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.

Sauber says it’s ‘soon’ to naming Kaltenborn’s successor

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Sauber F1 Team enters this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix without a team principal and trying to work ahead on its 2018 preparations, making it a tough weekend for one of Formula 1’s smallest teams.

Sauber team manager Beat Zahnder attempted to explain the team’s managerial structure this weekend in Kaltenborn’s absence and teased when he hoped a decision would be made regarding Kaltenborn’s successor.

“Jorg Zander, the technical director and myself, we’ve been entrusted to run the operation of the team this weekend but this is only temporary,” Zahnder explained during the FIA team principal press conference on Friday.

“It doesn’t change a lot for us because our job is to have two cars running as quickly as possible around the circuit and for me it’s a little bit more media work.”

Asked when he hoped to have a successor named, Zahnder replied, “I hope soon. We were talking to some candidates and I hope we can announce it sooner rather than later.”

Former Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur’s name has been floated this week, as have other former F1 team chiefs Dave Ryan and Jost Capito, after Colin Kolles’ name was floated earlier in the week.

Zahnder said he could not explain the insider workings of the team.

“I cannot, no. You’ve seen the official press statement from Mr Picci and it seems that Mr Picci and Mrs Kaltenborn had different views how to operate the company. We shouldn’t forget that it’s not only a race team, it’s a home team as well with 350 people or so, but I cannot give you more information because I’m not actively involved in that decision,” he said.

Sauber is still in the process of not only finishing this year but also preparing for its 2018 switch to Honda power. This is an important change and one that comes amidst the turmoil currently encapsulating McLaren and Honda’s turbulent relationship.

“We have started with the project and there is an exchange of information on the logistical side, on the set-up side and the garages,” Zahnder explained. “We have to organize computers and IT stuff and things like this so the work has started, yes.”

With the two McLaren Hondas set to start from the rear of the grid this weekend, Sauber can at least work to get into Q2 and get further up the order with its pair of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.

Gutierrez set to ‘explore the feeling of enjoyment in IndyCar’

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Esteban Gutierrez has a better peace of mind for his second Verizon IndyCar Series weekend this year, this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), than his first at Detroit earlier this month.

That’s because he’s now been confirmed for the remainder of the races that Sebastien Bourdais won’t drive, until Bourdais’ return to the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, and he has track experience at Road America from both Formula BMW races a decade ago.

“It’s a track that I enjoy a lot. It’s one of my favorite tracks. I have great memories from 2007 when I was racing Formula BMW USA,” Gutierrez reflected. “I was actually fighting my way from the back of the field in one of the races. I got up to second. We finished with a very small margin at the start/finish line. It was a very enjoyable moment, a great race that I have very close in my memory.

“Coming back quite many years after, 10 years after, I’m very, you know, excited to get into an IndyCar. Very powerful, very grippy, really nice racing car. You know, it’s really a nice experience to do every lap in this track.”

Gutierrez had a test day on June 14, which he wasn’t publicly identified for at the test but was always planned following his debut at Detroit.

“Obviously to throw myself into Detroit was quite a challenge, one of the most difficult tracks in the calendar, with no testing, straight in the weekend. I think it was a very interesting experience,” he explained.

“Now that I come to Elkhart Lake with a test behind my belt before the weekend, it’s great. I’m really enjoying a lot. I’m very happy of where I am today, with the challenge I have ahead, with the future ahead.

“I would like to explore more that feeling of enjoyment here in IndyCar. I’m just going to go through it. I’m going to live every moment. I’m going to focus on the present and see what we can do in the future.”

And although his rookie teammate Ed Jones is only nine races into his own IndyCar career, Gutierrez says he’s already been able to learn a lot from him and from Bourdais.

“(There’s) quite a lot,” Gutierrez said he’s learned from Jones already. “And also from Sebastien. I’ve been in contact with him. Been in contact with few drivers to try to get some tips, to get a feeling of what are their thoughts, their experiences, to help me, you know, get quicker into the knowledge of the car, in general, and the series, and the competition here.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with him were related to the technical side of the car, in order for me to understand how the car is working, how the car is evolving through a weekend. It helped me a lot in Detroit. It’s helping me a lot here. Obviously we had the test which allowed us as a team to prepare better.

“Yeah, race by race, it will be clearer and clearer. But Sebastien is always there involved kind of following all the meetings, following the practice sessions, the qualifyings. Yeah, is great to be in touch. Sebastien is a great driver. I really been following him from the past. So, yeah, we’re here and trying to do my best to adapt quickly to the racing here.”

