Sunday, September 18, 2011

TV Coverage

On New Years Day in 1996 gearheads and motorsport fans got a late Christmas present in the form of an automotive based TV network called Speedvision.  It became the fastest growing cable network of all-time and offered the greatest variety of motorsport events on television.  In 2002 it was relaunched as Speed Channel after a huge deal including FOX.  It was at this point that the motorsport fans who had watched the channel voraciously began complaining - loudly.

I've said before that the largest hurdles for race organizers at The Circuit of the Americas to overcome are awareness of the sport and the lack of interest in road racing here in America.  The Speed Channel is the perfect example of this problem.  Speedvision aired an immense variety of racing series from all over the world including; ALMS, World Rally Championship, V8 Supercars, World Touring Cars, British Touring Cars, SCCA races, DTM and a variety of motorcycle racing just to name a few.  Other programs like Lap of the Gods covered the history of Formula 1 at different tracks through the eyes of the great drivers.  It was exactly what was needed to fuel interest in racing series other than NASCAR.  That was until it became the Speed Channel.

Now the Speed Channel is mostly NASCAR - a sport that's broadcast heavily on other channels.  Their other programs are a variety of boring reality shows that have little to do with racing.  The American Le Mans Series and World Rally Championship are no longer broadcast on Speed.  The majority of Formula 1 races continue to be broadcast but a few races are now broadcast on FOX, even though practice and qualifying for those same races are on Speed.  This leads to confusion and frustration for fans.  In the end the conversion to Speed has done nothing but road racing culture here in America, creating a longer road for the success of Formula 1 in America.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Potential Pitfalls Of The Date Change

Well, it's sayonora to the June race date as the November 18th date has finally been confirmed.  It's great that the date was moved out of the summer, considering the record temperatures we've been having here in Austin this year.  November has far nicer average temperatures than June here in Austin and fans will be much happier.  While I've been hoping to see a date change since the June date was first announced, I do see some potential problems with a later date rather than an earlier one.  

A later date will mean one of two things:  either the race will be more exciting in terms of the championship or it won't have any effect at all.  If the 2012 championship is decided as early as it appears the 2011 championship will be, then the American Grand Prix will draw fewer fans from outside the country.  If this happens then F1 fans hoping to see the race that determines the championship will be less likely to make last minute plans to see come to Austin and see the race.  It will also draw fewer fans from inside the country who might have been swayed to see a race that could determine the championship.  Formula 1 will also have a major competitor in the form of America's favorite sport - football.

One of the big disadvantages to a later date, rather than an earlier one, is that this race will be nearing the end of NFL season and around the second to last game of the college football season.  One of the big hopes for the race organizers is that they could draw people from Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.  With this date change it's less likely that potential new fans will drive to Austin when their teams are playing important games.  Let's hope the Texans and Cowboys will both be playing away games that might allow fans to come to Austin for the day. I wonder if Tavo Hellmund could talk to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about this...

Of course there are some major potential advantages as well.  The later date will allow the construction of the track facilities to get further along and make a big impact on fans.  If the championship hasn't be decided we will be guaranteed an exciting race with great TV ratings.  If we can get new fans and viewers then the better weather, barring rain of course, will allow fans to remember the race and not just the oppressive heat.  If the stars align perfectly then we're in for a great one, but I'd still rather have seen a March or April race date established after the first year.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Passion For The Sport

To those of you who know me the following two statements will not come as a surprise.  The first is that I love motorsports.  The second is that I'm not particularly comfortable meeting new people.

Twice this week the first statement was reinforced while the second was contradicted.  On Thursday I went to Austin Infiniti to see the Red Bull Racing showcar on display.  While waiting for the car to show up I ended up talking for 2 hours with other Formula 1 fans about anything and everything related to the sport.  While I had to leave before the car actually showed up I enjoyed the experience.  Then on Saturday I actually got to see the car on display at the Bob Bullock State History Museum.  It's actually an RB1 in drag (there's a keel underneath the chassis) but it's still pretty cool to see the details that make an F1 car.

 While I was there I met a fellow enthusiast who had traveled up from San Antonio for the event.  While we had completely opposing opinions of Michael Schumacher, we still got along.  It amazes me how easy it can be to make friends when you have a common interest as obscure as F1 is here in America.  We're like a cult that share a secret handshake, except the handshake is instead words like Spa-Francorchamps, McLaren, blown diffuser and Senna.

After talking for a while we decided to join the Austin F1 Club at Wild Bubba's Wild Game Grill in Elroy, right next to the Formula 1 track.  Unfortunately, the F1 Club had decided to convene at a different location so we didn't get the chance to meet up with other enthusiasts but it was great to see Wild Bubba's.  To say that they've welcomed F1 with open arms would be an understatement.

