Auto racing fans the world over, glued to Twitter feeds and streaming video of Austin City Council hearings, are alight with joy that Austin politicians voted 5-2 to endorse the F1 United States Grand Prix, to be held in Elroy, Texas (near Austin for you out-of-staters).
Now, with news that a lawsuit filed to stop the state’s $25 million annual subsidy for the race, isn’t getting traction, it seems that Formula One is officially back in America.
But a quiet fact has floated off the radar screen: They have to build the damn thing in less than a year in order to make a race date of June 17, 2012, as announced and reported without a shred of journalistic skepticism by Austin’s local media.
Here is one fact staring Austin's F1 builders in the face: only three of the seven Formula One tracks built since 1998 were completed in under 18 months.
The whole enchilada will have to be completed at least 30 days prior to the race, said Paxton Waters, a racetrack design expert who has teamed up with NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon to design the Canadian Motor Speedway.
Waters compared racetrack building to buying a new baseball glove, “you can’t just buy a new glove and play ball, they have to be broken in.”
But race fans and hotel operators -- and the University of Texas football system -- should take note: While the Formula One press managers cheerily tell the public "construction is on schedule," and while local reporters swallow it like a grande mocha latte, the truth is much more bitter and guaranteed to make you dizzy.
The truth is Formula One pushers still don't have permission to start construction on any of the actual buildings needed to house a spectacle such as F1, all they can do is start pouring the track, build a couple of tunnels and keep pushing dirt around (moving dirt to contour the track began in February, 2011). They only received permission to start actual track construction, by the way, at the end of June, despite claiming construction was "under way".
The Achilles' heel, Waters said, will be building and testing the myriad of support facilities that go around the track. The grandstands alone take six to seven months to build -- considering design, steel delivery and construction, he said.
Formula One’s culture of money and excess, coupled with Austin’s entrepreneurial culture has bred some serious F1 hype. As an indicator of how reality compares to the hype, organizers have announced that the Circuit of the Americas will have a 120,000-person capacity, but according to a spokeswoman, they're not sure where they're going to put everyone or how many will be in seats and how many will be on the grass. That means, at the least, the grandstand and bleachers are still being designed and are not ready to be built.
Of course anything is possible with enough money and Formula One is nothing if not full of money. For example, in Bahrain -- where peaceful protesters were attacked by the government this year and medical workers are being imprisoned for helping the wounded -- the unlimited royal money financed the track, and toward the end, worked 24-hours a day with more than 10,000 workers on scene. They started work in November, 2002 with completion and their first Formula One race in March, 2004. While that desert track had challenges not shared by Austin's, it's also smaller, with a total capacity of about 50,000, compared to 120,000 at the Circuit of the Americas.
Here is one fact staring Austin's F1 builders in the face: only three of the seven Formula One tracks built since 1998 were completed in under 18 months - China, Bahrain and Malaysia. All countries with, shall we say, ways of motivating citizens to work fast.
“You really have 10 months (in Austin),” Paxton said. “It does not make any sense.”
Even if you choose to place the start of construction at February, you still have a 15 month, very aggressive timeline. And, unlike China, Bahrain and Malaysia, local officials in America have developed a lengthy and stringent list of criteria, just released, that could halt track construction at any time. Observant on-lookers will note that the Circuit of the America’s homepage is already planting a bug that the race date will be delayed.
When will it be moved? To November, before or after the Brazilian Grand Prix. Pinky swear.
That solves two problems.
It won’t be hot as hell and it will give construction crews and engineers an extra five months of breathing room to get the track built and avoid a international black eye, as South Korea felt last year.
Why would race promoters aim for a date they probably know they cannot meet?
“They might be wanting to keep the screws on. If they keep the pedal down they get quick reactions from people they would not normally get,” Paxton said. “My gut feeling is we are commenting on bad information.”
By setting a June 2012 date, F1 legally cleared the way for local lobbyists to trigger the flow of funds from the state. Money from the Texas Major Events Trust Fund can not be applied for earlier than one year ahead of the race date. It was that faux deadline that sparked the big Austin City Council hearings last month.
Watch a video of the latest work being done on site at the Circuit of the Americas track. Provided by Circuit of the Americas.