Epstein steers talk to idea of a NASCAR race at COTA


NASCAR has expressed interest in having more races that aren’t on oval tracks.

The change in management of Formula One could open a door to Austin for NASCAR.

While NASCAR gears up for Sunday’s Daytona 500, its kickoff and signature event, Circuit of the Americas officials are casting their eyes toward the most popular racing series in the United States.

COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein told the American-Statesman recently that he’s interested in pursuing a race for Austin in NASCAR’s top-tier series.

“I’ve had contact with NASCAR officials, and we’ve heard from their fans and drivers,” Epstein said. “Everyone seems to want to be here, so I see no reason why it couldn’t come together.”

The mere thought of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick negotiating the twists, turns, esses and elevation changes along the 3.4-mile circuit stirs the imagination.

“It’s something fans are asking for in droves,” Epstein said. “We hear it, and I’m assuming (NASCAR) hears it, too. They are continuing to tweak their product, looking for new ideas. This would be something different, a change of pace.

“I’d be pretty optimistic it could happen because NASCAR said they want more road courses, more non-ovals. Now that they’ve said that, this is the best one in the country. So if enough fans want them here, I think they’ll be here one day.”

Epstein did not put a timetable on a possible race at COTA. NASCAR currently has two road-course events — at Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y. — jammed into a crowded 36-race schedule that stretches from late February to mid-November.

Steve O’Donnell, a NASCAR executive vice president, acknowledged last year that fans have been asking for different types of races and venues.

Significant obstacles could stand in the way of Austin landing a race. Most of the tracks where NASCAR races are owned by Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports — including Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth — or the France family’s International Speedway Corp. It’s highly unlikely either would give up a race.

Texas Motor Speedway could see a COTA event as competition, too. TMS President Eddie Gossage is in Daytona Beach, Fla., this week and was unavailable for comment. Efforts to reach NASCAR officials about the possibility of a road race at COTA also were unsuccessful.

Formula One management hasn’t viewed NASCAR favorably in the past, but Epstein said the takeover of F1 by U.S.-based Liberty Media could ease the way to a purpose-built F1 track co-existing with NASCAR.

“I think the objections might be a little lighter than they used to be,” he said. “I don’t think they would fight it strongly. That might be one of the healthy changes that could happen with Liberty’s ownership.”

Some NASCAR drivers and teams have toured COTA in the past, giving it rave reviews.

“The drivers and teams love this track and the city,” said Katja Heim, chief operating officer for Circuit of the Americas. “I think they’d enjoy a race here. We have a lot to offer.”

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, now a Fox analyst, said at November’s U.S. Grand Prix that COTA could be an intriguing site for NASCAR.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion who will start eighth in the Daytona 500, told the American-Statesman a few years back while testing at COTA: “This could work. With the tight corners, you could just dive-bomb people. It’d be fun and frustrating all at once. It’s an amazing track that brings a lot of worlds to one place.”

Epstein doesn’t know what the odds are, but he’s bullish on the idea.

“NASCAR should be here — I will tell you that,” he said. “I think their fans want them here, and I think it’s good for the sport.”

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