Austin F1 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the F1

by Chuck Tolsma on December 15, 2012

The 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a dark comedy about a group of top political leaders and generals working to avoid a nuclear war. I thought I’d borrow pieces of the title of that movie for this post to compare and contrast attending a NASCAR race vs an F1 race.

Sometimes, I get the impression that many race fans have preconceived perceptions regarding the racing entertainment that is to be expected at F1, NASCAR, and IndyCar events. I’ve finally attended races at all three of these series. I had those same feelings.

Now everything has changed for me. I attended my first Formula 1 race at the brand new Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. The United States Grand Prix (USGP) event was held November 16th through the 18th. I went to the circuit on Saturday and Sunday that weekend.

I’ll compare attending this F1 race weekend to attending  NASCAR at my home track at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS).

Ticketing

F1: We bought our tickets online. The tickets were $165 for general admission for the 3-day weekend. General admission at the circuit means you don’t have an assigned seat. You are able to sit at several grass berms that are located in several areas around the track. There are also several standing room areas.

NASCAR: Also bought tickets online. Tickets at our area in turn 4 were $100 for Cup, $50 for Nationwide, and $30 for trucks.

Thoughts: One can attend an COTA weekend for about the same ticket price as a TMS weekend. But, you will be sitting on the ground. Assigned seats at COTA are expensive (about $250-$400 as I recall.)

Accommodations

F1: I lucked out here. I stayed with my brother in San Antonio about an hours drive from the circuit. Free! If you want a hotel in Austin, you will pay. They jack the rates up about 4x and you have to book for three days I’m told. Expect to pay $1000 to $1800 for the weekend. I would suggest that you look for more reasonable rates in San Antonio or Waco and be prepared to drive a little if you want to save money.

NASCAR: Again, I’m lucky. I live just North of Dallas and TMS is about a 45 minute drive. Free! Rooms can be had within an hours drive of TMS at reasonable rates. You’ll pay 2x the rate in Fort Worth though. So the weekend will cost you between $300 to $600.

Thoughts: NASCAR weekend is much cheaper for rooms!


Pre-Race Festivities

I’ve not attended the pre-race festivities hosted by the cities of Austin or Fort Worth.

F1: I do know that Austin roped of about 9 blocks of downtown for FanFest over the race weekend. Lots of free live music, paid concerts (including Aerosmith, Flo Rida, Enrigue Iglesias), show cars, simulators, beer gardens, food trucks, Official F1 after party, etc. International crowd.

NASCAR: Fort Worth has a great area to party called Sundance Square. I’m sure it’s a blast on race weekend.

Thoughts: I’m giving the edge to Austin on the pre-race events in the downtown area. Texans prevail, but lots of fans from out of state.

Getting to the Track and Parking

F1: Parking is included with your tickets, but it is a pain! Fans are directed to parking areas in downtown Austin or the Expo Center. From there the fans are bussed to the circuit on school buses. We left several hours before the races, so we got into the parking areas just fine. Once you are boarded it’s about a 4o minute trip on the bus. The bus drops you off about a mile from the track. Crazy! Then you walk on a cinder path uphill and through the woods for about 15 minutes to the Grand Entry Plaza. I was kind of tired when we got there to have our tickets scanned. They do have a few golf carts in use to take fans that have trouble with walking though.

NASCAR: Everyone pulls into free parking lots located around the track. Walk to entry area is quick and painless! Since there are many more cars and very little public transportation in use, the drive in can take up to 45 minutes once you get within 5 miles of the track.

Thoughts: Hands down, TMS is more convenient to get to and park  than COTA. TMS is a huge advantage for tailgaters, since your car is with you! At a minimum, COTA needs to have the buses drop off fans at the entry plaza. COTA does have limited parking (mostly for PSL ticket holders.) A small supply of parking passes are sold to the public for $200!

