After fears about traffic and crowds, the only drama for the inaugural United States Grand Prix was on the track, as the Circuit of the Americas greeted a massive crowd of 117,429 for the first in a planned decade of Formula One races in the United States. And even detractors had to admit it was a roaring success, from organization through execution.
The race, the event, and the facility drew rave reviews internationally. Drivers praised the Circuit's design – created by Tavo Hellmund, the project's original mastermind – and its execution, under the management of investor Bobby Epstein and COTA President Steve Sexton. It led to an unpredictable race, as British driver Lewis Hamilton snatched an unexpected victory over championship leader Sebastian Vettel. That excited fans, who packed the stands and the raised general admission areas around the tracks. The Circuit also received high praise for its great sight lines, especially the signature incline at turn one. That combination of challenged drivers, an upset result, and happy fans could guarantee the track a slot on the F1 calendar even beyond its initial 10-year contract.
The track also saw higher attendance than expected, if not quite up to what was in the original economic impact study. On Friday, 65,360 fans turned out for the practice day, while 82,710 came out to watch the qualifying laps on Saturday. Stats on the total number of visitors to town last weekend (and their economic impact) are still unknown; in its economic impact study, the Circuit had estimated 300,000 people for race weekend (including 125,000 at the track), and $400 million to $500 million in annual impact.
Final figures on emissions will not be available until early 2013, but the predicted traffic apocalypse never materialized, even though the Circuit saw big crowds earlier than expected. The use of off-site parking and shuttle buses paid off, reducing travel time dramatically. COTA sustainability officer Edgar Farrera said there were even more people than expected using the bike route to Richard Moya Park in Southeast Austin, where riders caught a shuttle to the track.
The biggest traffic jams came on Saturday as cars backed up at the Travis County Expo Center. Then someone realized that they should probably open a second gate, and the lines dissipated quickly. Even on Sunday, after the main race finished and a large chunk of the crowd headed for the shuttle buses, the longest wait was only an hour, and vehicles were moving swiftly once on the road.
Some Downtown venues even criticized the city for over-hyping the traffic and crowding problems and scaring off their regulars; there were widespread media reports of disappointed bar and restaurant owners, especially along Rainey Street, East Sixth, and South Congress, and sales at the Downtown farmers' market were down. However, the Warehouse District was packed across the weekend with the Austin Fan Fest, and the Statesman reported favorable numbers for Spec's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.
The biggest complaint heard all weekend? The Circuit ran out of beer on Sunday.
For more coverage of race weekend, including photo galleries, visit austinchronicle.com/f1.
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