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COTA Is About To Make American History

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 16 2012

Early reviews for the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 track have been boffo.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Formula One’s honeymoon with Circuit of The Americas continued Thursday, less than 24 hours before opening practice for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

Speaking during the $400-million circuit’s first official press briefing, two-time World Driving ChampionFernando Alonso of Spain said he initially lapped the 3.4-mile, 20-turn layout via a simulator before completing two laps on a bicycle Thursday morning. Mexico’s Sergio Perez, of Sauber/Ferrari, chose to walk the circuit and termed it “amazing.”

Meanwhile, championship leader Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing/Renault was typically circumspect.

“We have to wait until we get out (on-track) until we have a judgment on how the circuit feels,” said Vettel, the two-time/reigning World Driving Champion from Germany. “It looks quite interesting but it’s the feeling inside the car which I think is most important, so I’m looking forward to (Friday).”

Vettel, winner of four of the last five races, holds a 10-point lead over Alonso and Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro in pursuit of his third consecutive championship.

COTA officially will become the 10th American venue to have played host to the FIA Formula One World Championship Friday at 10 a.m. (EST), the start of the first of two, 90-minute practice sessions. And while the pre-event reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, they also conjur memories of the opening weekend of the SAP U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September 2000.

Tony George, in his role and president/CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, poured millions of his family’s money into updating the famed oval into an F1-ready venue between December 1998 and January 2000. The results produced a 2.606-mile infield road-course incorporating sections of the 2.5-mile oval; a modern steel-and-glass Pagoda as the pit-road centerpiece; a world-class media center; 36 concrete garages for the teams and 12 elaborate suites for F1’s rich-and-richer.

Pre-race hoopla for F1’s return to the USA for the first time since 1991 was even stoked by marketing boss Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One Management during an interview with a now-defunct motorsports magazine.

Asked why F1 had chosen IMS, Ecclestone said: “Can you think of anywhere better? That’s the reason. Indy is Indy. When you go anywhere in the world and you talk about Indianapolis it is like talking about Coca-Cola or Rolls Royce – everybody knows it – and we need to have that kind of place that our people can bring their guests to.

“I’m very happy for it because they took a bit of a risk. What we’ve asked Tony to do, and he’s agreed to do, is not just good for F1, it’s good for the other events he has there. It lifted Indianapolis above all the other circuits, I think. Our people are very happy.”

An estimated 225,000 fans watched Michael Schumacher steer his Ferrari to victory in that initial race. But interest in the event already was fading in 2005, when blistering problems with tires manufactured by Michelin prompted seven teams (14 cars) to withdraw from the race after the formation lap. In what became a farce and the worst grand prix in American history, only three teams (six cars) shod with Bridgestone tires completed the event, with Schumacher again prevailing en route to the third of his eventual record seven World Championships.

The 2007 race proved to be the last run at Indy, as drivers who once touted IMS as the “fastest track we’ve ever raced on” continued to criticize the layout as Mickey Mouse. Meanwhile, Ecclestone publicly ripped IMS and city leaders in “The Indianapolis Star” for a perceived lack of promotion, and chided Indianapolis for its supposed lack of culture and stuff-to-do outside the racetrack. The FIA’s rising sanctioning fees only hastened F1’s exit from “The Racing Capital of the World.”

So, with COTA about to play host to the 52nd F1 race run in the United States, it remains buyer beware. Nine American venues previously have played host to F1 since the tour first ran on the Hendrick Field airport circuit near Sebring, Fla., in 1959, a race won by Bruce McLaren in a Cooper/Climax. Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway played host to a single race in 1960, won from pole by Sir Stirling Moss in a Lotus/Climax.

Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International hosted 20 races – most in rain-soaked October conditions featuring yearly sacrificial car-burnings by “The Bog People” – between 1961-80. Innes Ireland, driving a Lotus/Climax, won the first F1 race in New York’s Finger Lakes Region. Both Jim Clark (Lotus/Climax) and Graham Hill – a pair of two-time World Driving Champions – posted three victories at The Glen, the latter winning from 1963-65 for BRM.

F1 spring races were booked on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., from 1976-83, with Clay Regazzoni winning the first for Ferrari. Downtown Detroit played host to seven races (1982-88), with John Watson winning the inaugural in a McLaren/Ford. The 1982 season saw F1 compete at three venues in the USA – Long Beach, the Motor City and the second of two events conducted in the parking lot around Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Michele Alboreto drove a Tyrrell/Ford to victory in F1’s Sin City swan song.

COTA is Texas’ second dose of F1. Another single race (1984) was run at Dallas’ Fair Park in early July during a triple-digit heat weekend when the world learned why everything in Texas is air-conditioned. Unfortunately, the metal horse barns pressed into service as the makeshift F1 paddock did not come equipped with AC, creating miserable working conditions for drivers, mechanics and media.

Meanwhile, the recently repaved 2.424-mile street circuit began breaking up during Saturday’s support races. Emergency pot-hole patching started overnight and continued into race-day morning, seriously jeopardizing the start. While Keke Rosberg, father of current Mercedes AMG driver Nico, drove to victory in a Wiliams/Honda, the race’s signature moment remains Nigel Mansell’s fainting spell as he pushed his disabled Lotus toward the finish line.

