The Lotus 79 is a sleek, low, black machine, daubed in advertisers' slogans. But there's one name that stands out, and it's the smallest one. Up behind the driver's seat, it just says "Mario."
That's Mario Andretti, official ambassador for Austin's Circuit of the Americas, and this is the car that he won the 1978 Formula One World Championship. This weekend, it – along with a host of other current and historic cars, displays about F1, and a selection of Austin music – are part of the Formula Expo at the Austin Convention Center.
Yesterday, the media got an initial preview of the event. It was still mid-set-up: A cadre of technicians from Ireland were setting up racing simulators, while a Lotus Esprit revved up the ramp from the loading dock. A wall of photographs, chronicling the history (and remarkable haircuts) of F1 was still being assembled. The staff of charity Godstone Ranch Motorsports showed journalists another important F1 car, Michael Schumacher's Ferrari F2001. Andretti's winning car isn't the only Lotus: Back in April, Kimi Raikkonen and Roman Grosjean took second and third at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and the team is loaning one of this season's podium-worthy cars.
Now for hardened F1 fans, that's impressive. But event creator Ian Weightman knows there are a lot of casual fans, and an even larger number of Central Texans, who still are not sure why they should care about the upcoming US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas. "There hasn't been a real exposure to the nuances of the sport yet," he said. A native Englishman, he grew up near the legendary UK F1 track at Silverstone and started blogging and Tweeting about the Austin race. When it came to a big publicity push, he said, "I thought someone would pick the ball up, but they didn't." Since he runs his own events business, he stepped up and the result is this weekend's expo. Initially he was working on his own, but then the Circuit of the Americas came on-board as a partner, "which is great, because it gives us access to the collateral for the race."
There's a lot of education to be done. "Formula One isn't just about the current race cars," said Weightman. "It's about technologies that have taken themselves into the real world in proper applications." It's also about tradition: The vintage cars are provided by the Historic Grand Prix, a group of collectors that both race and display these classic machines. Weightman said, "People can get up close to the cars, much closer than they ever could on the race track."
That kind of experience represents one of the foremost challenges for the US Grand Prix: Beyond a small and hardened corps of supporters, the sport has never broken out on a scale that, say, NASCAR has managed. Prior to the current deal with Fox Sports, TV coverage has been spotty to spartan for years. The key, according to Weightman, is creating something broader than just the race itself, and that's why the expo makes a pit stop at the ACL Live at the Moody Theatre. Saturday's big gig features the culmination of a battle of the bands, followed by performances by Wendy Colonna, Guy Forsyth, Patrice Pike, and more – all part of Formula Expo's plan to help integrate F1 into the live music capital of the world.
Weightman considers the expo to be the start of the build-up to the first F1 event event, and "create momentum growing into the race." According to a press release this morning, sales of grand stand tickets have been so robust that the circuit is considering adding more seats for the inaugural race. However, keeping that momentum going after this first event may be a little more complex. That said, the logic is simple: If Formula One is going to build a local following, it needs to plug into the local community. Equally, if the race wants to keep attracting tourists, it needs to provide them with something unique, something that stands out against the rest of the year-long F1 schedule.
The racetrack may have that distinctive view of Downtown Austin from the trademark corner one, but the Austin component has to go a lot deeper than that. Weightman said, "The Grand Prix that do well and sell out are the ones that create a compelling event around the race. Some of the stands are half empty in Shanghai these days, because it's a standalone race. So having an event like they do in Monte Carlo or Melbourne or Toronto, there's a lot more than just a race."
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