Race start, Circuit of the Americas, 2022

‘We were built for racing, unlike Vegas’: COTA boss not concerned by new F1 rivals

2023 F1 season

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Just this past weekend, the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas held one of its biggest events on its annual calendar: the NASCAR Cup Series.

Featuring a handful of special guest drivers including F1 champions Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen and multiple IMSA champion and Daytona 24 Hours winner Jordan Taylor, it was one of several major international motorsport events being held at the now ten-year-old circuit in 2023 – including the United States Grand Prix, which will take place in October.

After a decade of the US Grand Prix at COTA – interrupted only by Covid – Formula 1 appears to have finally found a solid footing in America. Rather than fizzle out like so many other attempts to establish a US race over the decades, attendance at COTA has grown over recent years to the point where it now boasts the largest crowd of the season in terms of total attendance over the race weekend.

F1’s arrival at COTA in 2012 ended its five-year absence from the USA. Now it is one of three American rounds on the 2023 F1 calendar. The introduction of the Miami Grand Prix last year and the much-hyped addition of the Las Vegas Grand Prix near the end of this season means there is effectively a race in the east, west and centre of world’s wealthiest nation.

But COTA chairman Bobby Epstein is confident the popularity of the Texan race will not be diminished by the recent emergence of two rivals in the same country, as F1’s popularity enjoys a boom period in America.

Courting the casuals

Epstein admits that when he first got involved with the sport over 10 years ago: “I can’t say I was an avid, diehard F1 fan.”

“Because it was very hard to follow the sport in the US until more recently,” he told the Black Book Motorsport Forum. “Austin was a fast-growing city and I had this piece of property – my only real estate investment actually – and the idea came up about the possibility of bringing Formula 1 to Austin.

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“I really thought this was a great opportunity to do something for the communities where we live, as well as something that we could make a profit on and we’d have some fun with, and would make a big difference.”

COTA joined the calendar in 2012
It took “several years” for the event to become profitable, but Epstein was convinced Formula 1 was the perfect event around which to construct a major new racing facility.

“The more we talked about and thought about it, we really looked at this as an opportunity to build a world-class entertainment destination, and with F1 as the cornerstone gives us a wonderful brand to start with,” he says. “It brought crowds right away. Our goal for the campus is to make this a place where people want to come and have fun and build memories with friends and family. F1 is one part of that overall picture.”

The United States Grand Prix may have secured record attendances over the last two seasons, but Epstein is under no illusions that the sport is cresting a large ‘Drive to Survive’ wave, growing very popular with casual fans as well as hardcore motorsport fanatics. He says all major motorsport series – be it F1, IndyCar NASCAR or otherwise – need to find ways of trying to hold onto those more casual race-goers.

“In IndyCar, when we’re in Indianapolis, one week you have a quarter-of-a-million people,” he explains. “You take the exact same product, put it in a different but similar venue, but a different location, and you see that attendance is ten or 15% of what it might have been, or less, sometimes. That tells you that’s where the difference is between a ‘diehard fan’ and the ‘event fan’.

“It’s not that we don’t offer the best experience for the diehard motorsports fan. But as is the case in any sport, you’re going to have to appeal to what I call the ‘second tier’ below the diehard fan – it’s not their hobby, it’s not their passion.

“We’re absolutely living, breathing, diehard fans of motorsport. But those sports aren’t going to survive on our interest alone. It’s going to have to be a step down of interest to the casual fan, who is also a fan of an event, and want to be a part it.”

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He believes COTA has certain features which particularly appeal to dedicated fans who know what makes a good motor racing venue to spectate at. “If you’re a diehard motorsports fan, you’ll notice if you come to COTA and you’ll hopefully go away and say ‘that was the best sight line, that was the best view, I saw some action’.

“Because of the hills, you can see five or six turns from a general admission seat, and you can see seven or eight or nine from the reserved seats. That’s unusual, and the diehard fan will recognise that as unusual. The casual fan will just accept it, but they will notice.”

