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Austin’s first Formula 1 race a shining success
Monday, November 19, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves
From all accounts Austin’s entry into the world of international racing was a rousing success, with drivers and race fans soaking up the sunshine, world class track and hours of live music that mark most Austin celebrations. Despite concerns that traffic to and from the track might be a nightmare, that most difficult of details went far better than many observers expected. There were only moderate traffic hiccups, some grousing over the noise of frequent helicopter landings and nothing out of the ordinary when it came to arrests for alcohol-related crimes.
The $400 million Circuit of the Americas track saw Sunday’s attendance at 117,429 fans to watch McLaren Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton snatch victory in the inaugural race from point-leader Sebastian Vettal, driver for Red Bull Racing. Hamilton’s win has at least postponed the crowning of Vettal as the Formula One World Champion until after the season’s final race next weekend in Brazil.
“The entire Circuit of The Americas team thanks our guests, our community, our new Formula One family and race fans around the world for making our first Grand Prix such a remarkable experience,” Circuit Chairman Bobby Epstein said. “The racing was spectacular. The crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative, and we showed the world that Formula 1 has a new U.S. home in Austin, Texas.” Race promoters proclaimed themselves pleased with the experience in Austin.
Circuit of the Americas has a contract with F1 to host U.S. Grand Prix through 2021. But whether Circuit of the Americas remains a fixture on the Formula 1 race schedule remains to be seen since other U.S. cities have lost the race prematurely.
On Saturday, Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone told racing publications he wanted to see three Formula 1 venues in the United States: Austin, New York, plus possibly one in Southern California. This is an ambitious endeavor since (until now) the U.S. had not hosted the international race series in five years.
As for Austin, the biggest problem faced at the Circuit of the Americas as of Sunday evening appeared to be lack of food and water. Especially a problem since bringing outside food and water into the Formula One track was forbidden.
The city coordinated a Formula 1 area command post for the event that included city, county and state resources, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sunday evening, Otis Latin, director of the city’s homeland security and emergency management, proclaimed himself “very relaxed and happy.”
“I think we’ve had a very good operation over the last several days, which really is a result of a lot of pre-planning,” Latin said. “We really are satisfied with the effort that everyone has put in. It’s like a football game. We’ve practiced so much so when we get out there to play, we just hope it all goes smoothly.”
Getting people to and from the venue was a top priority for the command center. Capital Metro’s Francine Pares reported full MetroRail trains and a heavily utilized circulator loop around downtown. An exercise in people-moving that may be useful for South by Southwest, a festival with massive crowds and venues spread across downtown.
“I would say the circulator rides were some of the biggest lessons of the event,” Latin said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that became part of South by Southwest.”
Yesterday was Capital Metro’s first Sunday rail service. Additional rail runs were added Saturday night, and on-call “queue buses” were added at rail stops with high demand, as was the case at the Kramer and Howard stops.
International visitors reported being somewhat miffed that Austin did not have a full rail system, but Pares said the coordination between hotel staff in the city and Capital Metro appeared to work fairly well. A fleet of 500 shuttle buses took race watchers between downtown or the Travis County Expo Center and the COTA. The city reported 14,200 people boarded shuttles downtown in the five-hour period on Sunday morning. Television news also reported at least 600 people managed to ride bicycles to the race and park them safely.
The city used a contraflow lane on Pearce Lane to get people to and from the track. An additional lane on Pearce between State Highway 130 and the track was designated east-bound going into the track, then reversed west-bound as races ended.
As noted on social media, those in cars reported some misery leaving the track Sunday afternoon, but the city made additional lanes and diversions available in an effort to alleviate some traffic. Probably those most affected were Elroy residents along Pearce Lane. Subjected to constant helicopter noise, they were also stuck in their homes during contraflow use. Traffic was anticipated to be so bad that the Del Valle Independent School District canceled classes on Friday.
Staffing for the downtown Fan Fest, which concluded Sunday night, was comparable to South by Southwest, Latin said. The Austin Police Department reported that arrest numbers were not out of the ordinary for a weekend. And “no refusal” would only kick in next year if alcohol-related crimes were excessive.
In a note sent out Sunday, Austin Bergstrom International Airport encouraged flyers to get to the airport two hours early Monday, as the airport lines might be the biggest problem getting people in and out of Austin.
ABIA noise officer Stephen Dick, who was fielding complaints from residents of various South Austin neighborhoods, said he had taken about 75 calls by Sunday night. He said the majority of the complaints came from Travis Heights but there were also calls from Bouldin and Zilker as well as some farther south, including the Slaughter and William Cannon area.
Some of those complaining said the helicopters were deviating from their flight paths and violating rules in place to prevent noise from bothering residents. Those issues are not controlled by the airport, but by the Federal Aviation Administration, which controls airspace, said ABIA spokesman Jason Zielinski.
Dick said all the complaints involved noise from helicopters flying from the top of the Embassy Suites Hotel on South Congress. He said he had visited the South MoPac address where some copters had been scheduled. According to Dick, he saw no helicopters and talked to security at the location who told him there was no copter activity at that site this weekend.
It was that location which aroused so much angst when members of the Barton Hills Neighborhood Association contacted Council.
The city did send out a tweet on Sunday noting that suspicious activity should be reported to 911, a reminder that hosting an international event does make Austin a possible target of a terrorist event.
“We were ready if anything happened,” Latin said. “We prepared for it, but luckily we had no real problems or threats.”
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