F1 is back on the menu as stars head to Austin, but will America bite
22:30 GMT, 15 November 2012
An entrepreneurial bond trader, Formula One’s leading circuit designer, the favoured lieutenant of an octogenarian Texan billionaire, and a few locals lunch together in a boots-and-cowboy joint called Wild Bubba’s.
Today’s special: road kill chili, comprising antelope and wild boar.
The restaurant is situated amid scrubland in Elroy on the unfashionable south-eastern fringe of Austin, close to the airport. When the owner, Bubba no less, heard that the American Grand Prix was coming to the area he immediately took himself downtown to see the bond trader, aka Bobby Epstein, chairman of the whole enterprise, and introduced himself as the mayor of Elroy.
Big weekend: Wyman Gilliam, owner of Wild Bubba's in downtown Elroy, Texas
‘Really You’re the mayor of Elroy’ exclaimed Epstein.
Bubba’s deadpan response: ‘Self-proclaimed, sir.’ Bubba, a laconic 55-year-old wearing a red cap bearing the Circuit of the Americas insignia, saw the potential in a 250million project that brings Formula One back to the United States for the first time since 2007. He is now counting profits that are 80 per cent up in the past year.
‘I’m not buying a new boat,’ he said, ‘but I am paying the electricity bill.’
Perhaps exaggerating a touch, he added: ‘Maybe 99 per cent of people have totally embraced what’s taking place. There is some opposition from people who want to keep a quiet situation. But we could have got a new city dump out here or a new state prison. I am happy to say we have got Formula One.’
Bubba has even renamed his beer garden the Tilke Biergarten in honour of Hermann Tilke, the circuit designer from Germany who has used the natural undulations of the land to confect one of his more promising tracks.
Promising much: The track in Austin has been praised ahead of the race on Sunday
The short sprint up to the first left-hand corner and down again is instantly impressive even when you are riding in a truck driven by the affable Rad Weaver, the aforementioned lieutenant to the 85-year-old car-dealing, sports team-owning, oil-drilling, real estate-developing mogul Red McCombs, who along with Epstein and the acrimoniously discarded former racer Tavo Hellmund, is a founding father of Austin’s Formula One gambit.
There is an infectious pride among Bubba’s lunch crowd. They love the circuit. They take you to see the enviable number of turns visible from certain vantage points. Their welcome is warm.
Yet the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, reports unrest among the 800,000 Austinites. ‘Keep Austin weird’ is a self-styled slogan in this defiantly hip, liberal, green, unglitzy, student city known for the University of Texas and officially declaring itself ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’.
Epstein counters that Formula One leads the way in developing green technologies. He also believes the circuit, which is due to host other series including Moto GP, could annually generate 500m for the city.
Looking at the hotel prices, they may do that in one weekend. Seriously, it is 700 a night at the Hilton, where the McLaren team are staying. That larceny is mirrored across downtown.
Race is on: Sebastian Vettel (right) and Fernando Alonso will resume their title fight again
All 120,000 tickets are sold, at between 100 and 300. Another 200,000 visitors are expected in town for the party. Streets have been cordoned off for 70 live acts, including Aerosmith and Enrique Iglesias.
Talk to taxi drivers and they fear congestion. We Londoners remember that refrain from 99 out of 100 cabbies before the Olympics. But speak to most folk here and they are either positively excited or faintly open-minded about the extravaganza. In truth, they are not totally sure what they have got themselves into.
Take Epstein. He wanted to know what Bernie Ecclestone, who has agreed a 10-year deal with Austin, would have his eyes on when he arrived for Thursday’s inspection. I told him neatness, straight lines, no litter. Not easy because the grass was still being laid this week and some of the apparently temporary hospitality units needed further work.
Take America’s relationship with Formula One. The country has traditionally preferred the belching, muscular saloons of Nascar. That championship’s final round falls on Sunday and is sure to attract more domestic TV viewers than the Grand Prix, that unloved, occasional caller from Europe.
Two wheels better than four Jenson Button takes a look at the track
Incidentally, nobody in Austin has yet been well-versed enough in the sport to have talked to me about the title fight between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, a year-long struggle that could be resolved here.
On Formula One’s last venture into this vast land, the Indianapolis Star asked locals what they knew about life over the pond. ‘Who is the British prime minister’ they inquired.
‘Albert Einstein,’ came the response.
‘That’s not bad,’ said Epstein on hearing the story. ‘We are such an egotistical people that 50 per cent of us would not know who the vice-president is. Formula One is opening Austin up in so many ways.’
Some teams arrived here to find the garages smaller than usual. That quibble makes little difference to Formula One’s chances of survival in a market crucial to manufacturers of cars and, in Red Bull’s case, drinks. But what will be more damaging is if punters get soaked. There is a 20 per cent chance of rain on Sunday, and that makes front-page news in a desert like this.
Another fear concerns how the public roads suddenly go down to one lane on the approach to the circuit. Old Silverstone-style traffic jams would be just the road kill that Bobby, Red and Rad do not want or deserve.