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Smith: COTA hopes to shake off recent struggles with Taylor Swift

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Yesterday’s announcement that Formula 1 would be returning to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas this October was met with a collective sigh of relief.

Not only does it ensure that F1’s bid to crack the American market remains on course after months of uncertainty, but it also keeps a fan and paddock favorite on the calendar for the foreseeable future.

It’s a major victory for the sport in the USA – yet oddly enough, the catalyst to lead to an even bigger and brighter future may not be anything to do with F1.

Has Taylor Swift just helped to solve COTA’s problems?

THE BIGGEST OF BIG ACTS

It would take some argument to say that Taylor Swift is not currently the biggest pop star in the world. Her fifth album, 1989, has sold over eight million copies worldwide and led to an astonishing world tour that graced 10 countries and saw an array of celebrity guests make an appearance on stage over 85 shows, totalling a box office figure of over $250 million.

Despite being released in October 2014, the album is still producing singles. The upcoming New Romantics is set to be the seventh to spurn from it, while songs such as Shake It Off, Style and Bad Blood have been smash hits. Music aside, Swift has also established herself as an icon and role model for young women all over the world.

And she’ll be performing at a venue built for Formula 1 this October.

Austin has a strong music scene, which was something that the bosses at COTA were conscious of during its construction. The amphitheatre at the track can hold up to 14,000 people and is widely regarded as the best music venue in the city, while also ensuring that the facility does not go unused when there isn’t a race weekend. It’s a function that chairman Bobby Epstein always had in mind.

“The amphitheatre wasn’t an afterthought,” Epstein told me last spring. “It wasn’t ‘what else are we going to do here?’; it really was ‘how do we make it world class?’

“Austin is known for music culture. It has a lot of great acts but it didn’t have a great venue for over 3,000 people besides the basketball arena at the university. There was nowhere to hold those events.

“A great city deserves a world-class music experience. The venue when you walk in for the concerts and festivals, you never even know you’re at the race track. You don’t ever see the track.

“We get one million visitors per year. F1 is certainly a big part of it, but there’s over 20 concerts that happen that have over 10,000 people. These are big acts that are coming out.”

And Taylor Swift is the biggest of big acts.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR F1?

The uncertainty about the future of the United States Grand Prix was largely triggered by the wash-out of last year’s race weekend, which Epstein himself called “financially devastating”. All you had to do was stay at the track to see the passion and resolve of the fans braving the rain. Impressive as that may have been, it didn’t help COTA’s revenues.

So when it came to reassessing the amount of tax relief that the US GP receives from the state of Texas, there was a shortfall. The calculation used was based on the wider economic impact and the amount of people coming from out-of-state for the race, leading to a $5 million cut from Governor Greg Abbot. It threw the race into doubt, potentially leaving a black space in the calendar.

However, a deal has been brokered that ensures the long term future of the race according to Epstein, who told Reuters: “I think it’s going to be here for a long time.”

From the press release issued by the track, it was clear that Swift was the big news. The concert is going to be the big selling point to get people to COTA in October – and it should work. It is currently her only planned concert for 2016, so undoubtedly fans will flock to see her perform.

In turn, COTA’s gate figures increase. That then it can be used to prove to the state that the race is worth offering tax relief to. The popularity of Taylor Swift may actually help secure F1’s long-term future in Austin and, for that matter, the USA.

And of all the people who do venture to Austin primarily to see Swift perform, it is impossible that some won’t become curious about F1. They’ll see fans around them in the crowd wearing team merchandise. They may even see the cars or head along to watch the sessions. It creates interest.

This is how F1 needs to appeal to new fans. It cannot rely on the old belief that people will watch just because – they need a reason to. Taylor Swift is a pretty good reason, as COTA should find out this October.

The 2016 United States Grand Prix is firmed up, and although, to quote Miss Swift, “band aids don’t fix bullet holes”, it seems that the future beyond this year looks bright COTA. The escalating hosting fee is something that must be kept in mind though. It’s not out of the woods yet.

