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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.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).