However Epstein is firm in his conviction that motorsport promoters cannot ignore the casual end of the market. “We have to recognise that the percentage of people that are the diehard fans is not enough to sustain the sport alone.

“For any of the motorsport events, the sport itself might survive on TV, but we have to talk about what’s the future, not just in motorsport. What’s the future of motorsport venues, and the sports themselves? I hope we’ve done a good job of utilising that.”

Enough room for three US races?

When it comes to the addition of two other American races on the calendar, Epstein believes there is room for Miami and Las Vegas to coexist with COTA, as the US Grand Prix offers a different kind of race experience to the other two.

“Sometimes competition is good,” he says. “So as long as there’s enough fans, we can have a lot more.

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“But I think our goal is to always be unique and stand out and give the focus on the fans and just do the best we can. I do think for the ticket-buying fan base, we have to be careful and make sure there’s enough fans in the US to buy tickets to sustain it as a venue.

Las Vegas, 2022
F1 is investing heavily in the Las Vegas GP
“I think what you do have to focus on though is – and I think the fans are pretty smart – is the quality of the racing. We have a circuit that’s built for the competition.

“We have advantages over others, so I welcome the competition from that standpoint. I do think the fans that choose to be repeat visitors will choose to come to COTA because we have an advantage.

“We were built for racing. The strip in Vegas was not necessarily built for racing, but it’s a fun place. It’s an international world-class destination.

“It’s going to make great TV. I don’t know how long people go back and buy tickets for it.”

While Italy and Germany once regularly held two races per year, it’s rare to see as many as three in a single country. “They’re obviously competitors,” Epstein concedes, but “I think we have an advantage.”

“There’s a difference, all three events right now are so uniquely different that they [can] all survive.”

One striking difference between the new Las Vegas Grand Prix and the COTA round which will take place a month before it is on the undercard. While no support races will take place at Vegas, COTA featured Formula 4 and the W Series last year.

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Epstein admits Las Vegas may prove an interesting case study of how much other racing fans actually want on a grand prix weekend. “You have to look at the type of support races sometimes,” he explains, “But the fans are going to answer that question.

“We’re going to find that out because, yes, Vegas is much more like dinner and a great show, and then probably the casino or whatever you go to. You get a couple of hours of the on-track entertainment. And we’re going to find out if people want more than that, because I think they do.”

He admits some races failed to draw the attention of fans last year. “We saw W Series really struggle as a support race. The fans didn’t go to the seats, and they didn’t really watch it enough.

“So maybe that tells me that they’re not as important. I think we’ll find out. I hope they’re important, because it’s one of the factors that differentiates us with Las Vegas not going for.

“We think the fans want a lot of value for their investment and I think they want more content. We’ve got 30 hours of ‘programming’. If we find out that all people needed was two hours, we waste a whole lot of effort and a whole lot of money.

“I like to think that they want more content. Whether it’s support races they want or they want a music concert, we got both. But I’m not sure.”

‘Survivor’ shows F1’s potential longevity

The world championship has a long history in the United States from the early days when the Indianapolis 500 was a points-paying round to dedicated road courses, the rise of street races and temporary return to Indianapolis before Austin arrived. But while the race has drifted between being on and off the calendar over the decades, it seems that the race has finally found a permanent home.

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Three races in the US is sustainable, Epstein feels
But as Liberty Media looks to expand in America where Bernie Ecclestone never succeeded, does Epstein believe Formula 1 can hold onto its popularity into the future?

“I think it’s sustainable,” he insists.

“Let’s say we do believe the Netflix effect is real, and that it’s been tremendous, and say what are the components of that? One is the danger and excitement. That’s not going to change. I think Survivor has been on TV 20-plus years – that has that thrill effect to it. And then I think The Bachelor – that has sort of the heartthrob, romance sex-appeal. That’s what you got in F1. So the outlook from the Netflix effect standpoint should be really strong, and it’ll continue for a long time.

“Then I’d ask ‘what about the events?’. Not just the sport, but what’s the sustainability of the events and why do people go? Because that’s what we focus on. Are we going to be here five, ten, 15 years from now? One of the hardest things to buy – what you can’t buy – is tradition.

