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Dry ‘run’ at Formula 1 proves problematic, learning experience

Monday, November 5, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

It was billed as the first race on the Formula 1 track and the first chance for the public to see the new $400 million Circuit of the Americas facility.


Instead, participants in a 3.4-mile fun run on Saturday morning suffered from a gargantuan traffic jam and frustration from organizational foul ups.


“It makes it look like they are totally unprepared,” said Rick Scadden, 57, who attended the foot race as a spectator. “My intention is to stay away from this part of town during race weekend.” His wife, Terri Mitchell, said they arrived late for the race start after being in a traffic jam for 45 minutes.


“It’s going to be a huge cluster in a couple weeks.” said Larissa Kirkoviks, 34, as she passed turn one. She and her British-born husband, who is “a huge F1 fan,” have tickets to the F1 race but hope they can avoid traffic jams by taking a shuttle bus from the Travis County Expo Center on Decker Lane.


Organizers and track and county officials cited a variety of factors – including the dense fog, ongoing construction and lack of a certificate of occupancy permit, among others – for complicating the run at the track in southeastern Travis County, which in two weeks will host the inaugural Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix.


An estimated 120,000 people are expected to attend the race on Sunday Nov. 18, and a total of 240,000 for the three-day weekend, which includes time trials Nov. 16 and Nov. 17, said Circuit of the Americas spokeswoman Julie Loignon. She said 5,124 people participated in Saturday’s Formula Run, but about half registered the morning of the event. “So we had a huge influx of participants arrive in a short time,” she said in an email.


What most surprised runners was traffic snarls for an event that drew only a fraction of the people who will descend on the track for the F1 race.


Traffic backed up more than a mile before the FM 812 exit from the SH 130 toll road going north from U.S. 71. Some runners were seen taking photos and walking along the shoulder as they waited for up to an hour to get to the track. The back up appeared primarily caused by a stop sign where no officials directed traffic. “They need to organize that intersection,” said runner Mitchell.


For an event that was also billed as an open house for the community, many runners and their guests (one was permitted for each runner) also were disappointed that they couldn’t tour inside the facility, check out the seating area or even use the facility’s restrooms. Some of those commenting on online forums on the race’s website and complained of everything from lack of toilet paper in the Porta Potties and few post-race refreshments to the high $50 entry fee and no preview of race cars on display.


“Unbelievable. There’s no way around or through that mountain of a learning curve in 2 weeks,” said one poster. “Even in the best of circumstances, it’s now pretty obvious that there is simply going to be too much heading out to the same place with too few paths to get there.”


Roger Wade, spokesman with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, said the county didn’t pay for the deputies who were on hand to direct traffic at the race track because they worked for the event organizers. He said he didn’t know how many deputies worked the event, or how many are scheduled to work the race weekend.


“It was like a mini dry run for us,” he said. “We recognize there are going to be some aspects we need to address before the F1 race. It was good from that aspect.”


Wade also said the Sheriff’s office is trying to make sure the many deputies who work the race weekend won’t sap normal county duties. “Our main concern with the Sheriff’s office is that we have enough folks not working the race who can work for the county and keep everybody else safe. We have been working on that as well,” Wade said.


Paul Carrozza, founder of RunTex, the Austin running apparel retailer that organized the fun run, said the extremely dense fog was a major factor in complicating the traffic and delaying the start of the race by about 40 minutes. Also, the lack of a certificate of occupancy meant his employees and volunteers had to scale back and scramble to put in place an alternative logistic plan. Nevertheless, he said the race ended up a success, partly because it opened up a splendid venue for future runs and allowed organizers to work out kinks.


“I walked away feeling good. In the morning when I got there it was really frustrating,” said Carrozza, who is on the host committee for the F1 race. “The fact that the running community got to run on the track first, well I am very grateful. COTA could have come back and said we shouldn’t be doing this.”


Indeed, despite the headaches and frustrations many of the runners and walkers said the highlight was getting a preview of the track. The asphalt track – roughly as wide as three lanes of Mo-Pac plus shoulders painted red – begins with a surprising hill from the starting line and snakes around 20 turns, including hairpins.


“The track looks great,” Barrett Shipman of West Lake Hills said as he walked with his wife pushing a stroller with their two kids and a friend. Shipman said he follows F1 racing and paid $2,500 each for four personal seat licenses (PSLs) that give him the opportunity for first dibs to buy tickets for the next 15 years. On top of that he paid $650 for each of four seats in the grandstand for this inaugural race.


He said he was planning to drive to the event in his car, but now he and his wife are considering riding mopeds or motorcycles.


As he spoke, sounds of jack hammers and electric drills greeted participants, along with the sights of construction workers trying to finish construction of the facility, which nevertheless seemed mostly complete except for some unfinished grandstands.


Loignon of COTA said they have in place a detailed transportation plan that will open up all entrances and exits to the facility and heavily use mass transportation and personnel to direct traffic. See transportation info here.


“We will be shuttling in half of race-goers, using designated routes for shuttles. Those with on-site parking will have designated routes to drive, as will taxis, limos and charter buses,” she said. “Our transportation plan is designed to move large numbers of guests into the facility as quickly and safely as possible. However, anyone planning to attend the race should anticipate traffic delays in places where they normally occur in Austin/Travis County and build extra time into their schedule regardless of their mode of transportation.”


More: See photos of the Circuit of the Americas’ track, fog and traffic.

F1 transportation options from the City of Austin.

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