Even for the state of Texas, the scale of the Austin Grand Prix is massive. The Circuit of the Americas, as the track is known, is simply huge: It’s a decent size for the state, though what’s going on is with a more complex flavor. Walking into the Paddock Club, people strutting loud techno and beautiful people strutting around like slick Abercrombie and Fitch models with cocktails in tiny bottles of Patrón, a friend looked at me and said, “This ain’t NASCAR.” Indeed it is not.
Formula 1 racing, one of the most popular sports in the world, is starting to gain a foothold in the US, in part because of the Netflix series campaign to survive. More than 400,000 spirits attended Austin’s event this year—you can see them around bars and food trucks, decked out in Ferrari red, McLaren orange, or Mercedes black. Every now and then, a police escort would surround the racing teams on their way through town and out onto the track.
The sport itself is incomprehensible. I think it’s the only one in the world that requires a slide rule to determine the winner. You say, “But it’s a race.” “Of course you just have to come first.” Not in your life. There are qualifying rounds, engine penalties and a host of other ambiguities in the rule books that would take a PhD to understand. However, in this race, when Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz crashed out of pole early on and World Champion Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing took the lead, everyone in the foyer said “Now Verstappen is going to win”. I said, “What do you mean will win over? It was only eight laps.” And they said, “I mean he’s going to win” with that European sense of certainty. “So why are we watching?” I asked. Sure enough, he won.
The live viewing experience is a bit confusing. I attended as a guest of a team sponsor with very high seating and access. The hotel lobby, with its champagne and hors d’oeuvres, overlooked bleachers beside pit row. Across from us was the main grandstand. We can see, I don’t know, maybe one-twentieth of the track? About every minute or so, the candy-colored race cars darted by, with a staccato sound breaking decibels as each one passed, then they disappeared and we resumed watching the racing on the big screens.
The sound is impressive – earplugs are provided and plenty wearable. To someone they said to anyone who was listening, “It was louder than that.” There was a sad longing in the feelings, as if they were fondly remembering how blood gushed from their aching ears.
Among the comforts of my personal significant other was a track ride: I rode on a flat with a few dozen richies to drive around the curved, skewed race course in black. Looking up we saw fans in the tens of thousands in the stands or sitting in the garden. I waved toasts to them in my flat bed, but I looked carefully and the crowd wasn’t waving at them, or if they were only present with one finger. “They don’t cheer,” I tell a couple in their Ferrari gear. “They don’t like us.” But that doesn’t matter.
Class animosities aside, a Formula 1 weekend is so much more than just a race. It saturates the city just as it does the Super Bowl. Part of what’s amazing is the number of employees F1 brings with them – it’s like a terrestrial invasion. Europeans are everywhere (you can tell by their weird sneakers). The waitstaff, the chauffeurs of the SUVs, the welcoming, the attractive women who sell the goods: they all drop off for three days and then disappear to Mexico City, or Tokyo, or wherever the next event is taking place. Foreign fans generally adapted to local customs, though when the national anthem was playing most of the conversation, Americans continued to crowd, hearts clutching, daggers staring. Then we nodded our patriotic “well done” to each other.
It seemed the locals were all for Formula 1. On the way to an unrelated TV appearance, my driver was amazed that later that day he would be driving a yellow Camaro stretch limousine. And I mean why not? He was a well-traveled young man with a stunning asymmetrical burlet, the kind that reminds you that the real Matthew McConaughey is, well, well. As we smoked cigarettes in the dark morning below the state capitol, he told me he still prefers NASCAR, both sport and style, but he’s clearly got a kick out of his European cousin’s more sophisticated festival.
Will Formula 1 be a huge success in the United States? In some ways it really is. This year’s championship saw races in Miami, Austin and Las Vegas. However, even top drivers, and some of the world’s most famous athletes, can wander into a shopping mall in Central Jersey without being recognized. It’s hard to see F1 becoming standard fare on the American sports scene like NASCAR, but it’s an amazing spectacle nonetheless.
As one F1 employee, a blond British guy who races cars when not meeting VIPs, explained: “It’s the circus! The circus is in town.” Look the part. Everyone did. There may be no elephants, and what constitutes a clown car is debatable, but Grand Prix transports you to glimpses of moments, between traffic jams and overpriced parking, to the sensual load of glamor, fashion and fame mixed with the enticing scent of burning rubber.
Vroom Vroom. Grand Prix in the city.
This article was originally published in viewerInternational Edition December 2022.
The publication How Formula 1 Initially Captured America appeared on The Spectator World.