Awesome Austin Track Steps Into World Spotlight
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Formula One will add another chapter to its nomadic and disjointed history in America this weekend when Circuit of The Americas – and a pig farm – welcome the motorsports world’s elite, Texas-style.
Opening practice for Sunday afternoon’s latest/greatest edition of the United States Grand Prix is scheduled for 10 a.m. (EST) Friday on a 3.4-mile, 20-turn permanent road-course that opened to rave reviews during an invitation-only “First Lap Ceremony” in Austin last month.
Open-wheel icon Mario Andretti, the 1978 F1 World Driving Champion; actor/racer Patrick Dempsey and Lotus F1 Team test driver Jerome D’Ambrosio joined a group of drivers from various North American series turning laps on a layout designed by Tilke Engineers & Architects.
“It’s everything I expected, and more,” said Andretti, who hot-lapped in his 1979 John Player Special Lotus. “You can tell that there was a lot of thought put into the design of this course. The track is extremely technical, with 3.4-miles of real estate to learn. With each and every lap, the driver learns a little bit more.
“But quite honestly, I think the track is phenomenal. It has all the features that race car drivers are looking for, as far as giving them the opportunity to overtake other drivers in the tighter corner. But then it widens out so there’s plenty of room to maneuver. So bottom line, there should be some really terrific racing out here in the months and years to come.”
Fort Worth businessman/racer Don Istook, one of four drivers from the Pirelli World Challenge series invited by the tire manufacturer, nearly ran out of superlatives after a 10-lap stint.
“You already felt like you’re there where history is going to be made,” said Istook, owner/driver of The Arc Audi TT RS he campaigned in 2012. “I mean, you go to Watkins Glen (N.Y.) or the old Riverside (Calif.) road- course and you go to Daytona – wow, what history there. Well, this is a place I felt like right off the bat there will be history
made in racing in the United States at this track. And that one of the first few cars to turn wheels on the track was World Challenge.
“It is a perfect surface. It is state-of-the-art – the best track in the United States without ever turning a wheel on it. It’s smooth and safe, with plenty of runoff room before you would hit a barrier or something. All around the track it’s that way. You could put a rookie on that track and it’d be hard for him to hit something without being really, really stupid.”
The track’s “signature turn” or element over time, Istook said, might become the front straight heading into Turn 1. “The main straightaway, with grandstands and suites all across, is uphill at the end, which means you don’t hit your brakes as hard,” Istook said. “And it’s an off-camber, decreasing-radius corner. The track is increasing/decreasing-radius corner, decreasing/increasing-radius corner, off-camber, little short straights _ it’s going to be a challenge. It’s a driver’s track. It’s not one where you’re going to get bored. You’re going to be busy out there.
“As far as a signature turn, there’s not a corkscrew (like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California) but Turn 1 is pretty neat because you go uphill so much and nail the brakes with confidence because the car’s going to slow down and into a left-hander, about a 120-degree corner going downhill.”
Turns 6 through 9 comprise COTA’s “esses,” a series of twisties commonly associated with The Glen.
“Turn 10 is a neat corner,” Istook said. “You’re going to fly through there, you’re going to be flat-out _ you can let your car walk-out. You can’t see it, but you’re going downhill a little bit. Turn 11 levels-out and is a second-gear (left-hander). The back straight (down to Turn 12) is probably 3,500-feet or so…fastest part of the track. I got up to 145 mph right there in my Audi. With a little work, we’ll get up to maybe 150. And if we’re at 150…a Formula One car is a lot faster than that.”
Turns 13 through 15 feature two kink-like right-handers back-to-back and a left-hander exiting Turn 15 into a carousel-style section that takes a driver into Turn 18. Turns 19 and 20, a pair of left-handers, lead back to the start/finish line of a layout with maximum elevation changes of 133-feet. Track width varies from 39 to 52-feet.
“I’ve been to 50 racetracks in this country,” said Istook, whose shop specializes in Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen performance modifications. “I like Miller Motorsports Park up in Utah. Miller is pretty open, there’s a lot of times you can relax at Miller. This one, going down that straightaway maybe you can relax a little bit, but that’s about it.”
Istook said fans will be impressed with the number of grandstands located around a layout accommodating 120,000, as well as aesthetics right down to the landscaping. “It was almost race-ready when we got there (Oct. 21),” Istook said.
By location, COTA never will be confused with a downtown street track. The 970-acre site is located along the State Highway 130 corridor near Farm-Market Road 812, about two miles from Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Anyone who has driven into either Watkins Glen or Martinsville (Va.) Speedway is aware that the “you can’t get there from here” warning applies.
“The problem is going to be getting to the track,” Istook said. “There’s not a lot of good ways to get to that track. And outside the track, there’s a pig farm. Right at the main entrance to the track – pig farm! I don’t think that’ll last. I’m sure they’ve (COTA management) been trying to buy it. I think once they (the farm owners) get overwhelmed by the traffic (and noise)…(selling) would be the real smart thing to do.”
Istook is hopeful World Challenge will compete at COTA as a support series when the Australian V-8 Supercar Series makes its scheduled North American debut May 17-19, 2013.
“Once they get some hotel facilities around there, where people can stay relatively close…it’ll be a while,” Istook said.”But they’ll come because they will have this track used 30 to 40 weekends a year for things like tire-testing. Teams will want to come there to test – and spend money.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org