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Formula 1 versus NASCAR: An F1 newbie reflects on the 2013 Grand Prix experience

A Formula 1 newbie reflects on his 2013 U.S. Grand Prix experience

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F1 offered a rather new and welcome experience to one returning racing fan. Photo by Kevin McCauley
Matt LeBlanc at COTA during F1 US Grand Prix 2013
How you doin', Matt LeBlanc? Photo by Kevin McCauley
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Matt LeBlanc at COTA during F1 US Grand Prix 2013

The 2013 U.S. Grand Prix has come to a close, with thousands of racing fans returning home to all corners of the globe and Austin residents rejoicing that traffic is back to being just horrible instead of abysmal. While attendance did slip a bit compared to last year, more than a quarter of a million fans still drove out to the boonies of Austin to take part in three days of racing.

While this year’s Grand Prix may not have reached the same level of hype as 2012, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves at the Circuit of the Americas, and the day did teach one relative neophyte a few things about the world of Formula One.

 On the ground at COTA, it didn’t feel as if the 99 percent were shut out at the gate. The crowd was mostly regular middle-class families and friends spending a weekend out watching fast cars. 

That newcomer would happen to be me. While Sunday was my first Formula One race, it wasn't my first exposure to racing in general. From late elementary school to early high school, I attended my fair share of races in Texas, from the Grand Prix of Houston to Texas Motor Speedway.

As I headed out for Sunday’s Grand Prix, I found myself comparing the Formula One experience to that of IndyCar racing or NASCAR. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I was comparing the difference between watching races in Houston and Fort Worth with Austin’s race track. It was familiar enough to ease me back into the racing mindset, while different enough to make me wonder if I should start watching racing more often again.

Culturally speaking, F1 definitely feels different from NASCAR. F1 has a reputation for attracting some super high-class fans to the race — and to the extravagant parties thrown over the weekend. NASCAR, however, is all about having cities of a couple hundred thousand just sprout up overnight. RVs and pickups stretch as far as the eye can see, along with forests of American, Texas, Confederate and Dale Earnhardt Jr. flags flying freely in the breeze.

But at COTA, it didn’t feel as if the 99 percent were shut out at the gate. By and large, the crowd is mostly just regular, middle-class folks spending a weekend out watching fast cars with plenty of food and drink. F1 may like to sell itself as a luxury lifestyle brand, but it seems at first glance that people with normal salaries still make up the rank and file of its fan base (at least in Austin).

 A racing league instantly grabs my attention if it mimics the rules of Mario Kart. 

Although it would be nice if COTA could be surrounded by a large swath of RVs and tailgates like you might see outside of Texas Motor Speedway. No one likes paying five bucks for a Coke, and you get a better sense of community and fellowship with fans when you can just wander around to get invited to enjoy some free barbecue and beer from random strangers. Say what you will about NASCAR fans, they get hospitality.

That's not to say COTA is without hospitality. For every race I’ve been to in the past, I've sat in the grandstands. While you get better views of the entire race track up there, the option to sit in the grass at various turns is pretty welcome, and I would have to agree that sitting on the hill near Turn 2 is a good insider tip. It would be nice, though, if COTA could check to make sure that those areas are clear of anthills before race weekend.

 I would agree that sitting on the hill near Turn 2 is a good insider tip. It would be nice, though, if COTA could check to make sure that those areas are clear of anthills before race weekend. 

As far as the race itself, it was easier for me to keep an interest in it, at least compared to the days when I had the normal attention span of a preteen who just wants to play Pokemon. I do like the fact that a Formula One race lasts for only two hours max, compared to NASCAR races that never seem to end.

Another fun fact I learned about F1 is that the race starts out with the cars at a standstill at the starting grid to wait for some lights to indicate when they can take off. A racing league instantly grabs my attention if it mimics the rules of Mario Kart.

Perhaps the only drawback to Formula One right now is the fact that Sebastian Vettel is completely dominating the sport with all of his consecutive wins and championships. It's tiring to see the winning streaks where the Goliaths always crush the Davids. I’m used to seeing the likes of Alabama or John Cena always coming out on top, so Vettel is nothing new to me.

In the end, what might bring me back to catch more F1 action is that it lets me know what certain celebrities — Matt LeBlanc, for instance — are up to these days. I’m comforted to know that he’s still around and enjoying the good life. Maybe at next year’s Grand Prix I can find out if David Schwimmer is still around as well. Perhaps we’re witnessing the slow build-up to a complete Friends reunion at a future U.S. Grand Prix.

Make it happen, Bernie Ecclestone.