View From a Hill

Site visit to F1 track, major announcements put plan in context

The current view from turn one at the Circuit of the Americas
The current view from turn one at the Circuit of the Americas (Photo by Richard Whittaker (click to enlarge))

An important note for Formula One fans: We have seen turn one at the Circuit of the Americas, and it is promising.

The Circuit of the Americas (or COTA for short) is the official name of the Austin-based United States Grand Prix race track and facility. Which, by the way, can no longer simply be called the F1 track. Yesterday, at a press conference at the Palmer Events Center, the management team confirmed the long-bubbling rumor that there will be MotoGP motorbike races there.

The official announcement was held back as the big reveal at the end of the presser. However, a couple of sharp-eyed racing journalists had already spotted 1993 MotoGP world champion Kevin Schwantz in the room, as well as rising Texas talent and 2010 rookie of the year Ben Spies.

The ten year deal between Dorna Sports, S.L., 3FourTexasMGP, L.L.C. and US Grand Prix mastermind Tavo Hellmund's Full Throttle Productions, L.P. adds a major weekend to the site's calendar. Starting in 2013, all three classes of the FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix (125cc, Moto2 and Moto3) will be competing there. To anyone who has spoken to him, the addition of MotoGP has clearly been on Hellmund's mind for a long time. He and Schwantz go back years, and in the world of high end motor racing there is undoubtedly an element of "who you know" (after all, it was knowing F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone through his father that got Hellmund his first hearing over reviving the US Grand Prix.) Now the question is, what other sports will use the track?

That was one of the few pieces of information that was not provided at yesterday's press event. Well, that and the actual date of the 2012 F1 Grand Prix. That will not be confirmed until the end of the 2011 season, but speculation puts it either with the Canadian grand prix (normally held in June) or November's Brazilian race.

What the press got instead was a fuller view of the non-racing side of the business model. As Hellmund has repeatedly said, they're building a year-round facility, not a once-a-year race track. This was the first time for the local media to see track boss and former Churchill Downs track president Steve Sexton in person, and he, Hellmund, chief investor Red McCombs and project partner Bobby Epstein ran the audience through the big ticket items:

– Additional visitor amenities, including a museum and 200 foot observation tower.

– A 5,400 square foot medical center, which will provide EMS and medical student training throughout the year but serve as the track's trauma center on race and events weekends.

– Convention and business meeting facilities, including: 14 two-story meeting rooms with catering facilities, doubling as team and sponsor suites on race weekend; A convention center; And a 500 seat banqueting hall which will double as the media center during race weekends. That will be right over the paddock area, straight in front of the finish line

– A Grand Plaza, roughly the length of three football fields, for outdoor concerts. Doubtless promoters are already contemplating what bands in the 20,000 to 25,000 audience range could finally perform in Austin on a purpose-built stage.

This totals about a $400 million build, 80% of which will be spent locally. The project already employs between 200 and 300 workers, which will rise to around 1,300 at the peak of construction.

There is still a sizable TBC list. The anticipated announcement of a testing and R&D contract for a car manufacturer has been pushed back, as there are now negotiations to bring two firms to the campus. On top of that, there are moves for an on-or-near-site hotel, which will be essential for race weekends.

Visiting the site, it is hard to believe that it is less than a year since the formal announcement of the F1 deal. Much of the area has been cleared and is being graded to before the big track dig begins. There are still some areas of greenery mid-site, including one large copse of trees, that have been roped off.

And what about the money shot? The game plan for the track is for turn one – a quick slope going into a tight hairpin before a fast dash down to turn two – to be the signature corner. Standing on a platform where the turn will be, it is undoubtedly an impressive view, with the central Austin skyline on the horizon. If the track matches the visuals, then the Circuit of the Americas could well build the reputation among drivers and audiences that Hellmund et al are hoping for.

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Tavo Hellmund, Circuit of the Americas, MotoGP, Kevin Schwantz, Ben Spies, Red McCombs, Dorna Sports S.L., Bobby Epstein, 3FourTexasMGP L.L.C., Full Throttle Productions L.P., F1, Formula 1 United States Grand Prix

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