LOOKING AHEAD

With an American team now on the grid in the shape of Haas F1 Team and an American driver very much a part of the paddock in Alexander Rossi, losing the only American F1 race would have been a disaster.

There is a great desire to have more than one race in the USA. Bernie Ecclestone has been pushing to get a welcome to New York for many years, but the planned Grand Prix of America just over the Hudson River in New Jersey looks dead and buried. Laguna Seca is another track linked with a race recently, while FIA race director Charlie Whiting’s visit to Watkins Glen earlier this week even started rumours about F1 returning there.

There is such a burning desire to have more races in the USA. Multiple events would be beyond fans’ wildest dreams, yet it is crucial that what is already going is safeguarded.

“[Fans] have never had it this good,” Epstein told me last spring. “If this one doesn’t work, I don’t think the sport will work in the US.”

So has Taylor Swift helped just saved F1 in the USA? To some extent, yes. But it is Epstein and his team at COTA who have really saved the race. After a turbulent year, they have pulled a masterstroke to get the world’s biggest recording artist to come and perform after qualifying. It’s a two-pronged attack: come for F1, stay for the concert; or come for the concert, and stay for the F1. Either way, you’re through the gate.

This appears to be a clean slate for COTA; a new beginning. After weathering the storm of 2015 (quite literally), it will celebrate its fifth grand prix in October – a huge achievement – in style. I know places in the city that will be overloaded with fans throughout the grand prix weekend with the Austin Fan Fest, not to mention the inevitable influx of concert-goers. It should make for the biggest US GP yet.

“In the past we have chosen headliners that are a great match with our existing demographic,” Epstein told Reuters.

“But I don’t need our existing demographic alone. We need the future. We think we’ll sell every ticket that we’ve got and it’s because of the combination of both Formula 1 and Taylor Swift.”

COTA is a world-class facility that deserves grand prix racing. It will rightly remain at the top table of motorsport in 2016.

And all of that negativity? By the looks of things, come October, COTA’s just gonna shake it off.

IMSA’s Bill Auberlen joins NASCAR America to discuss this weekend’s race at Lime Rock

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Turner Motorsport GTD driver Bill Auberlen joined NBC Sports’ Marty Snyder on NASCAR America Presents the Motorsports Hour Thursday to discuss a variety of topics, including Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race at Lime Rock Park.

Auberlen, alongside co-driver Robby Foley, enters Lime Rock with a great amount of momentum after finishing on the GTD podium at Watkins Glen and taking the GTD class honors in the most recent IMSA race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

There’s also an extra incentive for the duo to win this weekend as well, as Auberlen is one win away from tying Scott Pruett for the most IMSA victories all-time.

Both drivers will have to be on their A-game this weekend, however, as Auberlen stated that Lime Rock is one of the tougher circuits on the IMSA calendar and compared the 1.5-mile Connecticut road course to a short track.

“It’s what we call the bullring of our season,” Auberlen said. “It is a 54-second lap and we’re going to go around it a million times before the end of the day. It’s going to be a hot one, and I think whoever survives this is going to be on the podium.”

Luckily for the GTD and GTLM teams, with no Protoype and LMP2 entries competing at Lime Rock this weekend, the worry of having to yield to entries from the faster classes is gone.

“These Protoypes are so fast now, that interacting with them, you can’t imagine,” Auberlen said. “We have radars in our car that can alert us when they are coming.

“They get on you so fast that if you’re not always looking or something is not telling you they’re coming, you could have a problem and catch into them. That’s gone. Now it’s going to be focus-forward. You’re going to be focused on everything ahead of you. You got GLTM in there at the same time, but they’re virtually the same speed as us – just a little bit faster.

“It’s going to be nice. When you stand on that podium you might be able to go for an overall victory.”

Live race coverage of IMSA’s Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBCsports.com and the NBC Sports app with an encore presentation of the race airing later in the evening at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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