F1 Races Into America and Austin Keeps It Weird

Brad Spurgeon for the International Herald TribuneCrowds making the trek from the public shuttle bus parking lots to the grandstands at the Circuit of the Americas for the first practice sessions at the inaugural United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas — There is something that feels a little unreal about this weekend in Austin. Or maybe the better word is that there is something that feels a little weird. That is, of course, good news for this city, a blueberry in the middle of Texas’s tomato soup — or whatever metaphor the cab driver used while driving to the Circuit of the Americas this morning.

It all feels very weird — the city’s motto, by the way, is “Keep Austin Weird” — because from within the Formula One microcosm the general sense of this foray into the American market was that it never was going to happen.

It seems like only months ago there were stories of political problems, funding problems, construction problems — and copious photos on the Internet of nothing more than a kind of desert with a trace of building foundations and track.

Then there is the old point that the United States has never really liked Formula One all that much anyway. But the feeling so far in Austin for the inaugural United States Grand Prix is completely the opposite.

Walking down a deserted Congress Avenue Thursday morning this journalist — thinking he looked like any local, because there were no F1 clues like paddock passes, cameras or computers hanging out of his pockets — had a woman of perhaps 60 ask him as he passed: “Is the Formula One race happening on Sunday?”

Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesThe United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.

It was the very fact of it being on her mind, not the fact she was unsure, that showed the race is on the minds of Austin residents. Had the woman lived closer to downtown she would have seen that this weekend there is a massive festival going on in conjunction with the race, with many music acts, including Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. At an open mic Thursday night there were at least three references made to the race (not all positive), but as the host of the evening — Lisa, of the Flipnotics open mic — said: “In Austin we either go at something 100 percent or not at all.”

That about summed it up. And the circuit after Friday’s practice session has shown that Austin is going out 100 percent. Not only are the facilities completely finished and up to the standard of the other new F1 tracks around the world, but unlike most of the other new circuits, this track is a wicked one. The first corner rises up to the sky looking like the most famous hill corner in the series, Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.

The drivers have given the track nearly universal praise. For those who want the competition for the drivers’ title to linger, there is one problem. Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull team dominated both sessions. All Vettel has to do is…

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