Both Gutierrez and Jones are IndyCar rookies and as such are feeding off each other to learn.

“It’s all about sharing information after each session. It’s about contributing,” he said. “Obviously he has more experience than me in IndyCar, and he has proven to be quite good here. So Ed, you know, we’ve been always together in the meetings. Obviously me trying to understand what is his way of working through the weekend with the setup of the car.

“In my case, I’m very open, because obviously I have no experience in IndyCar. So been always with a very open approach, trying to get as much information as I can, absorb everything, and learn as much as possible.”

Gutierrez briefly dovetailed into the Formula E contractual situation where he had driven with the Techeetah team. He said there was “really nothing to talk about” and that he enjoyed the experience, but said this was an opportunity he wanted to explore.

What he will be exploring for the first time next week is his first oval test at Iowa Speedway on Tuesday, and he’s excited about that.

“I’m aware that it’s completely different. Fortunately I will have a test on Tuesday to prepare, to get to know the reality of an oval, because you can review a lot of data, you can prepare on the theory, but always, you know, when you get to the reality of driving, it’s a complete different story.

“I’m really looking forward to Tuesday. I’m very sure that I will enjoy it, that I will enjoy that kind of racing. So, yeah, I’m excited to get to know — to expand my racing knowledge and to know how to race in ovals.”

For now he’ll get through this weekend and look to build continuity with the Coyne team and Jones as his teammate.

Risi Competizione confirms multiple race absence from IMSA

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The No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE will miss several upcoming IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races, starting at Watkins Glen International next weekend.

The team has plans to return to the GT Le Mans class later this year, but hasn’t said when.

Risi’s absence was first indicated when IMSA released the Watkins Glen entry list earlier this week. It takes the sole Ferrari in class out of it for a handful of races; the pair of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella had a best finish of third so far this season.

“Following an extremely challenging first half of 2017, most recently at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I have decided to withdraw the Risi Competizione race team from part of the 2017 IMSA season in order to consolidate resources and to reflect on future racing programs,” Team Principal Giuseppe Risi said in a release.

Risi’s crash at Le Mans was with a separate 488 GTE chassis, not its full-season one.

But the IMSA full-season one sustained back-to-back hits at Long Beach and Circuit of The Americas. Then, the brand new car took a beating after Matthieu Vaxiviere came over on top of Pierre Kaffer’s No. 82 car going into a chicane on the Mulsanne Straight.

Kaffer was sore but OK and is in Road America this weekend for Pirelli World Challenge GT action, where he competes in the No. 4 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Rossi tops opening practice at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Alexander Rossi led the opening 45-minute practice session for this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America, in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport.

The young American has always liked this track, as this was one of the tracks he had past experience on prior to his debut season in IndyCar.

At the 4.014-mile circuit, Rossi posted a best time of 1:43.3285, clear of three Team Penske Chevrolets of Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden. Scott Dixon completed the top five.

“It’s early; it’s a good way to start,” Rossi told IndyCar Radio after the session. “We’ve known we had a fast car. We just haven’t executed. We want our first win under our belt.”

Only the top 10 drivers down to Helio Castroneves in 10th were within one second, at 0.9964 of a second.

Eighth-placed Ryan Hunter-Reay brought out an early end to the session with an off-course excursion, beached at Turn 14. He was OK but the session ended a minute or two early.

Robert Wickens, in his first official Verizon IndyCar Series session filling in for Mikhail Aleshin at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was 20th at 1:45.6823. That was within a tenth of the returning Esteban Gutierrez at 1:45.6257, for Dale Coyne Racing.

Wickens’ teammate James Hinchcliffe was sixth in this session. Meanwhile Gutierrez’s teammate Ed Jones debuted a new Walter Payton tribute helmet; Payton was Dale Coyne’s former business partner and had his first IndyCar race as co-owner here. The late Chicago Bears running back was, of course, one of the best running backs in NFL history. Jones’ decision to wear a Bears helmet in Elkhart Lake, not far from Green Bay, is a brave one!

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports co-owner Sam Schmidt updated Aleshin’s status when speaking to IndyCar Radio during the session.

“Supposedly, he’s on a flight. He got his visa from Paris. He’s supposed to land in Chicago tonight. We’ll see,” he said.

“Yeah up until yesterday morning we thought Mikhail would come in yesterday, and cruise normal fashion. Then his passport didn’t show up. We didn’t know if a day, two or three days. Called half a dozen guys. It was a bit of a scramble. We already had Robert’s seat, so that was convenient. Who could get here the quickest and get in the car. He hasn’t driven here in 10 years. But he’s getting up to speed quickly.”

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