F1 in Austin: US Grand Prix was a big victory for COTA

Circuit of the Americas officials are enjoying one long victory lap after pulling off a United States Grand Prix weekend that delivered in most every way.

In its fifth year in Austin, the Formula One event faced steady declines in attendance and negative imagery from the 2015 mudfest caused by torrential rains.

This year the weather was immaculate, fans turned out in track-record numbers — COTA officials reported a combined weekend gate of 269,889 — and F1 teams, officials, media, fans and even Taylor Swift left with smiles on their faces.

“A complete 180 from where we were last year,” Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein told the American-Statesman. “It was a critical year, and I’m proud of our people for delivering. This was everything we hoped it would be … and more.”

Epstein said the bounceback — announced attendance was up 20 percent from last yearsolidified the U.S. Grand Prix on the 2017 Formula One calendar, which had provisionally listed it for next Oct. 20-22.

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, now a FOX announcer for the sport, sees the race and COTA as the right fit.

“I think they’ve nailed it here,” said Gordon, who attended the event. “The track is world class, it’s in a great town, Austin is such a perfect city for this, and a part of the country for Formula One to embrace it. What’s not to like?”

The race itself, though, was borderline dull. Lewis Hamilton, who’s won all but one U.S. Grand Prix races in Austin, earned the pole, jumped to a good start and, by the time he made it through the esses on turns 3-6, the day was essentially over.

The TV ratings may have suffered a bit because of it. The race averaged 727,000 viewers on NBC, down 18 percent from last year, although the race reach of 2.03 million (everyone who watched at least part of the race) was even with 2015. Austin was easily the top market with a 3.2 rating, twice the size of runner-up Nashville.

In Hamilton’s home country of England, the U.S. Grand Prix had its lowest viewership since 2013.

Yet for COTA, this was so much more than a race. Track officials turned it into a full festival weekend, with major concerts by Swift, Usher & The Roots, 20 local bands, wide-ranging international entertainment acts.

“I’ve been to three of these, and it really felt like there was more going on than ever,” said Ronnie Adamson, 38, of Plano. “I enjoyed it, and my kids were entertained. There was always something to do or see.”

Gerald Owens, a 56-year-old racing fan from San Antonio, said, “I’m more of a purist, I’m here for the F1 and support races, so a lot of this seems like overkill to me. But I can understand the track wanting to attract a younger, bigger crowd.”

Swift drew a reported 83,000 for her Saturday night concert. Although COTA still hasn’t released daily numbers, Epstein said Swift made Saturday, not Sunday, the best attended day.

“We really had two crowds Saturday. Some people left after qualifying and a lot more came in for the evening,” he said. “We had a massive Saturday, well over 100,000 total. Sunday was around 100,000 or a little more.

“Will we have someone like Taylor next year? It depends who’s available. But clearly fans appreciate value for their ticket.”

The Austin Chamber of Commerce estimated the economic impact of this year’s event at $597 million, which would lift the U.S. Grand Prix to about $3 billion for its five-year run. Total attendance, as reported by COTA, is now at 1,246,306.

Bear in mind that a fan who buys a three-day pass is counted three times in those totals. COTA attendance numbers have been viewed with skepticism, but nobody is denying the weekend turnout was massive.

“We’re still collecting data, but we had more international visitors,” said Katja Heim, COTA’s chief operating officer. “The added entertainment and music helped. There was a vibrant feel. The festival-style format, surely we will do that again.”

Austin Bergstrom International Airport officials reported that 23,022 passengers departed the city on Monday, just 142 off the airport’s single-day record of 23,164, which was set the Monday after the 2015 race.

Hamilton hopes for many happy returns.

“This race, the whole week in Austin, with the ambiance and atmosphere, it’s the only grand prix where I go out to dinner every night,” said the three-time world champion driver. “I get here early and experience the city. I’m so glad we still have the grand prix here, and I hope more and more people get exposed to it.”

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