the audio pointless. People around me did have them and the verdict was a little split. Most everyone felt that the video was pretty useless as the screen is quite dim and can barely be seen in direct sunshine. People did use them to get live stats since the intermittent cell service made all the free timing apps very flaky at the track. Those that used the earphones said that they were able to hear the audio and really liked the ability to plug into a drivers radio feed as well. When you spend this much on the race its probably worth spending the extra $70.
Now I come to the part of the experience that really pissed me off. The rampant profiteering from the hotels and airlines lead to $750 round trip airfares and places like Motel 6 charging $300/night. I understand supply and demand makes rates go up but raping your customers also guarantees zero repeat business. One person I met said that the Austin Crowne Plaza was charging $750 per night with a 4 night minimum when their usual rates are ~$120/night. With ridiculous prices like this the price of a race weekend for a couple from the Bay Area would be well over $6000 ($1100 tickets, $1500 airfare, $3300 hotel) at which point I would rather go for a luxury cruise or drive the Nurburgring instead. This is no fault of the race organizers and is out of their control but is the thing that is making me want to avoid the race in future. Hopefully if the New Jersey race does happen the profiteering wont be as bad since 100,000 people would just be a drop in NYC bucket.
One of the best things about attending an F1 race is the number of F1 related off-track activities that take place. The Formula One Team Association (FOTA) held their first american FOTA Fan Forum where 500 fans got to directly interact with team representatives ask the kind of questions you never see on TV. I was unable to attend but will definitely try to attend the next time.
Fans of F1 history also got to attend the world premier of “1: The Unvarnished Story” which charts how safety has improved over the years. The red carpet held at the Paramount theater attracted a host of F1 luminaries like Sir Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Damon Hill, Bernie Ecclestone, Herbie Blash, Eddie Jordan, Christian Horner and Martin Brundle. I highly recommend watching the movie when it release to the public. The target rich environment was an awesome place to be if you are an autograph seeker
For the more casual fans Austin create the F1 Fan Fest which shut down a 9 square block area of downtown Austin with music, food, stores and all manner of motorsports related activities. Mobil 1 had a tent where fans to do a pit stop on an actual McLaren show car while Red Bull and Lotus show cars were all over the place. If you are staying in a downtown hotel it is well worth a visit to the fan fest.
All-in-all it was an enjoyable experience and I would recommend doing it at least once especially if you have never been to an F1 race before. It is however quite pricey and as a result I’m not sure if I will be going back next year.