AUSTIN, Texas — Consider the pit stop. In Formula One racing, the pit stop lasts about as long as it took you to read that first sentence. It is a blink of futuristic engineering — tires come off, tires go on, adjustments to the cars’ aerodynamics are made, there is no refueling — and the whole thing takes less than three seconds.
There is none of the choreographed mayhem of, say, a full-blooded NASCAR pit stop, where crew members seem to attack a car like a swarm of piranha. The Formula One pit stop is as fast and thrilling and magical as a Ricky Jay card trick. You don’t see it happen. You don’t know how it happened. You just are awed.
And that’s just the pit stop.
You get the feeling, wandering Austin as we lead up to the United States Grand Prix ("F1 Extra" airs Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC; the race itself starts Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on NBC and Live Extra; ), the only Formula One race in America, that what’s coming here is not so much a sporting event but something more like a James Bond movie. It’s international and glamorous, it’s Monte Carlo and cars with gold foil shielding heat from the engine (yes, really), it’s hairpin turns and palpable danger and so many cool gadgets.
People pour in from all over the world. Different accents echo in Texas barbecue restaurants. Private jets line Austin/Bergstrom International Airport. There’s an $85,000 Lotus in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel for no apparent reason at all and a Dell store pops up for three days downtown and a Red Bull technology wizard stops by at the University of Texas to talk to engineering students about how to build a Formula One car. (Hint: Bring your wallet).
They do big sporting events in Texas all the time. Texas football games get more than 100,000 people. Dallas is only three hours away from Austin and Dallas has had just about every major American sporting event — Super Bowl, World Cup, All-Star games, the Final Four is coming. The X-Games are coming. But Formula One is just different.
For one thing, the racing teams are coming from Abu Dhabi. That’s 8,223 miles if you are scoring at home.
And, next week, they’re all going to Brazil.
“It’s just such an international event,” says Mike Rollins, President and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “This is just different than something like the the Super Bowl or All-Star Games. In those events it feels like you are inviting the world in. But with something like Formula One, it’s like the world is inviting Austin into the international sporting community.”
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Of course, it’s really silly to compare Formula One and NASCAR. So let’s do it. Sometimes you will hear people say that they are very different versions of the same sport — not unlike pro football and college football. But that really isn’t it. They are different sports entirely with different values, different purposes and different objectives. The comparison is more like hockey and basketball — they both have nets. That’s about it.
NASCAR, of course, is distinctly American, born in the Appalachian mountains by bootleggers driving away from police officers, and the sport has been fueled by intrepid drivers and spectacular crashes and America’s love of cars. They still race in smaller places, like Talladega, Daytona, Darlington, Martinsville and Bristol. They really used to be stock cars, the sort you could build at home if you had the know-how and the parts. Now NASCAR cars are million-dollar behemoths with painted-on headlights and supercharged engines engineered in a way that does not resemble what you drive on the highway. But they do look somewhat like cars you might see on the highway.
A Formula One car, meanwhile, is less car and more spaceship. This is no exaggeration. Each Formula One team has a bank of computers and a bunch of people studying the cars' vitals so closely that it looks like a scene right out of Apollo 13 (“Let’s work the problem, people!”). Formula One cars look nothing like street cars and tend to cost roughly four times as much to build as NASCAR cars. There are 17 levers and buttons on a Formula One steering wheel. Seventeen. There are none on a NASCAR steering wheel. Though a Formula One and NASCAR car tend to reach similar top speeds, the Formula One has more than twice as much lateral g-force — which measures the gravitational force felt in the turns. So Formula One cars go much faster in and out of turns — and there are many, many more turns in Formula One than in stock car racing. The Circuit of the Americas track in Austin has 20 turns, both left and right, while a typical NASCAR track has, well, four turns. All left.
Formula One cars, unlike NASCAR cars, do not bump well into each other.
But the bigger difference is in the sense of purpose. In a way it’s ironic that NASCAR has come to represent for many a Red State, Republican, free-market political viewpoint because it’s likely that no sport on earth is as regulated or government controlled. Everything in NASCAR is run by NASCAR itself. And everything is geared toward equality, meaning that the sport does everything in its power to make sure the cars have precisely the same specs. Research is very closely monitored (or quashed). Restrictor plates are put on the cars at certain tracks like Dayton and Talladega to make sure nobody goes too fast. Caution flag rules tend to punish any car that has built up a big lead. As seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher once said, NASCAR races are often more about tactics than simply building the fastest car and driving it the fastest.
Formula One, meanwhile, is a free market free-for-all. There are no limits on what teams can spend, and so the top teams — Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus— will spend many multiples of what some of the smaller teams do. Teams go out of business in Formula One all the time — in recent years even powerhouse companies like Honda and Toyota have pulled out of Formula One. There are only 11 teams in the sport right now and several of them always seem to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. A top Formula One team like Red Bull will spend almost a half billion this year — with more than $100 million of that going toward research and development.
