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