“You look at some sporting events and ask why are they still around? Indianapolis 500. Why does it draw so many people, or the Kentucky Derby? Or some of these events that were around before TV? People had to go to experience them, and it became a tradition. It becomes a family tradition. And once you have tradition, that’s it.”

Epstein says COTA’s race has already become a traditional fixture for many who attend. “One thing COTA had, because it had a head start on the other events that are taking place in the US, is we have found now that there’s a tradition to families coming back. We see it in our repeat visitors.

“So I think we’ll sustain because we’ve created an atmosphere that people want to come back to. And then for the sports themselves, I think what they offer, and with the Netflix-type connection, the future should be good.”

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...
Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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33 comments on “‘We were built for racing, unlike Vegas’: COTA boss not concerned by new F1 rivals”

  1. If Europe can fit, hang on let me check, no less than 9 races and the Middle East can fit 4 races. I’m pretty sure we can stop complaining about the US having 3 of their own. Counting Mexico and Canada that’s 5 races in an area that’s easily bigger than both those other places. It’s fine.

    1. If we’re just going by size, how many Grand Prix should Formula 1 hold in Russia?

      1. some racing fan
        29th March 2023, 8:10

        Zero (that’s not a direct answer to your question).

      2. That’s a hard one. The boundaries keep changing depending on who you ask.

      3. @proesterchen The size doesn’t really matter. Grass and rocks don’t buy tickets or the stuff F1’s sponsors are trying to sell. Russia allegedly has some 140 million inhabitants, but most of them probably couldn’t get to Sochi if they wanted to. And that number is also going down rather fast, so there’s no reason to have more than 1 race there (or any at all, actually).

        The United States races potentially attract a continent-wide audiece, many of which – including in Mexico – are very interesting to F1’s interests indeed. With North America having a comparable population to Europe (excluding Turkey and Russia), it’s very sensible for F1 to have more races there.

      4. Josh (@canadianjosh)
        29th March 2023, 23:34

        Russia would have a hard time with the race fee at the moment, much of Putler’s play money is going towards ammunition and coffins.

    2. Europe can easily host 15, the F1 is built on European foundations. I miss one more track in the former Eastern bloc, the fans there are no less passionate and knowledgeable than any British or Italian fan and each year they flock Hungaroring, they would easily sell out one more Grand Prix.

  2. I hope COTA does stick around, I see no reason why it shouldn’t. Miami is horrendous, Vegas looks like it should be better than Miami if no where else. I expect Miami will be the first of these 3 US races to go, the new track in Jersey looks like a better long term option. 3 US races might be sustainable, 4 seems too many. But then Liberty is American and it’s probably the market they’re best set up to milk, so we’ll probably end up with 6 US races by 2030.

    1. some racing fan
      30th March 2023, 0:24

      I really, really, REALLY hope F1 does not go to Atlantic City. Atlantic City, New Jersey might be the worst place in the entire developed world. This is a place that will destroy most F1 fandom of those who visit it. It makes Las Vegas look like Paris. It is an abomination of a city. And the track doesn’t even look that good.

    2. If F1 really wants to grow in the US, then they shouldn’t even hesitate at the idea of allowing Andretti in. Unreal.

  3. Has this person seen the absolute clown show that was perpetrated, on their “built for racing” circuit, just this last weekend?

    1. Were the clowns the two ex-F1 drivers that weren’t better drivers than everyone else?

    2. @proesterchen I don’t understand what exactly you’re referencing in your comment, can you explain?

      1. some racing fan
        30th March 2023, 0:18

        He’s talking about the last few laps at the NASCAR race there last Sunday

        1. The Dolphins
          30th March 2023, 1:10

          Was it something caused by or within control of the COTA? I don’t understand the criticism from @proesterchen

    3. Sounds like you watched it……

  4. They must not be aware Spa and other classic tracks has been dropped before for utter classics like Valencia, Sochi and Miami. If or when they ever drop Interlagos I’ll be too bummed to keep watching. They’ve already made it hard with the lack of wet running, drivers like Lando and Bottas who always complain racing in the wet is dangerous portending a new gen of who identify as gladiators but compete like weekend warriors, things like trying to break a tow is now dangerous driving, safety cars for situations that wouldn’t have merited a yellow flag until about three years (primarily due to an overreaction after Bianchi’s tragedy, which to Whiting’s credit stood firm against yet tightened things up, but only within reason).

