The biggest name in Formula One believes Circuit of the Americas has found the groove when it comes to turning F1 events into major spectacles.
Lewis Hamilton, the soon-to-be four-time world champion, gushed about the festival atmosphere and the expanded pre-race ceremonies Sunday for the United States Grand Prix, which the Mercedes driver won for the fourth consecutive year.
“I think they just made the Super Bowl here,” said the 32-year-old Brit, who’s likely to lock up the points title this week in Mexico City. “I think the entertainment was the best we’ve seen, the drum line, the marching bands, all the major music acts. Yeah, I think the whole set-up was amazing.
“It was great to see something different. For many years, it’s been the same old boring thing on the grid. This was more like an NFL game, which is exciting, with the fireworks and everything, so I think they did a really great job at COTA.”
Track chairman Bobby Epstein, taking a cue from other F1 venues, no longer releases attendance numbers, but he was more than pleased with the weekend, which included concerts by Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder along with 30 Texas bands, marching bands from Prairie View A&M and Texas State, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and Michael Buffer’s “let’s get ready to rumble” driver intros.
“Easily the best U.S. Grand Prix,” Epstein told the American-Statesman. “The crowds were incredible, the racing fierce and the experience off the charts.
“The thunderstorm in the morning scared off some of our walk-up general-admission crowd (Sunday), but we did terrific with premium seating and sold out most of our grandstands. People had picnics and stayed on the grounds. I am thrilled.”
When COTA was still releasing crowd counts, it reported a track-record total of 269,889 fans for the three-day weekend in 2016.
Formula One owners are pushing more of the circuits to ratchet up the entertainment to give their grand prixes a Super Bowl or Final Four-like feel.
“We need more energy off the grid, and COTA sets a good example. I want the three- and four-day festivals,” F1 managing director Sean Bratches told the Statesman last Friday in an exclusive interview. “We’re very fortunate in Austin to have Bobby Epstein, an individual who understands the dynamic of marketing and spectacle. (COTA chief operating officer) Katja Heim is a total rock star and a master at promoting.
“We’re going to draft off each other.”
Not all drivers were swept up in the party atmosphere or extended pre-race activities at COTA.
“For the people, it might be nice. For me, I don’t really care, to be honest,” said Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who finished second Sunday. “I like jumping in the car and racing. I’m not a big showman.”
Vettel is not interested in his German home track, Hockenheim, adding COTA’s bells and whistles.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Germans are very difficult to get excited. Americans appreciate that sort of atmosphere and entertainment a lot more. I think Germans are maybe a little slower on that front.”
Epstein said he heard good things not just from Hamilton but from racing teams in the middle and back of the F1 pack.
“The teams love coming to Texas, and our community has made them feel so welcome,” he said. “It took a few years for Austin to fully embrace the grand prix, but it’s finally happened.”