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Getting the Formula Just Right

Austin's Formula One track faces engineering hurdles

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 6, 2010

Tavo Hellmund
Tavo Hellmund
Photo by Richard Whittaker

It's been little more than two months since the surprise announcement that Austin might be home to the revamped United States Grand Prix. Now that the shock of the news has died down, project developer Full Throttle Productions LP faces a massive engineering and permitting challenge: turning 900 acres of Travis County into the United States' first-ever permanent dedicated Formula One racing facility in time for the 2012 season.

So what exactly are the applicants hoping to build? Obviously, the track itself, plus a pit lane, hospitality and clubhouse areas (commonly known as the "paddock"), a grandstand, and some permanent parking. Devel­op­ment attorney Richard Suttle, who's leading the application process, called the track "a 3½-mile driveway," but it's a little more complex than that. To create a surface safe for racing speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, the asphalt will effectively have to be laid in one pour. The project managers are still discussing whether they can use an existing off-site facility to mix the materials they need or need to acquire their own manufacturing permits.

For Formula One fans, the big issue is track design. Unlike NASCAR, in which cars race on a regular oval circuit, each F1 track is unique. Full Throttle Productions managing partner and former race car driver Tavo Hell­mund has said that he intends the layout to produce exciting races and establish the U.S. Grand Prix as one of the top events on the F1 calendar. However, while German architectural firm Tilke GmbH is the world's leading track builder, some drivers and fans claim its "Tilkedomes" are dull, with limited overtaking opportunities. Suttle said he expects the track design to be released within the next couple of weeks but that Hellmund's hands-on management approach is already affecting the design for the better. "A lot of [Tilke's] tracks are flat," he said, "but this will have some topography to it."

The land will also have to be prepared for the additional people attending race day, and Suttle said he learned much about that process from his visit to the Silverstone Cir­cuit in rural England. Most of the grandstands will be temporary – built for races and then dismantled out of season – but that requires preparing the surface for the weight. As for the large number of cars expected on race days, Suttle said, "You park on the grass." Instead of laying acres of concrete, he said, "you do turf management and build a French drain," where water settles out through trenches filled with gravel. The investors plan to add more facilities, potentially including hotels and a research campus. Suttle said, "I don't know that it will be years before we have the discussions, but I doubt we'll have approval before race time."

Since the site is outside of city limits but within Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction, the permitting process will involve City Council and county planners, as well as the Texas Department of Transportation. According to Joe Gieselman, Travis County's executive manager of Transportation and Natural Resources, while all the agencies will have different priorities, "instead of the applicant having to deal with all three parties, we can deal with it all at one time. We'll hear the same issues, and we can help them get through the process as quickly as we can."

Suttle said his office is still finishing up the initial paperwork, but he's optimistic that having all three agencies at the table, as well as having local engineers working with Tilke, will ease the process. "My hope is that we'll have enough documentation and approval that we'll be able to start grading in Decem­ber," he said.

Outside of the tract itself, the big issue will be the traffic. With potentially hundreds of thousands of guests attending race weekends, the site will make heavy use of the nearby Highway 130. However, TxDOT-maintained roads such as FM 812 and Elroy Road may well require upgrades. The county will be looking at access for emergency services vehicles, as well as the possibility of public transportation or shuttle buses. Gieselman said, "We'll want to know from their engineers what kind of traffic impact the event is going to have and what improvements are going to be necessary to accommodate [it]."

On-site, the big initial discussion will be about drainage and impervious cover. It's not the easiest area to build in, with a mix of clay and topsoil that shrinks and expands with shifts in the weather. The facility will require a wastewater system and will require working around existing gas lines. The county will expect emergency management plans, but Suttle said the gas lines will not affect construction. The low-pressure lines will either be relocated or encased, while the plans have been designed to completely avoid a high-pressure line and electrical cables across the tract. Adding extra land to the property to avoid them "was probably a little faster and cost a little more," said Suttle – but worth it to keep to their deadlines.

Gieselman said he does not expect the developers to submit a complete plan for the entire complex in one go, but rather to submit it in phases. As for getting the first step – landscaping and leveling the terrain – approved before the end of the year, he argued that all comes down to the developer's engineers. "The higher quality the applicant's submittal," he said, "the quicker they're going to get the review back and be done with it."

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