Austin and its booming crowds an F1 favorite for drivers

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Fernando Alonso remembers the quiet times in Austin.

Back when the two-time Formula One champion could jog the city streets without being noticed, move through a hotel lobby with ease and drive to the Circuit of the Americas for the United States Grand Prix without planning for traffic well ahead of time.

No more. If anything demonstrates the explosive growth of F1 in the U.S., it’s the projections of more than 400,000 fans expected to pack the city and the circuit this weekend for the 10th anniversary of the Texas race that put the series’ glamorous footprint back on American soil.

“In the last four years or three years, there’s a lot of fans. It has changed everything. It changed the traffic, it changed the hotel,” Alonso said this week. “I ran this morning in the city and everyone recognized us now.”

The U.S. Grand Prix has been the foothold for F1 in the U.S. since the first surprise announcement that a $300 million track was being cut through the rocky soil and scrub land a dozen miles from the state Capitol. The series’ growth in America has led to an additional race in Miami that started this season, and another coming in Las Vegas next year.

The track’s original 10-year contract saw only nine races because the pandemic canceled the race in 2020. A five-year extension through 2026 was signed last year.

“I spent most of my adult life putting the pieces together for F1 to come to my hometown,” said Tavo Hellmund, the founder of the Texas race and its initial promoter. “My vision was for F1 to be the success it was the inaugural year in 2012 and last year in 2021. My wife used to say to me, ‘Gosh, when Americans get to see F1 the way you do, they’ll be hooked.’”

The Texas race has had its share of ups and downs.

Lewis Hamilton won the first race in 2012, overtaking eventual season champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull. Vettel returned in 2013 to spin donuts after a victory in a dominant year that saw him tie Michael Schumacher’s single-season wins record of 13.

That was also the last of Vettel’s four championship seasons and he’s set to retire this year. Red Bull’s current champion, Max Verstappen, can tie the single-season victory record if he wins Sunday. Even with the season title in hand, Verstappen plans to push for the victory and the record.

“I still want to win,” Verstappen said.

Hamilton clinched two of his seven championships here.

The first came with a rainy victory in 2015 amid a bitter rivalry with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg. Hamilton’s post-race cap toss to a dejected Rosberg in the cool down room — and Rosberg throwing it back past Hamilton’s face — is memorable. Hamilton clinched his sixth championship here in 2019.

Attendance dipped for several years. But it began to rebound when Circuit of the Americas President Bobby Epstein started tying major entertainment acts into the race weekend. Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Billy Joel are among the pop stars who have performed Saturday night concerts on the midfield in recent years. Ed Sheeran and Green Day are this year’s headliners.

“We learned from the fans what they wanted. We started out thinking this was just about motorsports,” Epstein said. “What we should have been doing is saying, what do the fans want? How do we make this about entertainment? That’s why we see such huge crowds here.

“Of course, we were worried about it a lot between years four and seven. And then the pandemic hits just when we were getting on our feet and getting successful and profitable,” Epstein said.

Economists have estimated last year’s race pumped more than $400 million into the area economy and the series’ impact will approach $1 billion over the two races in Texas and Florida.

The Texas race also gets an annual boost in public money to help pay F1’s rights fees. Epstein has applied for $40 million from a state fund to help pay for this year’s race.

Fans love the place and so do the drivers.

“This is one of the better circuits we have,” said Hamilton, who along with Vettel, Alonso, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo have raced in Austin every year since it opened.

“We get this crowd that just keeps growing year on year,” Hamilton said. “They just do it differently here. Us Europeans, we’re good at sports …. but the sport is growing as a whole in how we put on a show.”

Ricciardo, an Australian, embraces the Texas atmosphere like no one else. Every year, he mimics a Texas drawl and finds a way to connect with the locals.

On Thursday, he rode into the paddock on a horse while wearing a cowboy hat and jacket made to look like an American flag ahead of what may be his final race in Austin. Ricciardo won’t return with McLaren next season and currently doesn’t have a seat for 2023.

“The U.S. Grand Prix is one of my absolute favorite races of the year,” Ricciardo said. “The extra energy I get from the atmosphere is immeasurable and I love everything about it.”

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