A Saturday At the Track (or Circuit if you Prefer)

F1: The circuit is gorgeous. It will be even better once all of the landscaping is completed. I didn’t explore as much as I would have liked (remember the long walk to get in?) I’ll start with Saturday that included F1 3rd practice (FP3), the Historic GP qualifying session, F1 qualifying, Ferrari Challenge race, Perelli GT3 Cup qualifying, and the Historic Grand Prix. All of this these events started at 9am  and finished at 4pm. First, the crowd was huge (keep in mind this is qualifying), with a F1 Circuit of the Americas crowd total of 82,710 fans showing up. After checking a few corners out, we decided to sit in turn 19. We sat on a grassy hill with a great view of the long righthander that lead into the turn, and the small small straight to turn 20 (that enters the front stretch.) Also had a distant view of the circuits signature turn 1 on the hill. After the qualifying and races are over, there was a concert at the COTA Amphitheater stage by the rock band, Collective Soul.

NASCAR:Texas Motor Speedway is massive. It sits on 1500 acres a few miles north of the City of Fort Worth and will allow for up to 180,000 race fans an opportunity to attend the cup race. The Friday events include practices and qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. The Nationwide race capped the evening. Crowds for practice and qualifying are sparse, no more than a few thousand fans attend. I’ll estimate a crowd of about 65,ooo attended the night race.

Thoughts: F1 is a totally different vibe from NASCAR practice/qualifying. There were huge crowds all day long at the Circuit. At TMS, most of the crowd for the day shows up right before the race.

Sunday Money: The Racing

F1: Just fantastic racing! 118,000 fans at the race! We sat on our blankets on the grassy hill at turn 19. The nice thing about this location besides the great sight lines is that there is a large video monitor installed near the turn (several all around the track.) We were able to watch the entire race broadcast and race call. Race day activities started at 9:30am and included the following: Pirelli GT3 Cup race, Ferrari Challenge race, Formula One Drivers Parade, and then the U.S Grand Prix. There was a post race concert by Clay Walker. The sound of the F1 race cars was amazing, especially as the cars were downshifting about three gears going into the corner. It sounds like a small bomb going off for each gear. The highlight of the race was when Lewis Hamilton passed Sebastion Vettel on the long straight late in the race. The crowd went wild. Here is a Youtube video of the opening lap from our vantage point (Note the car missing the apex of the corner, and another car locking it’s brakes up towards the end of the clip):

NASCAR: I missed the Cup race, but made the Nationwide event. Racing at TMS is usually good, but it can drag due to the length of the race. I don’t complain, because I spend a lot of money and want to max out the entertainment. The theme for the weekend was “The Great Asphalt Circus.” Track promoter Eddie Gossage had a carnival rides set up on the backstretch, and a few circus acts entertained the crowd before the race. I sat in turn 4 for the race near the entrance to pit road. There is a great view of turns 3, 4 and the dogleg. Turns 1, 2, and the backstretch, not so much. There is a video monitor though. On Cup race days, things get kicked off with a pre race concert, and driver intros. There’s lots of two wide action. In my opinion, there’s nothing better than the start of a cup race and the cars sound louder and deeper than the F1 cars.

Thoughts: I think the F1 weekend provides more entertainment value as a whole than NASCAR. As far as the racing, I enjoyed the F1 race much more, however, both were fun.

Track Facilities/Vending:

F1: Huge lines everywhere for everything. Plan on waiting in line 30 minutes for anything you buy. Food was good and reasonably priced. For any F1 team merchandise, expect to pay about 3X what you are accustomed to ($70 t shirts!) No coolers or food are permitted to be brought in.

NASCAR: TMS is top notch for everything. Short lines and an outstanding facility. Free parking and plenty of it. Coolers and food may be brought to the track.

Thoughts: Bring cash to F1 at COTA.  COTA needs more food trucks and vending areas.

Leaving the Track:

F1: A real pain. An hour and a half to get to the buses. Another 40 minutes to the parking areas.

NASCAR: Up to an hour to get out of the parking lot. All is well after that.

Thoughts: Stay for the free concert after the F1 race at COTA. Have fun at the 2013 Austin Formula One race!

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