What made it wild was to see the contrast of decor.  It's a small burger place in a small Texas town with trophy game heads on the wall next to the most F1 memorabilia I've seen outside of Maranello.  Taped races were being shown on a TV in the back and there was a burger named especially for the sport.  The food was great and the owner was enthusiastic in his support for the race.  Austin is a city full of contradictions and this place is the perfect example.  I believe it's part of what makes this city such a great place to live in and visit and what makes the track such a perfect fit for Austin.  I hope that all the race fans who show up see this side of our city.   Let's also hope that all of Austin's residents and the Formula 1 fans who show up next June (or November) are as cool, enthusiastic, friendly and excited as those I've met the past few days.  If they are the race can't fail.

There is a similar, but different, post as this on my other blog Focus On What You Can.  Check it out.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Red Bull Demonstration Canceled (Sort Of)

DC won't be destroying tires and ear drums this Saturday morning.  Details seem to be a little confused but apparently they weren't able to secure the necessary permits for the event.  However, the showcar will be on static display at the Bob Bullock State History Museum from 12-2 pm.  This is a significant let down considering the city needs to make as many Formula 1 fans as possible and the demonstration was a great way of achieving these ends.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Red Bull Racing in Austin!

This Saturday morning, August 20, Austin will be treated to a display by Red Bull Racing.  Former Formula 1 driver David "Ironjaw" Coulthard will be running the Red Bull showcar on Congress Ave. between 15th and MLK.  Those you who know the area will realize that's not exactly a great distance and might not be to excited about the display.  Well you're wrong.  It's not really about seeing what an F1 car can do, it's about experiencing the thrill of seeing an F1 car close up, hearing the awesome sound and seeing the control these drivers have over their vehicles.  Here's a clip.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The debate is over!

Well it’s been a while since the 5-2 vote by the Austin City Council to endorse the Formula 1 race here in Austin and I’m just as excited as I was that day.  I have to admit I was pretty worried.  Kathie Tovo had recently been voted in and was outspoken in her criticism of the track while Laura Morrison had seemed against it as well.  I wasn’t sure about the other votes but fear can often make things far worse than they really are.  As it turns out that frustration and worry might have been worth it after all.

The agreement reached between the City of Austin and the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) had a great deal to do with sustainability.  One of the clauses in that agreement was that COTA would must host alternative energy and energy efficient car races.  While there has been talk about developing new racing series for purely electric cars and motorcycles there is in fact a series that already fulfils this requirement - The American Le Mans Series (ALMS).  Cars in this series use a variety of fuels including: diesel, Cellulosic E85, E10, IsoButanol and  in some races a gas-electric hybrid.  Expect to see more hybrids in forthcoming seasons.  The ALMS is a series that proves the importance of racing in development of new technologies that end up in road-going cars.  I’d be shocked if they didn’t announce an ALMS race by the end of the year.

The day after the big vote was an announcement that Australian V8 Supercars would be making there way to Austin in 2013.  Part of the reason it’s exciting is that it’s a continuation of a rivalry many here in America will appreciate - Ford vs. GM.  The Holden badge that Australian GM vehicles wear may be unfamiliar to many of us but I believe many GM fans won’t be put off at all.  The opportunity here is in garnering interest from NASCAR fans, many who enjoy the brand rivalry.  Getting them to watch a race on a road course might help convert them into fans of other road-racing series and convert them to F1 fans as well.  This was a brilliant stroke by the Circuit of the Americas and could be a major step for racing here in America.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

COTA paying Austin's share of funds for F1 race

Well, I believe the last real hurdle in the path of Formula 1 coming to Austin has finally been removed.  As you may remember the main objection detractors of the track had was the use of tax money to help pave the way for the Formula 1 race.  Austin would be required to pay $4 million for the first year and then every subsequent year would be based on performance.  Just a few days ago the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) offered to pay Austin’s share for the entire 10 years.  The event organizers have also offered to pay $13 million to install water/waste water lines in the City’s “desired development zone”.  I believe this means that the track will be covering the cost of those lines to the surrounding neighborhoods as well, not just the track.  It is also likely that the city will vote to allow COTA to pay $375,000 of an estimated $1.5 million to improve a stretch of FM 812, which will be the main entrance to the track.  In other words, Austin is paying almost nothing but will be receiving a great deal.

