Putting the pedal to the metal took on an entirely new meaning Tuesday night at Circuit of the Americas.
Instead of Formula One machines, sleek sports cars or high-performance motorcycles screaming around the world-class track, nearly 500 bicyclists of all skill levels took leisurely rides on the 3.4-mile layout.
“I’m a big F1 fan, have been to the races before and always wanted to get on this track,” said Autumn Breese, 28, of Houston. “So I made the three-hour trip just for this, and I’ll drive back afterward. Taking a bike out on this road course is every bit as much fun as I expected.”
The bike-riding experience is all part of a master plan to make the sprawling, 1,500-acre sports and entertainment complex in Southeast Austin more accessible to the community.
“We have this big, versatile facility out here and want to fully unlock its potential,” COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein told the American-Statesman. “What we’re driving for now is to reach people who just want to come out here with a group of friends, family, co-workers and have fun. That’s the component we haven’t been able to offer.”
To that end, COTA is rolling out these initiatives in 2017:
• The 10-week biking program on Tuesday nights is expected to grow to 1,000 riders. Track officials expect Lance Armstrong to be on hand next week for the event.
• A seven-eighths of a mile go-kart track adjacent to Lot A will be completed by mid-June. Rental karts will reach speeds of 60 mph, and there will be events in which racing karts reach 90 mph.
• Fifteen Formula America cars have been purchased that can be rented for three-hour programs starting this summer. Drivers will spend time in simulators and in a classroom before taking multiple 20-minute sessions on the circuit.
• The Audi Driving Experience will kick off in June with about 40 high-end sports cars available for five driving programs — autocross challenge, track initiation, track pro, street drive and quattro off road. There will be options for half-day, one-day or two-day rentals.
• A soccer facility is being built in the Grand Plaza area to accommodate FC Barcelona’s new youth training academy, which will open in August. The field will be available for local club teams and tournament play in addition to the FCB Escola campers.
• An RV park is in the works, with COTA officials looking for personnel to manage it.
• Finally, the track cafeteria has been overhauled with a new chef and an upgraded menu. It will be open to the public every day. A beer garden also has been added.
• A third concert area, holding 18,000 to 20,000 people and with a lakeside stage, will be ready for JMBLYA 2017, a music festival that will coincide with the Advance Auto Parts Sportscar Showdown on May 5-6. Chance the Rapper will headline the event.
“We have a lot of events behind the scenes here, and I think it’s been a bit of a mystery to most of the public,” said Katja Heim, the track’s chief operating officer. “Now we’re going to do more things to bring people out here for entertainment, parties, whatever.”
Epstein said two hotel chains have contacted him about building a facility on or near track property. There also is talk of a water-themed park down the road.
“I’m excited about the go-kart track,” Epstein said. “There won’t be anything like it in Austin. You have the K1 Speed indoor place, but we’ll be the only place with basically a mile track that can handle 60-mph karts. It’ll be a rush.”
Epstein also touted COTA’s new driving experiences, which will have price points that allow a wider range of people than previously to test the 20-turn layout.
“We have a lot of private racing clubs, many from California, who rent the track for a whole weekend then resell their slots,” he said. “Sometimes, really high-end clubs fly in from all over with their cars. Businessmen from Japan, Europe, all over bring their rides to COTA.
“Now we’ll have affordable opportunities for people in our community to get out on a world-class Formula One track.”
Circuit of the Americas also offers its most ambitious racing schedule in 2017, one covering nine weekends, not counting the Corvette Invasion car show in mid-July. The MotoGP Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas is next up April 21-23. That event trails only Formula One’s United States Grand Prix in popularity at COTA.
The Austin 360 Amphitheater welcomes dozens of top musicians to the track every year, and COTA also is stepping up its game with both F1 and major international soccer watch parties.
There also are plenty of private events. Manufacturers rent the track for large blocks of time to do product testing, with Mercedes, BMW and others conducting their business behind closed doors.
“They do bring dealers here from throughout the world and show them their latest fleet,” Epstein said. “Sometimes, they haul in hundreds of cars with them.”
COTA also stages off-the-wall events that range from Camp Gladiator for extreme athletes to the Bone Frog Challenge, a Navy SEAL-operated mud and obstacle race on April 29, to the Light the Night walk for lymphoma and leukemia victims.
“We do a lot of Make-A-Wish stuff here and have camps for disadvantaged youth,” Epstein said. “We’ve also had weddings and a funeral. We’ll have 500 events a year here and bring in more than 1 million people. What we want to showcase now is the functionality of the venue.”
Breese wasn’t the only cyclist to enjoy the inaugural ride at COTA earlier this week.
“This brings a different vibe in a cool environment,” said Kelley Ables, director of Holland Racing in Austin. “My group spread the word and is responsible for a lot of these folks being here. It’s only going to grow.”
Susannah Kirtland of Austin noted that the steep 133-foot uphill climb into Turn 1 gets the blood pumping.
“It’s pretty extreme,” she said. “The elevation changes on the course are like prepping you for a roller coaster. I did four laps, and it’s really fun for a social ride. Yeah, I’ll definitely come back. It’s so much safer than riding on city streets.”