    When we lost Whiting things immediately became ridiculous. Masi and co arrived they started throwing SCs for things once unthinkable like a car pulled off by the fence in the middle of straight or cars literally parked by the fence in the opposite direction of momentum in that corner. Now were at SCs for cars being parked behind barriers at slow turns, which would’ve made even a VSC or yellow flag laughable (and that GPS claim was clearly just cover).

    1. @Nick T. I trust the GPS claim’s validity (the same thing also led to Gasly’s situation in Suzuka), although that still shouldn’t happen with all their modern technology & tools available.
      As I pointed out before, deploying SC (or red, for that matter) for things manageable under VSC was truly a thing only in 2020 & ’21, & fortunately, stopped after Masi’s sacking, with Stroll’s Jeddah DNF the only questionable deployment post-2021 & as that got caused by something other than a desire for closing up the field, I’m sure it’ll remain a one-off exception.

    2. So many statements factually incorrect here…

      Whiting’s F1-club approach was the exact reason Masi started trying to run F1 in a more formal, open and by-the-book manner – which was met with incredible and unrelenting resistance from within, and which he had insufficient authority to overcome. Ultimately those powers had him removed, but yet the same problems still persist in F1 now.

      Oh, and the ‘GPS Safety Car’ was not behind a wall (it was completely blocking the opening) and was not at a slow corner either. It was in the direct firing line if another car was to go off there.
      And we know how much respect F1 drivers show when they see yellow flags. We just got over the Gasly/Japan saga….

  5. It does seem that having a proper track is a downside since the Liberty entertainment train prefers inner city mickey mouse tracks to boost revenue. So COTA should indeed be very very concerned (as we all should be)

    1. Australia and Canada prove you can have a race in the inner city and not have it be a boring mess. But when profits come over everything else, including the racing action, as we see in Miami and Vegas, then you get abominations.

    2. COTA is in a city of over 1,000,000 people and has seating capacity for more people than any other F1 track. How does a street race that can only hold 20,000 people boost revenue???

      1. COTA doesn’t the greatest seating capacity in F1. Not even close. They started in 2012 with about 80K seats. they’ve reduced that since, to about 56K now. Mexico City, for example, had well over 100K actual seats last year, and they filled them all for three days in a row.

  6. COTA isn’t exactly the most interesting track, even compared to other circuits in the US, but it obviously compares favourably to the abominations that are Miami and Las Vegas. On the basis that we’re never going to see an F1 race around Laguna Seca or Road Atlanta, I hope it stays.

  7. Yeah Spa can claim the same. So does Hockenheim, Nurburgring, and so many others… it’s a business. As long as they can keep milking the cow…

  8. Personally I like COTA. Visually it’s lacking, a bit too Paul Ricard-like with the painted run-off, but I like the uphill drag at the start, the twisty section on top when it’s gusty, then some good overtaking corners and sequences. Somehow reading ‘it was built for racing’ makes me think Liberty/FIA hear that and think: “hummm, better ditch that circuit then, clearly we can’t be maximizing our profits if it was just built for racing.” I’m being serious.

  9. I like COTA. It’s unique it has something other tracks don’t have. Of course a track is a track and it can only have left or right turns but there are a lot of unique tracks. Monaco has walls very close. Monza has an atmosphere. COTA has great turns. I don’t have an opinion on Miami. Vegas has Vegas and I think that is a big factor. It still needs to be a good track.

    1. I like COTA too and yes, it is unique, with something other tracks don’t have…..the BUMPS from the track continually sinking. I hope they can rectify that.

      1. The Dolphins
        30th March 2023, 1:22

        @sundiesel it’s going to be a longterm issue and they will continue to resurface the affected sections. Some bumps (in slower speed sections) add to the entertainment so it’s not all bad.