My only real worry here is that the amount of money COTA is shelling out to pacify the City of Austin will affect ticket prices.  Formula 1 has had a very sordid history here in America and this has prevented the fan base from growing as it has in other countries.  I am positive that the fan base WILL grow but event organizers will want it to grow quickly and the best way to do that is to allow new and less serious fans to watch the race cheaply.  Even the more serious fans are going to make sure they get the biggest bang for their buck and with a race scheduled in the heat of a Texas summer COTA will have to walk a very thin line with ticket prices.  A general admission seating area with no grandstands would be a great idea and they should be offering dirt cheap tickets to local cities in the days before the race to get it to brimming and help generate interest.  

They didn’t call it The Circuit of the Americas without reason.  Event organizers are banking on the large market for F1 in Mexico to travel up to the race.  There’s a huge fan base for F1 in Mexico and I don’t doubt we’ll see many of our Southern neighbors there on raceday but that’s not enough.  In order for F1 to succeed in America there needs to be an American fan base.  While there is already a small but intense fan base here it’s simply not big enough.  New F1 fans need to be made and drawn out to every Grand Prix.  Without new fans Formula 1 and COTA have only a short, but bright, future.  Let's hope that everyone is in it for the long-haul.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The 24 Hours of Le Mans

They don’t call the 24 Hours of Le Mans the Great Race for nothing.   A few hours away from the end of one of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen and I’m still decompressing.  After 24 hours of intense racing the top two cars were separated by only 13 seconds. There were many highs but it was a race defined by it’s lows.  Audi fielded a three car effort, and two of those cars held driver pairings that have won the race.  Yet those two cars experienced two of the most horrific crashes I’ve ever seen in motorsport.  The Mike Rockenfeller crash was a gut-wrenching scene and the first time in all the years that I’ve been watching racing where I was sure that the driver hadn’t survived the experience.  There were virtually no recognizable parts of the race car on the track and the monocoque was nowhere in sight.  Amazingly Rockenfeller not only survived the shunt but did so with only a few cuts and bruises.  It shows just how far safety has come in the sport and is a sobering reminder of the dangers of racing at such a high level.

The lone remaining Audi, nicknamed Red Sonja for it’s paint scheme as well as the sister of it’s race engineer, went on to win against the might of Peugeot (still fielding 3 cars).  The drivers, while not inexperienced in any way, were almost an afterthought until the entire weight of Audi’s effort was put on their slim shoulders.  The fact that they managed to win illustrates the dominance of Audi’s 13 years in the sport.  It’s a dominance that Audi has been quick to capitalize upon.  Audi proved it’s direct injection technology with the R8, which they quickly named a new road-going sports car after.  When they introduced the diesel-engined R10 they were quick to point out that this technology transferred to road cars.  A documentary called Truth in 24 documented their 2008 race effort where they were the underdogs against Peugeot and proved effective advertising of their racing effort and philosophy.  You can’t walk in to an Audi showroom without seeing a picture of one of their racing cars and the majority of their commercials make a nod to it in one form or another.

The other big story of the race is that Corvettes won in both GT classes as Chevrolet celebrates it’s 100th anniversary.  It’s also Corvette Racing’s 10th anniversary at Le Mans and it’s 7th class victory in that time.  What’s truly amazing about this is that nobody in America know about it at all.  The age old motto “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” doesn’t seem to apply here because GM & Chevrolet have made almost no effort at all to capitalize on this incredible success.  Why not?  Their racing efforts have directly improved their road-going cars and have done so in a big way.  Do they not know how to advertise and capitalize on their racing effort or do they believe nobody in America knows or cares about their success?  Probably both, and it’s a symptom of a problem.  For the Circuit of the America’s to succeed the racing series that participate there need to succeed.  For these racing series to succeed there needs to be more awareness of road racing here in America.

So let’s see every possible race series that competes on a road-course at the new track in Austin, whether it’s F1, MotoGP, IRL, World GT and Touring Cars, American Le Mans, Grand-Am or yes, even NASCAR.  Of course, what I’d really like to see is a 24 Hour American Le Mans Series race that’s part of the newly formed World Endurance Championship…

Friday, June 10, 2011

Summer in Texas

Well, the good news is that the date for the first US Grand Prix since 2007 has been set.  The bad news is that the date is June 17th.  For those of you who don’t know what summer is like here in central Texas, let me enlighten you.  The record high for that date was set in 2008 at 101 degrees Fahrenheit.  The problem is that we’ve seen even higher temperatures around that time frame…as much as 106F.  This isn’t the best weather to be racing in and it’s definitely not the best weather in which to watch an F1 race.

Someone asked me if the engineers would have problems with the heat, and short answer is yes.  Of course it’s F1 and the engineers will find a way to deal with it, but the heat will create a number of different problems that will need to be overcome.  The track will get even hotter than the ambient temperature and this will cause problems for the tires.  Cooling the engine will be more difficult and teams are already having issues cooling the KERS regenerative braking systems, so they don’t need another hurdle to overcome.  The drivers will also have to deal with ridiculous in-car heat levels.  Yes, the teams will be able to overcome these issues, but we don’t want to throw too many hurdles in their way because we want them to ENJOY coming here, not to dread it.

