Rising out of the Texan heartlands and proudly emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, the Circuit of the Americas is unashamedly all-American. Now in its eighth season hosting the U.S. Grand Prix, COTA is the story of a bold vision, America’s chequered past with F1 and a lot of hard work, as CEO Bobby Epstein explains in an exclusive interview for Mobil 1 The Grid.
When construction of the Circuit of the Americas began in 2010, CEO Bobby Epstein and his team understood the challenge set before them. Despite F1 having raced in the USA, on and off, since 1959, a series of unsuccessful events meant the Texas venue was effectively starting from scratch.
“We’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished, especially in light of just how non-existing F1 was in the U.S. when we embarked on this”, explains Epstein.
Where Detroit, Las Vegas and even the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway have failed, COTA has excelled. In only seven seasons the circuit has become a ‘bucket list’ destination for F1 fans. Epstein, however, is modest in his assessment of their progress: “I think we succeeded against a bit of a headwind.”
No doubt, describing the task that faced COTA in such a way remains something of an understatement.
F1’s last attempt to crack America had its defining moment at the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Run at the height of F1’s last tyre war, the competition between Bridgestone and Michelin proved costly for the championship’s ambitions Stateside.
Tyre failure resulted in a huge crash for Ralf Schumacher in Turn 1 at the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Michelin’s subsequent investigations led the French manufacturer to recommend its teams did not race.
An eleventh hour proposal to insert a chicane on the banking to reduce tyre load was agreed by nine teams. Ferrari and the FIA, however, vetoed the proposal resulting in 14 Michelin-shod cars pulling into the pits at the end of the parade lap.
What followed was a bizarre 6-car race featuring only Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi. Fans rightly vented their displeasure when the chequered flag dropped. Despite Michelin offering to refund disgruntled fans, the whole episode marked the beginning of the end for F1 in the U.S.
With that kind of legacy, it is hard to imagine any circuit rebuilding F1’s reputation as swiftly and effectively as COTA has. The key, according to Epstein, has been their decision to avoid the traditional approaches adopted by other venues.
“One of the main things we did with COTA has been to not choose other racing”, he says. “To not look at this as a racing event only, and not choose other race series as our model. Our focus is on creating an event that’s enjoyable, really special and entertaining.”
With 1,500 acres to play with, the circuit hosts fan villages, live entertainment stages and themed bars and restaurants all along a three-mile stretch. COTA’s undulating track is complemented by an outdoor amphitheatre and a 251-foot tall observation platform. The amphitheatre, in particular, has become an integral part of COTA’s blueprint for success.
In a market wary of giving F1 yet another chance, memories of the Indianapolis debacle meant the racing itself would not be enough to win fans old and new. COTA needed something extra.
So while most F1 venues focus their marketing efforts on the star names of the sport itself, at COTA, the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel share equal billing with Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. Thus, hosting music superstars during the race weekend became a deliberate and significant part of COTA’s strategy.
“I do think that’s what it takes to make a successful event”, Epstein remarks. “Especially in the U.S., more than other places, where there’s incredible competition for the entertainment dollar.”
Adopting the perspective that F1 is just one way to spend your entertainment dollar might inflame purists. But the team at COTA understand that the world in which F1 exists has changed massively.
Epstein himself coined the now-familiar phrase ‘SuperBowl Experience’ to describe COTA’s tactics. Adopted by Liberty Media as something of an unofficial mantra, the approach has served the circuit well. Weekend attendances exceed 250,000 spectators and that includes a growing base of happy, repeat attendees.
“The satisfaction we get from seeing fans who come back year after year, and who now bring fans who have never been, or their families, because they realise it’s just a massive weekend celebration… I think to see that and that evolution is what really makes us as much satisfied as proud”, says Epstein.
With a contract that runs until 2021, there is ample scope for COTA to continue building upon that success. And for F1, the circuit is the foothold it needs to firmly re-establish itself in the American market. Indeed, it represents an opportunity that has been a long time coming.
