Entertainment revs up U.S. Grand Prix weekend at COTA

The Austin City Limits Music Festival won’t be the only soundtrack playing in Austin next month.

Sensing the U.S. Grand Prix was at a critical juncture, Circuit of the Americas officials ratcheted up the horsepower on their prized Formula One weekend.

This year’s event, just three weeks from now, will feature concerts by pop star Taylor Swift and two-time Grammy winner the Weeknd, 20 Austin-area bands, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, a world renowned soccer ball juggler, contortionists and another dozen pop-up acts.

“We had to do something dramatic,” COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein told the American-Statesman. “We’re morphing this into full festival mode. There will be something for everyone.

“We sat around a room, and everyone threw out ideas, even crazy ones, and we sort of ranked them. The end result is we’ll have entertainment all over the track. The goal is to have fans feeling that anywhere they walk, they can take a picture and say, ‘Can you believe I saw this at the U.S. Grand Prix?’ ”

Ticket buyers are responding. After a three-year dip in sales and abysmal weather last year, Circuit of the Americas is on pace to have its biggest crowds since the inaugural race in 2012, when track officials reported a three-day attendance figure of 265,499, including 117,429 folks on race day.

“We’re almost out of reserve seats, and certain grandstands are sold out,” said Katja Heim, COTA’s new chief operating officer. “We’ve got a lot of room out here, though.”

Swift’s show is a serious ticket driver, and Epstein said, “We’ll probably have to cut off Saturday sales because that concert will put us to capacity.”

Epstein is proud of all the local music that’s been added. The lineup will be announced next week.

“We’re adding two stages to every entrance,” he said. “There are 20 bands, each with character. We chose them for different reasons: showmanship, costuming, type of instruments they play. From the moment you step inside the gate, you’ll sense it’ll be a unique experience.”

Of the newly added acts, Epstein gets a particular kick out of Iya Traore, an African-born soccer freestyler who has been featured three times by the Guinness Book of World Records for his ball skills and tricks.

“This guy is amazing. He’ll do three or four shows a day,” Epstein said. “We’re flying him in from France. We needed a special visa to get him in the country.”

Heim, a native of Germany, said of the weekend’s eclectic mix of events, “We’re bringing together what Americans like in terms of entertainment with things that attract sophisticated Europeans.”

Last year’s torrential downpours turned the circuit into a quagmire for many flustered, even angry, fans. Long wait times for shuttles also were a turnoff.

COTA went to work on those problems by upgrading 12,000 parking spots, paving gravel roads and putting temporary concessions and restrooms on reinforced ground.

“We also invested heavily in a transportation plan and have a guaranteed wait time for buses from the Travis County Expo Center and Burger Stadium,” Epstein said. “If we don’t deliver in time, you get your shuttle money back.”

Some fans who attended last year’s F1 race and the recent Lone Star Le Mans saw signs of improvement.

“The parking lots and walking areas look like they’re on more solid ground,” said Pat Forrester, a 52-year-old racing fan from the Houston area. “Of course, it’s dry right now. The track itself is top shelf — world-class — but nobody wants to get stuck in mud.”

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