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Deep in the heart of Texas is heart of Formula 1 in U.S.

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) The Circuit of the Americas was cut out of the rocky soil just outside of the state capital of Texas.

Getting there requires a drive from Austin’s glowing and growing urban core past trailer parks, a landfill, flea markets and miles of rolling hills dotted with goats and horses. But once there, its landmark 250-foot (77-meter) observation tower and red-white-and-blue racing stripes announce a racetrack that has been become the heart and soul of Formula One in the U.S.

Attempts to create street races in cities such as New York, Las Vegas and Miami have failed or stalled, but the U.S. Grand Prix will run this week at its Texas home for the seventh time. Once again, the race figures prominently in the title chase. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton can close out Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to clinch his fifth season championship on a track where he has won five times.

“Circuit of the Americas is the lifeblood of Formula One in America. It also happens to be one of the finest road courses in the world,” said Tavo Hellmund, the former race promoter who first developed the idea of building the first permanent track for F1 in the U.S. “I’m proud of that.”

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo praises the track as a driver’s course that promotes wheel-to-wheel racing with multiple passing zones.

“It encourages you to fight,” Ricciardo said.

Hellmund, who split from his business partners before the inaugural 2012 race, drew up the design for the track on a restaurant napkin. He still keeps the napkin, with its mustard and barbecue sauce stains, and the original race contract, in a bank vault.

“Everyone thought I was a lunatic,” said Hellmund, a longtime friend of former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

After all, F1 had ditched the U.S. for several years after leaving the modified road course in Indianapolis. There were no real signs it was coming back and no one would have been surprised since Formula One is a global series with a concentration of fans in Europe.

Bringing F1 back to the U.S. with a specific facility in mind was pitched as the foothold needed to build an audience in America. Since its return, the U.S. Grand Prix has enjoyed a prominent space on the calendar, with its fall race dates figuring heavily in the season championship nearly every year.

Circuit of the Americas President and race promoter Bobby Epstein said he has never considered it his responsibility to grow F1 in the U.S.

His job was to put on a big show.

“We are not here to build a sport, but to build an event,” Epstein said. “What you couldn’t buy is history, like in Monte Carlo or Silverstone (England). … I don’t think the sport itself has grown in popularity, but it says we are doing something right. We’ve got healthy longevity now.”

Epstein hasn’t released attendance figures in several years, but insists ticket sales remain strong and Sunday race crowds have remained large. The only struggle was in 2015 when the race weekend was nearly swamped by historic rains that drove away crowds and delivered what Epstein called a “devastating” financial hit.

The race has come on strong since as Epstein boosted the event’s profile with concerts by Taylor Swift in 2016 and Justin Timberlake in 2017. Bruno Mars and Britney Spears play this weekend.

The Circuit of the Americas has three years left on its initial 10-year contract. Epstein said he’s watching how Formula One negotiates new deals with the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which has hosted the race since 1987, and a potential new street race in Miami in 2020.

Silverstone was under contract until 2027 but track officials exercised a break clause to exit after the 2019 race because it was becoming unaffordable. In Miami, Formula One’s American ownership group, Liberty Media, has explored a risk-sharing model with local promoters instead of charging exorbitant sanctioning fees that are part of current contracts across the series.

“We want that model to work,” Epstein said. “We’ve been a long-time customer now for F1. We have paid a lot of fees and brought the sport back to life in the U.S. and we’ve kept it alive. And as such, we hope we’re not overlooked in terms of favorable deals in the future.”

Epstein gets strong financial support from the state of Texas. Before F1 even announced its return to the U.S., Texas lawmakers made F1 races in the state eligible for money from a public fund that helps pay for major events. U.S. Grand Prix organizers will have received about $175 million by next year.

That pot of money ensures the Texas race will be on the F1 calendar for a long time, Hellmund said.

“It is a sweet deal to be the operator of the U.S. Grand Prix,” Hellmund said. “It’s the most secure race on the calendar outside of Monaco.”

Formula One has three races in North America in Austin, Montreal and Mexico City. Epstein said there’s enough fan interest to add a second U.S. race. F1 officials are still pushing hard for Miami and will stage a fan festival there this weekend, 1,350 miles (2,172 kilometers) away from the Texas race.

“The success of the US Grand Prix in Austin demonstrates the appetite for Formula 1 in this country,” said Sean Bratches, Formula One’s commercial managing director. “We are determined to bring the sport to even more American fans in the coming seasons.”

Mario Andretti, the last American driver to win the Formula One championship in 1978, wants another U.S. race but nods to Austin as the American anchor F1 needed.

“We finally have a solid home in these United States,” Andretti said. “To build a fan base, you need more, not less … But Austin will be the premiere home. Everything else will be temporary.”

Indy Lights: Askew clinches 2019 title while VeeKay wins Laguna Seca race 1

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MONTEREY, Calif – Rinus VeeKay may have won the first race of the weekend’s Indy Lights doubleheader at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Saturday afternoon, but all all eyes post-race were all on the driver who finished the race in the fourth position.

That driver was Oliver Askew, who by simply starting the 30-lap event at the famed road course won the 2019 series title, along with the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series scholarship that guarantees a minimum of three races next season.

“It’s all sinking in,” Askew told NBC Sports following the race. “I’m really happy to be part of this team. They’re back to back champions now in Indy Lights, and I feel very fortunate to be driving in this car this year.

“This is what we worked for all year. I’m very happy to be in this position and I can’t wait to celebrate with my team.”

With the championship in Askew’s possession from the get-go, the best VeeKay could do for in race 1 was to win in dominant fashion. He went on to do just so.

After starting the race from the pole position, VeeKay led every lap from start to finish en route to his fifth victory of the season.

“We managed the car well and kept the car consistent throughout the whole race,” VeeKay said. “I got a great car from the team so I want to give a big shout out to them for giving me a winning car.”

Behind VeeKay, Portland race 2 winner Toby Sowery finished the race in the second position, while Robert Megennis finished third.

Live streaming coverage of race two of the Indy Lights doubleheader at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca begins tomorrow afternoon at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold.

Click here for full race results

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