Following the departure of Watkins Glen International from the calendar in 1981, F1 has visited various street circuits Stateside, with little success. Alongside an existing Long Beach race, new venues in Las Vegas, Detroit and Phoenix struggled to provide a base for further expansion.
Epstein pinpoints the temporary nature of those venues as part of the problem: “I think it’s very hard to take something that isn’t designed for F1 racing and make it equally good for the fans as well as for the drivers – that’s a really hard thing to do.”
“I think by virtue of having a blank slate to work with, we were able to focus on accomplishing both of those goals”, he concludes.
Bumper attendances, music megastars and a reputed $1bn worth of economic impact are the tangible results of COTA’s approach.
Yet the circuit has in some respects become a victim of its own success. The challenge of taking F1 to America has, implicitly at least, fallen squarely on the shoulders of Epstein and his team. “We seem to be the lone flag-bearer for F1”, he suggests.
Prior to the arrival of Liberty Media, F1’s management seemed content to leave the work of expanding the sport’s fan base to the Texan circuit. That, however, is not a role that sits comfortably with Epstein: “We don’t really focus on growing F1 in the U.S.”, he explains. “That’s something that’s often mistaken.”
On that issue, the financier turned circuit CEO is clear about what he would like to see from Liberty’s long-term plans for F1 in America: “I think their goal of having more races in this time zone is a good place to start.”
As opposed to viewing new events like the proposed Miami street race as a threat, Epstein considers them integral to the expansion of the sport. He is, however, pragmatic about how much host venues like COTA and Miami can or would do to grow the sport.
To really turn America’s indifference over F1 into passionate fervour, a major piece of the puzzle is still missing. As Epstein succinctly explains, “we need to grow our own talent.”
It is no secret that since the era of Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti, American drivers have struggled to reach F1, let alone win races. From Michael Andretti’s aborted season with McLaren in 1993, to Scott Speed’s ultimately unsuccessful career with Toro Rosso, there have been few high points since Andretti Sr. left F1 for good at the end of 1982.
Epstein is adamant that supporting a home-grown driver would ignite the passion essential for F1 to finally conquer the nation: “I think that maybe the only way F1 is going to grow as a sport in the U.S. is it has to capture the emotions of the American audience.”
That perspective is one shared by both Mario Andretti – America’s last F1 World champion – and the country’s most recent F1 driver, Alexander Rossi.
F1, IndyCar and Indy 500 champion Andretti believes simply getting American drivers into the top tier of the sport is no longer enough. They need to be competitive too.
“The next step should be to try and get a US driver in somehow, and with a top team, so that individual can actually show their true talent”, suggested the racing legend in a recent Mobil 1 The Grid interview.
Rossi – who competed in five F1 races for Manor Marussia in 2015 – is similarly matter-of-fact in his assessment: “The American fanbase in F1 isn’t going to really change or grow all that much until you have a successful American driver”, he concedes.
For the time being, Epstein accepts that 5-time World Champion, Lewis Hamilton is the driver most likely to make that emotional connection.
“I think that Lewis, more than many, has been really well accepted by the American public, and has a celebrity to him that I think people look for”, he says of the Mercedes driver.
According to Epstein, Hamilton’s affinity for the U.S., allied to his driving talents and competitive spirit, is what chimes with American audiences: “He [Hamilton] spends a lot of time here, and that element in itself, is important to the American public.”
“He’s a great driver, a great competitor and he has a wonderful personality”, he continues. “He’s made a lot of inroads into the American culture, that others haven’t.”
Though Epstein jokes that he would like Hamilton “to move to Texas to become a resident”, he is content to let Liberty Media worry about growing the sport in the States. His focus remains the same as it was on Day One of the project: “I’m more concerned about putting on a show and giving people a good time.”
And while COTA may have to continue as the reluctant flag-bearer for now, it will certainly go down in history as the circuit that got the USA back into F1. For that, Epstein and the whole COTA family should feel extremely proud.
Images courtesy of Getty Images and COTA. Bobby Epstein was speaking to Mike Seymour on behalf of Mobil 1 The Grid.