The streets of downtown Phoenix saw F1’s “Flying Circus” play to embarrassingly slim crowds (1989-91), with the late Ayrton Senna – a three-time World Driving Champion for McLaren/Honda – winning the last two races. Acknowledging the folly of that scheduling decision, Ecclestone famously observed: “Everything dies in Phoenix.”

Enter COTA, first purpose-built grand prix facility in the United States. Actor/racer Patrick Dempsey, who recently completed his fourth full season of driving a Mazda RX-8 in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, believes COTA incorporates everything it will take to permanently build F1’s brand domestically.

“They’ve never really had a home base, here in the United States,” said Dempsey, the “Grey’s Anatomy” TV star who turned his first laps in an F1 car after COTA’s ribbon-cutting ceremony last month. “Although they worked really hard to make a go of it at Indy, things just didn’t work out. So I think Circuit of The Americas represents a real opportunity to re-establish F1’s brand and experience in the U.S. market again, and start to develop a good strong relationship with the American fan base.

“I see this track being really great for the Austin area, and great for motor racing, too. I think Circuit of The Americas will have a spillover effect on all of auto racing, specifically a renewed interest in road racing in this country. I’m hoping that it helps us return to the heyday of road racing that we enjoyed back in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Motorsports mogul O. Bruton Smith never has been a Formula One fan, and insisted he isn’t concerned about COTA joining the list of motorsports facilities sharing the Lone Star State.

“We’ve checked, and about 10 people that we know are going to it (U.S. Grand Prix), so we’re not really concerned,” Smith said during a recent interview at his Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. TMS, which opened in 1997 and bills itself as “The Great American Speedway,” annually plays host to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series and the open-wheel IZOD IndyCar Series during three major event weekends from April to November.

“Formula One has never been anything in this country,” said Smith, chairman/CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. “Go back and check it. I mean, go back as far as you want to and Formula One has never worked in this country. They had one in Phoenix years ago and an ostrich race drew more people than Formula One did.”

While recounting that infamous anecdote, TMS president Eddie Gossage also acknowledged that COTA quickly will become a destination for a diverse set of sanctioning bodies and fans.

“They’re going to have a great crowd down there,” Gossage said on the weekend TMS unveiled its “No Limits Wild Asphalt Circus” marketing campaign. “We know their ticket sales and they’ve done very well. Personally, I think the more racing in the State of Texas the better. But, we don’t have much crossover at all. I think Bruton is right. Our crowd (for NASCAR’s AAA Texas 500 weekend), 10 of them will be in Austin as well. But they’re going to have a huge crowd and they’re going to do very well.

“It looks like they’ve got a beautiful circuit down there. The challenge is going to be maintaining that in Year Two, Year Three, that kind of thing. Because that’s where Formula One in the States has struggled. They had great crowds at Indianapolis to start with and just couldn’t sustain that.”

SPEED will provide expanded programming for the United States Grand Prix, penultimate event of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship, highlighted by live race coverage Sunday at 1:30 p.m. (EST). The American home for F1 since 1996, the network’s broadcasts will be hosted by Bob Varsha, with analysis from David Hobbs and Steve Matchett and pit reporting from Will Buxton.

“Our F1 team has had this weekend circled on the calendar for quite some time,” said Scott Ackerson, SPEED’s president. “It’s tremendous to have Formula One racing again on U.S. soil, and SPEED’s expanded coverage will match the enthusiasm F1’s passionate fans have for the return.”

SPEED’s coverage will include a repeat telecast of a 30-minute special entitled “Building the Circuit of The Americas: F1’s Return to the U.S.” Former racer Sam Posey, who competed in the 1971 and ’72 U.S. Grand Prixs at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, also will provide his perspective.

In addition, Sirius XM Radio will offer its subscribers live race-day coverage beginning at 2 p.m. (EST) on Sirius Channel 92 and XM Channel 208 with turn-by-turn coverage from start-to-finish, plus pre- and post-race commentary. SiriusXM listeners get access to the BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast featuring commentators James Allen, former Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari and Jennie Gow.

Subscribers with SiriusXM Internet Radio access also can listen to the race broadcast on the SportsZone Channel on the SiriusXM Internet Radio App for smartphones and other mobile devices and online at SiriusXM.com.

SPEED’s broadcast schedule for the U.S. Grand Prix (all times EST and subject to change):

Friday, Nov. 16 _Practice Session One (10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., live); “The All-American Victory: Dan Gurney Wins the Belgian Grand Prix” (11:30 a.m. to noon); Mobil 1 The Grid (noon to 12:30 p.m.); “Building the Circuit of The Americas” (1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.); Practice Session Two (2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., live); Formula One Debrief, midnight to 1 a.m.

Saturday, Nov. 17 _Practice Session Three (10 a.m. to 11 a.m., live); Qualifying Session (1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., live).

Sunday, Nov. 18 _ F1 United States Grand Prix (1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., live); “The All-American Victory: Dan Gurney Wins the Belgian Grand Prix” (4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.)

COTA’s official merchandise line will be available for purchase throughout the grand prix weekend at storefronts around the venue and via the circuit’s online store, http://store.circuitoftheamericas.com/.

Fans can purchase products featuring the official event logo and bearing Circuit of The America’s trademark logo, featuring sweeping red, orange and yellow flames. The merchandise line includes men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, headgear and accessories, including lanyards with plastic sleeves for event tickets. Stores will be set up in the Main Grandstand, the Grand Plaza and in the patron areas near Turns 6 and 11.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 16 2012
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