And so, in Formula One, it DOES come down to the fastest car and the fastest driver. Sebastian Vettel, who has already clinched his fourth consecutive Formula One championship, just won the race in Abu Dhabi by more than 30 seconds, a ridiculous difference. It was his seventh victory in a row, and right now he and his Red Bull car are so dominant that some people openly wonder if he will need to leave his team at some point just to prove he could win without a car that is far and away the best in Formula One.
Jimmie Johnson, who is on the brink of winning his sixth NASCAR championship, has his own thought on the two sports. He says that in NASCAR, a driver needs to have a good sense about the limitations of the car. You can only push a 3,400-pound machine into the corners so hard, and drivers who push past the line will feel the wrath of gravity and force. “It’s important,” Johnson says. “to maintain a healthy fear, or respect, for what you can and can’t do.”
But Johnson says that Formula One cars are so absurdly advanced that boldness is rewarded because, “the car can do even more than the driver would ever ask.” These Formula One cars are something close to limitless.
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The history of Formula One racing in America is pretty spotty. In the 1950s, the Indianapolis 500 was part of the Grand Prix World Championship, and then for 20 years there was a Formula One race at Watkins Glen in New York. Money problems ended that run in 1980. There was a Formula One race in Phoenix for three years. Then there was one in Indianapolis until 2007, but it was often troubled (in 2005, because of tire problems, only six cars competed). For four years, there was no Formula One race in America.
Then Austin entered the picture. Formula One wanted a race in America — it’s good for the sport, obviously. For Austin, the appeal was direct and familiar: Formula One Racing offered a shot at the big leagues. Here was a chance — as Rollins says — to put Austin not only on the American map but on the world map.
It wasn’t easy to pull off — it never is. Austin was trying to build the first-ever course specifically for Formula One. It was hugely expensive. There were lawsuits. There were political battles. There were many people who questioned the wisdom of focusing so much energy on a Formula One race. At different times it looked like the $300 million track would not be built and the race would not be run.
But in the end, it came together. The race debuted in 2012. About 265,000 people showed up for the three days of racing, a pretty staggering number. For a week, the city was transformed and they got mostly rave reviews (the race won the “2013 Sports Event of the Year” award from the Sports Business Journal). Get ready for some Chamber of Commerce numbers: Rollins quotes studies showing that more than $293 million was funneled into the Austin economy for last year’s race (“That’s with no multipliers, we’re talking direct impact,” he says). He estimates that there was more than $200 million worth of media attention focused on Austin last year.
Of course, it’s the Chamber of Commerce’s job to pump up events like this, and such numbers are always viewed cynically by other groups. But Rollins insists that the race “far exceeded even our highest expectations.” He says there have been indirect benefits too — he points to the new non-stop British Airways flight from Austin to London and suggests that Formula One was one of the reasons why it happened. He thinks worldwide companies will have an awareness of Austin that they did not have before.
“I know there are people around the world who may not have ever heard of Austin who now know it exists,” Rollins says. “We never could have paid for that kind of media attention.”
But perhaps more than anything, people seem to love that the race ties Austin into the international community. Austin has always had a powerful sense of self as an eclectic place. The music scene, of course, is famous all over the world — Austin City Limits and so on. Actors like Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey closely associate themselves with the city. There’s a major food scene in Austin. There’s a general coolness quotient about Austin. And, of course, there’s the University of Texas, which is like its own country. As one Austin resident said (he asked not to be named): “What is the most famous Formula One race? Monte Carlo, right? It’s arrogant but we kind of like to think of ourselves as America’s Monte Carlo.”
Everyone expects there to be something of a drop in local interest and attendance this year — what Rollins and others call a “sophomore slump,” that seems natural the second time around. Sustainability has been the problem with Formula One in America (as one NASCAR official said after last year’s success, “Let’s see how they do next year.”). Last year, it’s estimated, that about 30 percent of the people who came to the races were international (most from Mexico and Canada) and about 35 percent from American states outside of Texas. That left only about 35 percent from Texas itself — and that’s the number that people around the race expect (and hope) will go up as people become more familiar with Formula One racing.
Will that happen? That’s hard to say. This weekend will be something else in Austin. On Saturday, Texas plays No. 12 Oklahoma State at home and there will be the usual rabid 100,000-plus to watch. On Sunday, the only Formula One race in America will take place, and more than 100,000 will watch too.
How many of those 100,000 will be the same people?
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In the F1 Racing program that was enclosed in the Austin newspaper and was given out around town and at the airport, there’s a fun story by British journalist Peter Windsor about how cool American drivers have always seemed in Formula One. There are no American drivers at the top level of Formula One now, but in the past, he writes, there was the stylish Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney driving around his stylish Eagle Mk1 in 1967 and the opera-loving Phil Hill, who won the championship in 1961.
“Just why America’s F1 stars seem so resolutely cool,” Windsor leads his story, “is a question that I and many F1 fans can hammer into long nights of discussion. Perhaps the answer is simple: Maybe it is the James Dean element — the toned, sun-tanned American in the polo shirt, driving for Porsche or Ferrari when the roads were dusty and the dangers were absolute.”
It is that kind of glamour that Formula One constantly reaches for still.