Q&A: Circuit of the Americas president Jason Dial on F1 year 2 prep

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As Circuit of the Americas in Austin prepares for its second United States Grand Prix, we had the opportunity to speak with new track president Jason Dial. Dial, a veteran of Procter & Gamble for nearly 20 years and most recently chief marketing officer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has hit the ground running in his first month.

MST: Given your background, you see sports in several different contexts. How does a “race fan” compare to a “football fan,” per se?

Jason Dial: You realize going in that in F1, or in NASCAR, the fan is avid for different reasons. For a race, you’re usually backing a driver. NFL allegiance is usually skewed toward where you grew up, and since I grew up in Detroit, I was a Red Wings/Lions/Tigers/Pistons. Here, you’re a driver, and certainly in F1, a team fan.

MST: Last year’s race had the huge buildup, but it was also the first major event for a brand new facility. What were the pressures leading into that which you heard?

JD: I’ve been here a month, so I wasn’t here through the opening. But I heard things as simple as making sure the fences and gates were installed correctly, and making sure things were right from an ingress/egress standpoint.

Easy to forget, but 18 months ago this was fields. That’s when I tell people about seeing this place, that the staff worked around the clock to make it work.

This year it’s more planning, and making sure our transportation plan has sufficient infrastructure. We’re thankful that 94 percent said they’ll come back for another race; that’s the thing we need to see to grow our fan base 3-5 years down the road.

source:  MST: How has having 5-6 additional race weekends this year helped the preparation for this weekend? What are some of the great achievements?

JD: We’re celebrating our millionth fan in one year. And that’s an incredible feat on many levels, not just business operations, but really showcasing Austin. I was at Procter & Gamble for 18 and a half years, and you need time to develop a level of critical reach to justify an investment. We want people to say, “Wow, I’m going to Austin.”

MST: How does this race then avoid the so-called “sophomore slump” to sustain the promotional efforts for year two?

JD: I think first of all, 94 percent said they’d come back, but they didn’t say “come back next year.” What we’ve had to do is continue to build awareness and excitement, and expand the experience. We have the fan fest for instance, which is free, and magnifies the entertainment value of Austin. We’ve also built up our digital marketing fairly heavily.

We’re competing for everyone’s time and treasure. If we’re not compelling enough, people won’t come to Austin. F1 is amazing, but everything is amazing. We are integrating a lot more live music, because that is authentically Austin. It’s very important because this is the “live music capital of the world.”

Between the Longhorns (Texas game on Saturday), live music and entertainment, we need to expand our footprint. But having six stages, 12 blocks, music almost all around the clock all free downtown is great to have.

MST: Any concern about the UT game on Saturday?

JD: I don’t think it’s ideal and we tried to avoid the conflict, but to be honest some others come because they are in for the game and wouldn’t otherwise. The reality is that most hotels require a 4-night minimum. So what do you do for the other 3 days?

We know 55 percent of our fans bought tickets from outside the state of Texas. Over 50 percent are coming for first time. We have all 50 states and more than 40 countries in attendance. We’ve done a good job of creating compelling content.

MST: That will transition nicely into asking about ticket sales. Are they on course to match or exceed the first year?

JD: Yes. We’ll be up 30 percent on general admission this year, and new this year, people can buy just the race day ticket. It’s $129 for a GA and up; for $229, a reserved bleacher seat. Our attendance will be very strong, over 250,000 for the three days.

MST: What’s been your racing integration like?

JD: I think what’s great about our calendar of racing, is that it can be very different for different series. F1 versus vintage for instance? It’s pretty amazing to watch the muscle car era around the 3.4 mile track, where you’ve got a Shelby and a Sting Ray battling for the lead! That’s a different fan than the F1 fan.

We need to continue to appeal to a very diverse consumer. What we’re trying to do is think of Circuit of the Americas as an entertainment destination. And it’s always amazing to have (different generations) because that’s what everyone can relate to.

MST: Do you have a particular favorite part of the track?

JD: I’ve only been here a month to see the vintage race. But I’d say based on all the walkthroughs, I like Turn 1 the most, because you’ve got that hairpin after the rocketing up the hill. That one’s probably my favorite. Otherwise Turns 18/19 are very good if you’re elevated. There are several great general admission places.

The drivers love it. When you get drivers raving about the complexity, the challenge, the design, that’s when you know you’ve hit something special. It’s so amazing to watch them go through here. But then to have to break it down really fast, and put it in layman’s terms, I couldn’t believe how challenging it was with a 40 mph go kart up the hill! That gives you a brief idea of how tough it is.

MST: The USGP has, for several reasons, always struggled to “stick” at a single facility. What’s COTA’s “master plan” to ensuring OK, this is it for the next 5-10-15 years?

JD: We’re very confident and the big difference here is only 9,000 of our seats are permanent fixtures. We build to demand. We’re not bound by concrete. But we’re purpose-built for racing and other events as an entertainment destination.

This year you’ll see more high-end hospitality and GA. We’ll read our consumer reviews. That’s part of our DNA from P&G is asking what the consumer wants, and making sure we’re delighting them. People said they want to bring clients in. We have families that love general admission. We’ll be up 30 percent on that.

The calendar of events helps too. A lot of the places that struggled didn’t have 19 concerts to diversify. It’s a portfolio play.

We’re not just F1. We absolutely want to have F1 for foreseeable future, and it’s very important we do. From an international attraction play, we have to showcase how incredible of a brand F1 is.

But we want to make sure we grow our MotoGP event. We have the X Games coming in June. We’ll have another incredible other festival in May we’re getting ready to announce. And the versatility helps us with our television partners, NBC for F1 in this case, to be one of our strategic advantages.

How do we make sure we do this and market the hell out of it? We make it compelling, and sell it to the people.

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

Photo: IndyCar
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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”