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Big drop in out-of-state fans more bad news for F1

In the latest in a string of grim tidings for Austin’s Formula One race organizers, documents filed recently with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office show the out-of-state attendance for last fall’s U.S. Grand Prix plunged from earlier years.

According to race attendance certification forms, obtained under Texas open records laws, just over 50,000 non-Texans attended the main Sunday race on Oct. 25. By comparison, the 2014 form shows the number was 75,500; in 2013, it was 77,000.

The numbers are estimates based on surveys and projections. Still, a steep drop in the number of out-of-state residents suggests many of those fans might have chosen to attend the new Grand Prix race in Mexico instead of coming to Austin for the Oct. 25 race. When the Austin event premiered, in 2012, it was the only Formula One race in the United States, so there was speculation the inaugural Mexico City event, held a week after Austin’s, might siphon off international fans.

The depressed out-of-state numbers also could signal another financial blow for Circuit of the Americas. Non-Texan attendees form the basis for the size of the economic development reimbursement payment the state gives to local organizers for hosting the F1 event. The reimbursement is calculated by estimating how much money out-of-state race attendees spend while in the Austin area. The state then refunds to organizers certain sales taxes it collects on those purchases.

Estimates of the state’s 2015 reimbursement payment for the race already had been slashed drastically. Administration of the fund moved from the comptroller’s office to the governor’s office last year, and in a surprise announcement that left race organizers scrambling, Abbott’s economic development team two months ago said it had revised the formula used to calculate the reimbursement.

As a result, instead of an anticipated $25 million payment for putting on last year’s race, the governor’s office said Austin race organizers should expect closer to $19.5 million. A state spokesman said the two sides are continuing to negotiate over the change.

Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s chief executive, said the proposed decrease in the reimbursement payment, which goes toward covering his sanctioning fee, threatened the future of the Austin F1 race. Circuit of the Americas co-owner Bobby Epstein added: “To use a technical term, I think we’re screwed.”

In a statement, race organizers downplayed the out-of-state attendance drop in 2015: “The lower attendance is partly due to bad weather and also the new race in Mexico.” Officials added the lower trending numbers would figure into estimates of the 2016 U.S. Grand Prix weekend’s impact on Austin’s economy.

And while the drop in out-of-state attendees could signal a further decrease in the state’s reimbursement, it doesn’t necessarily mean the number will come out lower. If the non-Texans stayed longer, for example — thus spending more per person on hotels — or spent more money than in years past on alcohol, car rentals or souvenirs, the reimbursement could climb back up.

Race organizers had already conceded that torrential rains during the early part of the Oct. 25 race weekend had kept some fans away from the track. Documents filed with the governor’s office show just over 100,000 fans attended the primary Sunday race last year. That was down slightly from 107,800 in 2014, and 113,160 in 2013.

Fewer people means fewer sales at the Southeast Austin facility. Because Formula One’s corporate bosses, primarily Ecclestone, keep most advertising and TV broadcast revenue, the sales at the track are crucial to local organizers.

“We lost millions on concessions,” Epstein told the American-Statesman several days after the event, adding that the 2015 U.S. Grand Prix had been “a financially devastating weekend for the company.”

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