Back From The Brink: After storm, COTA gears up for its biggest USGP yet

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“To use a technical term, I think we’re screwed.”

After seeing Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix weekend become something of a washout as torrential rain struck the city of Austin, Texas, Circuit of The Americas chairman Bobby Epstein did not mince his words about the future of the race.

Despite seeing Lewis Hamilton clinch his third world title after winning the race of the season at COTA just days earlier, Epstein knew that the storm damage was more than just a little mud and some flooding.

When Texas governor Greg Abbott’s office indicated it would be cutting the amount of state funding offered for the race as a result of a drop in attendance and, more crucially, general spending by fans at the track on concessions and apparel, the future for the USGP at COTA looked bleak.

But 12 months on, there is an audible fervor in Epstein’s voice as he looks ahead to the upcoming grand prix weekend. At a time, it looked unlikely. Now, the USGP is back at COTA and bigger than ever as it prepares for its fifth running in Austin.

“It feels great to have made it through what was clearly a rough patch, but also a really good learning experience,” Epstein explains to NBC Sports.

“While we couldn’t have planned for, I think a 2,500 year rainfall, it did make for the most spectacular race of the year – maybe in many years – from a TV standpoint. But from a fan standpoint, we know that a lot of things that made it inconvenient.”

As learning experiences go, it was a brutal one: having a race dice with extinction in such a fashion left big questions hanging over COTA, the United States Grand Prix and the very future of F1 in America. However, Epstein feels it was a needed wake-up call for the track. Every fire – or, in this case, torrential downpour – is a lesson learned.

“We’ve turned a corner and made some good internal changes both from a capital standpoint, the company is now very healthy, where it was a little precarious in the past,” he says.

“We’ve turned a corner and got a profitable, healthy company. We’ve made some internal changes with people. I think we’ve looked at entirely new ways of approaching the whole weekend experience and the year-round programming at the track.”

It is the approach to the race weekend that is perhaps the most significant change for the 2016 United States Grand Prix. While the on-track action remains the same, off-track stars will also be gracing COTA this weekend as Taylor Swift and Usher gear up to perform on Saturday and Sunday respectively.

“We’ve also made a tremendous investment in the future of our weekend and in the sport by signing up some of the music acts that we have and that are included in the price of people’s tickets,” Epstein says.

“When you get the top performers in the world like Taylor Swift and Usher, we have those two along with the price of your weekend ticket, and we lowered ticket prices, we’ve really made a commitment to not just appeal to the traditional F1 fan but to appeal to the fan of just all-around great entertainment.

“We’ve tried to create the greatest sports entertainment weekend certainly of the year, if not one of the greatest ever.

“So it will bring out not just the traditional racing fans, not just a certain demographic whether that be males of a certain age or a certain type of racing fan, but actually the whole family.

“It appeals to women, it appeals to kids, it appeals to the 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds. We’re really across a broad demographic, trying to build for the future.”

It is a dynamic approach that the track predicts will result in its second-best attendance, behind only the inaugural F1 race at COTA back in 2012. The United States Grand Prix will be so, so much more than a race this weekend; it’s an eclectic mix of great sport and great entertainment.

“If this one doesn’t work, nothing will work,” Epstein asserts.

“If people don’t enjoy this, I don’t know what we can give them. We’ve thought of everything we can possibly do. It’s going to be a festival.”

Beyond 2016, the future of the race already looks bright. The provisional calendar for 2017 lists COTA as being the host of the United States Grand Prix once again with no asterisk; there are no question marks about the race going forwards. “I think everything should be fairly straightforward from this point,” Epstein adds.

The future of F1 in the United States is a key talking point, though. Following the takeover of F1 by American company Liberty Media at the beginning of September, much has been made of the possibility of tapping into the U.S. market.

Newly-appointed F1 chairman Chase Carey is keen to develop the American fan base, while additional races in the United States have also been mooted. Surely this can only be a good thing for COTA?

“It seems as though it would be, and we hope it is. Only time will tell,” Epstein says, before adding a cautionary warning to any would-be track promoters.

“I think the other races will hit a stumbling block in terms of what they cost to put on. It’s a huge stumbling block.

“I think in many ways, putting on an F1 race, particularly a new one… if someone’s looking to make a profit, then they shouldn’t do it as a promoter. It’s a very, very expensive proposition.

“New races are not just going to pop up. And I don’t think anyone is going to build another circuit like this anytime soon.

“I think that the possibility of doing a street course… it’s a tremendous investment. The first year of an inaugural event is always terrific. It will do very well in year one. The ability to support a number of multiple races in the U.S. is going to depend largely on the size of the fanbase in the U.S.

“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg equation. If you put on more races, it will create more fans, not just in the first year but over time hopefully it does. As much as anything, promoting the sport on TV and having races on our timezone over five to 10 years will build more fans.”

One of the biggest factors in growing the American fanbase in 2016 has been the arrival of the Haas team on the grid. NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ operation is the first to race in F1 under the American flag in 30 years.

“I think the Haas team is a really good thing, because there you have a history of success in motorsports in the U.S. and they’re a familiar brand,” Epstein says. “They bring F1 race fans a very successful career in NASCAR.

“But let’s face it: the biggest hole to fill is an American driver. If you add a champion American driver, you’ll multiply your fan base five-fold or 10-fold.”

But keeping promoters of races such as the United States Grand Prix and tracks such as COTA healthy is part of the challenge in building a sustained, global fan base.

“I would expect anyone who is interested in the sport’s growth, they become more active. It seems like they’re going to be much more hands on,” Epstein says of Liberty.

“I think they’ll have a longer-term view of how they can invest in the sport and build it, whereas I think the sport has been somewhat underserved to date from a support and investing in the future standpoint.

“From a building fans standpoint, you have to keep the promoters healthy. I think it takes a healthy company, healthy teams and healthy promoters to really make it work.”

But there is more to COTA than just F1. It has firmly established itself as one of America’s premier racing destinations, playing host to MotoGP, the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – three enormous series. But what other series could grace Austin with their presence?

“Every series could be a potential candidate,” Epstein says. “We’re getting waves of emails and correspondance asking whether or not NASCAR would come. Some fans are asking for it, and you would certainly think at some point than any other premier race series is a possibility.

“We’re fortunate that we’re at the point now where we’re actually getting to turn things down. It’s the biggest development after four years is that for four years, you’re trying to get people to come there, you’re making deals to entice people to come check it out.

“We’re now at the point where we get to say ‘our calendar is full’ and we can be a lot more selective.”

The storm of 2015 may have pushed COTA to the brink, but the track is now stronger than ever. When the lights go out on Sunday and the fifth United States Grand Prix in Austin gets underway, it will mark the end of a year-long fight for Epstein and his team, but one they have won.

The future looks bright, and time will tell if the tweaks help solidify the long term future and remove the doubts.