F1: All Systems Go for November

Officials return from England with a series of race plans

Art Acevedo
Art Acevedo
Photo by Jana Birchum

When Arlington hosted Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the city had years to prepare for the massive influx of visitors. Austin has had a little over two years since first hearing it might host a Formula One race to brace itself for an estimated 300,000 visitors. Even with that accelerated timeline – the event is scheduled for Nov. 16-18 – city and county staff say they are trying to "overprepare."

On July 13, staff from the various F1 joint planning teams gave a public update on their preparations for the weekend. The meeting was hosted at the city/county Com­bined Transportation, Emergency, and Com­mun­ications Center, whose Emergency Operations Center will be used to coordinate the public safety response during the event. The briefing gave a clearer indication of what the city and surrounding area should expect from the race. Across the three-day race weekend, organizers estimate 120,000 ticket holders will travel to and from the Circuit of the Americas every day. While the track itself is outside city limits, spinoff events are already being booked Downtown: That means just about every local agency will be affected, thus the emphasis on joint planning. City Deputy Director of Economic Growth and Redevel­op­ment Services Rodney Gonzales said, "While this race is unlike anything Central Texas has experienced before, we certainly will be drawing from our collective experiences."

Gonzales, along with Police Chief Art Ace­­vedo, Assistant City Manager Sue Ed­wards, City Manager Marc Ott, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, recently traveled to the UK to attend the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. During the trip, they met with their British counterparts from local government, law enforcement, and public safety. Acevedo's Twitter feed became a real-time news source – somewhat deflating the idea that this was "a junket," as local critics had complained, when he tweeted that between meetings he had caught only 15 minutes of the race itself. The Silverstone race was marred by bad weather, with 50% of the on-site parking closed due to rain on Saturday. For Acevedo, that was the big takeaway from the trip – that Austin has to build in sufficient contingency plans to address unforeseen events. Acevedo said, "Collect­ively, we'd rather be overprepared than be caught flat-footed."

The bulk of Friday's media presentation centered on transportation. City staff say they're confident that the proposal to use shuttles to and from the site is still the most effective way to get everyone in and out of the event. However, their observations of Silverstone suggested they should make heavy use of contraflow and dedicated lanes, to keep the circulating shuttles away from cars and limo traffic. And Travis County Planning Manager Michael Hemby said local authorities are preparing for "not only the participants in the race, the bystanders who will come to see the race, but the rest of the community who maybe wanted to go about their normal daily life."

The presentation came with a subtext: not just whether Austin can handle singular major events, but whether it is fully prepared to be the 13th largest city in America, hosting many big events. Acevedo and Travis County Sheriff's Office Major Phyllis Clair assured reporters that their staffs will be able to cover race weekend with no change in services. Both APD and the Sheriff's Office will restructure staff hours and leave in order to provide the 200 officers (paid for by the COTA) required on and around the track. Similarly, EMS will be predeployed around the county – not only to provide assistance to racegoers, but also to ensure speedy service to other residents. However, amid all the backslapping, Acevedo still found time for an indirect complaint about APD understaffing. "It's just like any other day of the year," he said. "[For] lower priority calls, you won't get an officer there that quickly because that's just the reality of the city we operate in."

The bigger challenge now may be distributing all the relevant information. As a first step, the city has launched a dedicated F1 website, www.austintexas.gov/grandprix, to provide information about events both on and off the circuit. Gonzales said the page will become a model for similar big events, including other events at COTA, South by Southwest, and ACL Fest. And at Silverstone, during race weekends and other events, the track broadcasts real-time traffic and public safety updates on an FM radio station.

There remains a lot of work to be done at the circuit itself. In its latest construction update, COTA management announced that the first layer of the pavement on the track has been laid and that work on the pit lane and the team garages is nearing completion. The next big project is finishing the grandstand. And the clock is ticking – 60 days before the Nov. 16 events, the completed track must pass a full inspection by the Feder­ation Internationale de l'Auto­mobile, the world motor sports governing body. The formal inspection by FIA Formula One Race Director Charlie Whiting is scheduled for Sept. 25; he's already made several visits to the site and will be back in August to check on progress. The FIA has been cracking down on track quality – an important issue for driver safety – after controversies in recent years about substandard circuits. In a statement after his most recent visit in June, Whiting said, "It is clear that the significant resources [that] Circuit of the Americas has committed to completing this facility on time and to FIA specifications is making a difference."

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