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Mayor says he gained insights from Formula 1 trip

Wednesday, July 11, 2012 by Jo Clifton

Just back from Silverstone, England where he met with officials and viewed preparations for its Formula 1 grand prix race, Mayor Lee Leffingwell told In Fact Daily the trip will serve as an important planning tool as Austin prepares for its own Formula 1 this November.


“I have to say in all seriousness, when you’re starting up something of this magnitude, I think it would have been irresponsible not to take advantage of the opportunity to see that event in action,” Leffingwell said on Tuesday, after he returned from the 5-day trip Monday night.


The small town of Elroy in Southeast Travis County will be the site of Texas’ first F1 race on Nov. 18. Organized by Circuit of the Americas, this will be the first grand prix race in the United States since 2007 when one was held in Indianapolis.


The Mayor was accompanied on the trip by City Manager Marc Ott, Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, Police Chief Art Acevedo and Economic Growth and Redevelopment Deputy Director Rodney Gonzales. Labeled a junket by critics, the trip was organized and mostly paid for by the track owners, Circuit of Americas, but the city agreed to pay about $5,600 for airfares for four of the officials. Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr had planned to go, but changed her mind after deciding that the fire danger over the 4th of July weekend was simply too great.


The Mayor defended the trip as an important way to learn about the logistical challenges of a Formula 1 race.


“You can’t imagine what (a grand prix race) is like until you see it,” Leffingwell said. “It’s huge and it’s complex….It’s not like going to a football game. It’s a three-day event and there are going to be a lot of people there all three days,” he added.


The Mayor described traffic and transportation as his major concerns, stressing that the local event would have at least one major difference from the English race. “We have only 25,000 parking spaces and everybody else is going to have to come by public transportation.” That, he said, would perhaps cut down on the traffic snarls experienced by Silverstone racegoers last week.


In order to ensure that no one arrives without a ticket to park in one of those spots, Leffingwell said, the various authorities dealing with traffic — including the Austin Police Department, Travis County and Texas Department of Transportation officials — would set up checkpoints around the perimeter of the race track.


“If you’re driving out there in your car, you have to have a ticket before you can proceed beyond that. There’s not going to be going up to the box office and asking if they have a ticket.”


The Mayor said the most important thing the various jurisdictions can start doing right away is recruiting “a small army of volunteers.” The Silverstone race had such volunteers, he noted, because logistics are very complicated and race attendees are always looking for directions. “In Silverstone they had that small army in yellow vests. And without that I think there’s going to be mass confusion.”


Leffingwell also said the city and those in charge of the race need to begin thinking about providing extra entertainment for race goers.


“People are going to be there hours before the race starts. A lot of people get there at 9 in the morning for a 1 o’clock race start,” he said. “You’re going to have a lot of events out there.” For example, he said, race goers were also treated to “an air show with their equivalent of the Blue Angels,” in Silverstone.


He added, “They have about 40,000 campsites. People go out there for days and camp and then walk to the race site. We are not going to have campsites this year, but I think that is something we need to study in the future.”


Austin has to be prepared for contingencies, such as those created by bad weather. In England he said, “The first day they turned away 35,000 people because it rained so much they knew they couldn’t put them in the pasture parking lots. That creates a major problem. You have to have one-way traffic going in and one-way traffic going out.”


“Our main job is to make sure that we can deal with emergencies, that people are safe.”

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