Then there are the spectators. Do you want to sit outside in triple-digit heat with minimal shade?  I didn’t think so.   This is the real problem.  In order for F1 to be successful here in America it needs to establish a fan base.  People new to the sport need to have the best possible memories of the race.  If all they can remember from the race is being beaten down by the extreme heat and paying $5 for a bottle of water, they aren’t going to want to come back.  The organizers are going to have to make the race earlier in the season or far later.  That may pose some difficulties in scheduling alongside the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, but it will make far more sense in the long term.

The cockpit of a Formula 1 car is around 122 degrees when ambient temperature is around 85-90.  Imagine what it would be like in 103 degree heat...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The City Council Hearing

This morning at 9am, the Austin city council held a hearing on the future of the F1 track.  The hearing was open to the public, who were allowed to voice their opinions.  Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about this meeting until 1am last night and, thanks to insomnia, wasn’t able to go to sleep until 4am.  So a lack of sleep and preparation combined with a deep-seated fear of public speaking prevented me from saying anything of any value. I made an ass of myself, but at least I went out in support of the track.  

The detractors all argued that tax money shouldn’t be spent on a luxury like the track while we are in an economic slump.  The situation with the Texas Major Events Fund has kind of muddied the waters and confused even some of the city council members, so I’ll do my best to sum it up quickly.  The organizers are expected to put up $25 million a year to host the F1 race, which is supposed to come from the Texas Major Events Fund.  Austin will be expected to put up $4 million for the first year.  What these people didn’t realize is that the organizers are willing to put up the $4 million needed for the first year, so that Austin is not responsible for it.  Yes $25 million is a lot when we are facing major budget shortfalls, but most of the detractors I talked with seemed to believe that Austin wouldn’t get many people in for the race and there wouldn't be any other economic growth.


I’ve talked about the people who will flock to the city before, so I’m not going to repeat myself on that subject today.  One person I talked with said that our hotels are already at capacity and that it would be dumb to have a race where we couldn't lodge everyone.  Are you kidding me?  That’s what economic growth is all about!  More hotels, more jobs.  Development in that area of Austin, which is pretty bare now, will boom.  New houses, new families will come to Austin and move into a developing area.  The  now empty toll road east of Austin will be used regularly and will justify its expense.  With a world class racing track in Austin racing teams, automotive research companies and other high tech industry will be pulled to the city.  Local schools will benefit from engineering programs already being discussed with these companies.  If there are regular races at the Circuit of the America Austin will reap the benefits

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Triple Crown

Last Sunday was a big day for motor racing. The Indianapolis 500 celebrated it's 100th anniversary with an exciting if somewhat gut wrenching finish. The Monaco Grand Prix, Formula 1's most high profile and glamorous race was every bit as exciting as the Indy 500 with a great deal of on-the-edge-of-your-seat action. These two races are part of motor racing's triple crown, the other being the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which will be held next weekend and will celebrate it's 79th running.

So how are the races different and how are they similar? The three races represent three different racing philosophies. Indy is about seeing sustained speed for a long period of time on an oval where spectators can see the entire race. Formula 1 and the Monaco GP test the limits of engineering on a true road course. Here drivers go as fast as possible through different types of turns but only do so for an hour and half. The 24 Hours of Le Mans has cars of different classes, some based on road cars while others are purpose built race cars, racing all at once for 24 hours to test the limits of endurance for man and machine alike. Yet there is one great difference between the two European races and the American race. Monaco and Le Mans are held on road courses. These are courses where the driver must turn left and right, through slow corners and fast corners alike.

This may seem like an obvious difference not worth mentioning but it absolutely must be understood. When average Americans think of racing they think of oval racing and are completely unaware that road racing exists. They don't even know what Formula 1 or Le Mans are, and that is the major obstacle that the Circuit of the Americas must overcome. This track needs to be the bastion for road racing in America. Every single racing series that races on road courses in America needs to have an established race at this track and yes, that includes NASCAR. People need to become aware of these racing series and learn to enjoy them. NASCAR fans need to become F1 fans as well as fans of other forms of racing. Without the success of road racing culture here in America the track, and F1, will never succeed in the long term.

So let's call on the Circuit of the Americas to host every motor racing event they can. Hosting a MotoGP race on top of the F1 race is a great start but it's just that – a start. Let's see a 24 hour American Le Mans Series race, Grand-Am, IRL, NASCAR, World GT and Touring Cars and even more motorcycle racing hosted at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tx.