From cheesy intros to Taylor Swift: COTA’s role in the American F1 boom

The old saying “everything is bigger in Texas” will ring true for Formula 1 when it returns to Austin this weekend.

From cheesy intros to Taylor Swift: COTA’s role in the American F1 boom
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It will be the 10th time the Circuit of The Americas will have hosted the United States Grand Prix, and its big birthday bash promises to be one to remember.

F1 is estimating that 440,000 fans will attend the race from Friday to Sunday, which would make it a record-breaking weekend. At a time when the glitz and glamour of Miami and, from next year, Las Vegas, is attracting much of the hype, neither can boast the sheer numbers of Austin.

The race has come a very long way. Earlier this week, F1 shared a video from its social media accounts back from the race in 2017. This was the race where, in its first US GP since Liberty Media had completed its takeover of the series, F1 tried to inject a slice of American sports pizzazz into proceedings by hiring famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer to help introduce the drivers.

 

 

Even the simple compilation of the drivers walking out to their exaggerated introductions from Buffer really summed up just how much things have changed. Lewis Hamilton - then just a three-time world champion - and Daniel Ricciardo are the only ones to really lap it up, soaking up the atmosphere. Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen seem unbothered, the latter being one of nine drivers who raced at COTA in 2017 no longer on the F1 grid. Valtteri Bottas doesn’t even have a beard.

Watching it feels like a big step back in time. You’ve got the old F1 logo donning the hoardings, the grid girls helping usher the drivers in. But back then, this was F1’s first effort to appeal to the American fans by trying to fit itself more to their usual tastes.

At the time, it divided opinion. Those with fears over what impact Liberty’s ownership would have on F1 saw this as the kind of Americanization they didn’t want near their Euro-centric championship. But many took it for what it was: yes, it was a bit cheesy, but it was also a sign of F1 not taking itself so seriously - after so many years of doing so under Bernie Ecclestone, back when things like YouTube and social media weren’t deemed worthwhile.

It also showed an immediate awareness from F1’s new premiership that it could not simply keep going about things the same way if it wanted to crack America. It had to try new things, be it designing a new logo or trying to hype up the grid introductions, or getting its own theme music. It wasn’t until the start of 2018 that F1’s now-beloved intro debuted, which again faced criticism from those uneasy about these new initiatives.

It was around the end of the 2017 season that plans really started to accelerate for the biggest gamechanger for F1 in the United States: Drive to Survive. Then-commercial chief Sean Bratches was very quick to see the need for a docuseries after seeing what it had done for other leagues and sports. The production team at Box to Box did its first recces around Brazil and Abu Dhabi, pitching to the teams who had some scepticism about the plans. Again, oh how things would change…

And it was also a big turning point in Austin’s fortunes. After F1’s struggles through the end of 2014 when just 18 cars turned up to race at COTA and the washout that impacted the race the following year, the United States Grand Prix looked to be on shaky ground yet again as fan interested waned. It was the problem-child market that simply could not be remedied. In 2016, the track managed to secure Taylor Swift to perform her only concert in the US that year, which was a huge boost for ticket sales and helped turn many Swifties into F1 fans. It was an unconventional approach, but again, F1 had to do things differently to properly crack America.

Taylor Swift in concert

Taylor Swift in concert

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

It’s a realisation that has allowed F1 to only go one way in the United States ever since. The idea of ‘destination cities’ was outlined from day one by Liberty Media and F1’s new bosses, yet it is tricky to fathom that both Miami and Las Vegas would be happening without COTA showing the growth opportunities on offer and the hunger of American fans. The idea of F1 playing an active role in the promotion of a race and even forking out $240 million for a plot of land in Vegas to help make a race held on a Saturday night happen seems fanciful from the pre-Liberty days. But F1 realised this was the way to make the race happen and pull off a huge coup, getting its long-coveted event along the Strip.

The estimated crowd of 440,000 for this weekend will be another three-day record for F1. But it is going to keep fuelling competition between the huge fan races, your Silverstones and Melbournes, to keep pushing that figure higher. The demand is clearly there to blast way past this figure. It’s simply a case of the tracks ensuring the infrastructure and facilities in place can accommodate such a swell in fans without hindering their experience. COTA has needed to adjust quickly, signalled by the 2019 crowd figure being ‘only’ 268,000 over three days - but it has coped well, remaining a fan favourite that keeps bringing people back.

The 10-year mark is one that looked quite distant for COTA in the doldrums of 2015. But not only is it still here: it is thriving, remaining the barometer for F1’s health in the United States.

An aerial view of the Circuit of the Americas

An aerial view of the Circuit of the Americas

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

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