A rookie has a sensational year, looks every inch a superstar and then, wham, the very next year the magic is gone. It’s called the sophomore slump.
It occurs in baseball, football and, yes, motorsports. Oftentimes the first time a race is held at a track, it draws a crowd that turns out to be very hard to equal, let alone top.
“Everyone wants to see the first race,” said Barry Simpson, CEO of California-based Grand Prix Tours, which has been organizing trips to Formula One races for more than two decades.
The second-year downturn hit Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the previous site of the U.S. Grand Prix. The first race day in 2000 attracted an estimated 225,000 fans. The next year, that number dropped by about 50,000, and it kept sliding toward the 100,000 mark before the final race at Indy in 2007.
Could the same thing happen at Circuit of the Americas?
Last year’s inaugural U.S. Grand Prix in Austin had its glitches. The problems included long lines for merchandise and food. The circuit even committed racing’s cardinal sin, running out of beer at some concession spots.
But the F1 race, won in dramatic fashion by Lewis Hamilton, attracted a Sunday crowd of 117,479. The three-day attendance at Circuit of the Americas totaled more than 265,000 fans, and in May the race was named sports event of the year by SportsBusiness Journal at a gala in Manhattan.
Yet after Austin’s much-celebrated first F1 race, Mercedes director Ross Brawn warned in a New York Times article, “The first year you come to a race at a facility like this, it’s great to see what fantastic support it’s had — but it’s about maintaining that support.”
Last year, the circuit was able to tap into five years of pent-up fan demand for a Formula One race in the United States. That interest might have been counterbalanced, though, by the uncertainty that swirled around the race, including whether the track in Southeast Austin would be ready in time.
Simpson said the doubt that swirled around Austin’s race probably helped, rather than hurt, attendance.
“Good publicity, bad publicity — it all works,” he said.
Circuit of the Americas hasn’t been in the headlines so often this year, and Simpson said his business will bring about half as many fans to Austin. That’s about what he expected. He said that’s not because visitors had a bad experience at the track or in the city, but a result of the race no longer being the new kid on the block.
“We got rave reports. It’s a great town to visit,” Simpson said.
A spokesman for Canadian-based Formula Tours said his business will be bringing about one-third as many fans to Austin as it did last year.
One tour operator bucking that trend is Glass Entertainment Management in Tennessee. The company’s president, Patrick Glass, said: “We’re double what we were last year, and we probably could have doubled that. We have one (hotel) room left. We’re at 99 percent.”
Glass said his F1 business this year is mostly corporate, that companies are using a trip to the U.S. Grand Prix as a perk for top-performing salespeople or executives.
Meanwhile, just days before the race, hotels rooms are still available in Austin, although most hotels continue to ask for a premium price. Single-day tickets for the race are available this year, as opposed to last year’s three-day block, so race attendance could be influenced by something as simple as the weather on Sunday, when the U.S. Grand Prix will be run.
Simpson said an attendance dip of some kind should be expected.
“It will go down, and then they’ll build up a local following,” he said. “Some places develop over a number of years.”
Circuit of the Americas Chairman Bobby Epstein said, “We were cautioned to expect the ‘sophomore slump’ that is commonly experienced, but it seems we have an above average (number of) ‘first-time’ buyers and won’t see much of a dip.
“Through the beginning of the month, our out-of-country sales were up more than 70 percent above last year. Also since (the circuit began) releasing single-day tickets, word has spread that ticket prices fit a wide range of budgets, (and) Austin-area ticket sales have jumped.”
U.S. GRAND PRIX
At Circuit of the Americas
Gates open at 7:30 a.m.
9 a.m.: First practice session
11:15 a.m.: Autograph session
1 p.m.: Second practice session
9 a.m.: Third practice session
10:30 a.m.: Qualifying begins
2:30 p.m.: Autograph sessions with Red Bull and other teams
1 p.m.: U.S. Grand Prix
3:30 p.m.: Pitbull concert