        @qeki the same can be said about many tracks re: unique: Suzuka loops over itself, Baku has the longest straight, Mexico City has the highest top speed (Monza used to.) Miami has a fake marina, Monaco has a real one and a casino, Las Vegas has more casinos and no soul.

        1. Even so the stage(d) show of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will have its appeal to a certain audience.

  10. LOL. Bobby Epstein just can’t help himself … very time he opens his mouth, nonense.

    Yes, he had a piece of property, but he didn’t just decide to put a race track on it for the community, and he didn’t come up with the idea, lol. He tried for years to build a large housing development on the original property, which was mostly in a flood plain. There was much resistance locally to that idea, and he was left with property he couldn’t really use, that nobody wanted. Then a friend of Epstein’s introduced him to Tavo Hellmund.

    Hellmund had worked for years lobbying the Texas legislature and the governor to include F1 in a major event subsidy. Once he got that legislation, he lobbied his friend Bernie Ecclestone to grant him the F1 rights for a race in Texas, which he eventually received.

    Tavo was looking for a place to build the track, and had pretty much settled on the very hilly ‘Wildhorse’ tract northeast of Austin. That’s when he was introduced to Epstein by a rather shady character we’ll call K2. Probably against his better judgement, Hellmund entered an agreement with Epstein to build the track on his property. They started obtaining more surrounding properties, up the hill from the flood plain where Epstein had wanted to build a flood-prone neighborhood.

    Long story short, Epstein then forced Hellmund out of the project and took the F1 race rights from him. Hellmund sued for damages in court, and settled for a reportedly fairly large payout from Epstein, but he no longer had any sway over the F1 project into which he had put so much blood, sweat, and tears. THAT is who Bobby Epstein is. Without the F1 rights (secured by Hellmund), and without the subsidy money (secured by Hellmund), COTA quite simply would not exist. Period.

    The reason it took several years for the race to become profitable is because of massive cost overruns induced by a construction delay that ensued when Epstein forced Hellmund out. That, and because of several unnecessary additions Epstein made to the project. Hellmund had planned a project budget of about $225-250M. That ballooned to about $450-500M after the construction delay and the add-ons. This forced Epstein to take on high-interest debt, as well, which compounded the profitability issues.

    The reason COTA has the great layout and great sightlines etc that Epstein brags about, is because Tavo Hellmund designed it that way. Hellmund did it all, yet somehow these articles get written over and over without giving him credit. If you like COTA, indeed if you like having F1 in the US and Mexico, then you can thank Tavo Hellmund, not Bobby Epstein.

  11. For all of Epstein’s talk about COTA being ‘built for racing’ and ‘built for competition’, there really is a striking lack of racing going on there. So far, COTA has lost V8 Supercars, IndyCar, WEC, IMSA, the 24H Series, Creventic, GRC, and more, with some of them leaving before their contracts had finished. V8SC left after one race weekend. Now we’re left with F1, MotoGP, NASCAR, and recently-added SRO.

    And re: his boasting about ‘value for the spectator’s money, and having more support racing than Vegas, which has none … maybe he should look south of the equator to Australia. 15 races across 4 days. F1, 4 V8SC races, 3 Porsche Carrera Cup races, 2 F2 races, 2 F3 races, 3 Historic GP races, plus all of the associate practice and qualifying sessions for all.

    THAT is value for the spectator, and in Australia, even with all of that action on tap, you can get a 4 Day GA pass for $100-150 less than the cost of 3 Day Parking at COTA, and Oz throws in transportation to and from the circuit. Or if you want to sit in a seat, Melbourne’s most expensive grandstand seat is about $200 less than 3 Day GA at COTA. Their least expensive grandstand seat also costs less than 3 Days of parking at COTA.

    Amazing bang for the buck. I could get a R/T air ticket from Austin to Melbourne and a 4 Day GA ticket for only about $500 more than the cost of 3 Day Parking and GA at COTA, which is 20 minutes from me. Come to think of it, I need to start planning that trip now.

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