It is now a little over eight years since Tavo Hellmund announced plans to build a Formula 1-standard circuit just outside Austin, a move that resulted in the return the United States Grand Prix to the calendar in 2012 after an absence of five years.
F1 was recovering from the 2005 Indianapolis debacle, and the Circuit of the Americas was brave enough to offer the sport another chance. Hellmund was gone before the inaugural COTA race, but the race was such a success it actually helped cement the return of another grand prix in Mexico.
For the sport, Mexico’s return was good. For COTA… it was mixed.
“Ticket sales would be up significantly if Mexico wasn’t there, but it’s there for good reason because there are a lot of fans from Mexico that were coming to our race and there’s a lot that still do,” COTA chairman Bobby Epstein tells RACER. “I think ticket sales for this year are certainly good. After the second year [of the Mexican GP} we started seeing recovery from the Mexican fans.”
The Mexico expansion brought the number of North American races to three, and Liberty Media wants to add to that further with another U.S. race. Miami is now delayed until 2020, but Epstein is certain it will happen, and believes COTA’s presence is a contributing factor.
“It’s because of what we’ve done for the sport in the past seven or eight years that another race in the U.S… I wouldn’t want to say it wouldn’t be possible without us, but the hurdle is probably a little easier to get over, simply because we’ve kept the sport relevant in the U.S., and present here, and kept it more or less the same.
“We’ve given it a presence in the U.S. and sustained it, without us it would have been a decade without any Formula 1 in the U.S. and while others keep looking at opportunities, I think the opportunity today is much greater today because of us.
“You do have a fan base that’s certainly smaller, it is the case that we have less customers than in Europe. You would always like to have more customers, but I think without us the customer base would be so tiny that you wouldn’t even make [it work] – a return in the U.S. would have been that much harder.”
COTA faced its own significant challenges when bringing F1 back to the States, and has continued to face them due to the costs of hosting a race. While Liberty Media plans further expansion in the States, Epstein says there has been little time spent on what can be learned from the Austin experience so far.
“We haven’t had a lot of conversation about it, they’ve made their intentions really clear that they want to expand in the U.S. and we have a shared goal in seeing them succeed in that. They told us they want us to be part of that future, so that’s what we need to hear, and we have been told that.
“We would be glad to help if we were asked, but I think people underestimate just what it takes to pull a Formula 1 race off, especially the first year. And so, I can empathize with them [Miami] before they’ve even gone through it, and I think it may not be until after the first race is done that some of the people will realize that actually it was so difficult.
“I guess COTA’s contribution may have been undervalued, just how challenging it was to bring F1 back to the U.S… I think it will be more appreciated after there is another event here.”
Although Epstein feels the current flag-bearer for a grand prix in the United States has not always received the credit it deserves, the COTA chairman is not letting that detract from plans to cement the venue’s position as the home of F1 in America.
Of the 10 locations to host a round of the F1 World Championship in the U.S., half have been temporary street circuits, and Miami would be a sixth in that category.
“I hope we can strengthen our position as the home of F1 here,” Epstein admits. “We’re putting in a permanent Formula 1 garage experience as part of an overall venue tour. I think it will be really great.
“You’ve got the tower that you can go up on and get a view of an F1 circuit unlike any other one in the world, and then you can go into a garage and learn all the stuff about the technology behind Formula 1 racing and ultimately get to finish your tour standing on the same podium that the champions receive their trophies on.
“I think the all-round experience, it could be something that’s a destination for F1 fans and certainly make it home in the U.S. because, as of today, I don’t have anyone else planning to build another Formula 1 track in the U.S. that’s a permanent circuit, and I don’t advise anybody to do it either.
“So I have to think from a year-round standpoint, there’s an opportunity there and we certainly plan to stay the home of Formula 1 in the U.S..”
Despite the fighting talk, Epstein insists he is not threatened by the planned arrival of Miami on the calendar, even if Austin could be sandwiched between the two closest races to it geographically. In fact, he’s quite the opposite, seeing another race as a chance to increase the overall fan base and bring even more fans to COTA in future. And it’s a long-term future he has in mind.
“I’m completely resigned to [Miami having a slot in October], » he said. “We don’t have much input. From a cost standpoint, for F1 it makes a lot of sense to not bring the cars in, freight, and the drivers. Plus from a human standpoint, simply having to make those time zones, just your body, it wears on them and they have a long season and it is completely understandable that they want to put them all back to back.
“We want the Miami project to succeed in such a meaningful way that it increases the fan base in the U.S. and it proves to be a successful financial model that works for F1 management, because if that happens and we’re able to achieve the success that we all hope it can, it can only be good for us.
“If we’re selling out, we don’t care… As long as the interest remains strong and Liberty is happy with what we’re doing, I’m sure we’ll go on for quite a while.”