2017 United States Grand Prix

This was Chad’s trip. He did all the heavy lifting, all the logistics. He reached out to me with a question phrased as a hypothetical: if you were to go to the Formula One race, would you go for race day or all three? Where would you sit? Next you know, he’s made lodging accommodations, ordered the tickets, and rented a Cadillac.

Thursday we’d drive Denver to Scott’s place in Liberty Hill, TX. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the track, and return Monday. Fifteen hours of driving each way, sandwiched around three long days. Our housing was sixty miles from the track, so another seven and a half hours in the car.

Most of the way there we followed my route from June, altered only for the different end point. We made one navigational error – in Lubbock where I didn’t see the exit for the loop road until too late. We violated both Rule #1 and Rule #2 without remorse, beginning and ending each day’s journey in the dark, and covering about a third of the miles on the Interstate.

When renting the car Chad elected to purchase the damage waiver. He thought it seemed a bit high, at just under a quarter of the week’s rental fee. I told him I never buy it, being covered between my credit card and my own insurance. But then again, I’ve never had any incidents.

It’s still total darkness at 6:30am in late October an hour west of Austin. I’m driving. We are making good time up a two lane state route. The car in front of us is just taillights, a bit ahead of the reach of our headlights. The lights ahead take a bit of a hop. A split second later our lights reach a deer carcass, dead center in our lane, dead. We hit it square, a quick crack/thud combination that lifted the car a bit.

No warning indicators illuminated, the car felt fine, nothing seemed out of whack. We pulled into a gas station in the next town a few miles up the road. The front fascia was broken, smeared with blood in three places, but not missing any pieces. An inspection of the undercarriage revealed a big bone wedged up against the exhaust. The car smelled vaguely of cooked meat for the next couple hours.

I’m guessing Chad was happy to have bought the damage waiver.

Having jumped ahead to nearly the end of the weekend, I’ll dispense with any pretense of chronological order.

We were slow to the track on Friday, but sorted out off-property parking right across the street. Our purpose Friday was to scout the best location for race day. Although the track is only slightly more than a mile longer than Mid-Ohio, it seems a lot bigger when you’re walking around it. We only managed to cover about half the territory, never venturing anywhere near turns nine, ten, and eleven.

We spent the most time on the hill above Turn 7, which has a nice view mostly over the fences, all the way back to Turn 2. There was no overtaking here, but we got to see the cars change direction several times. We could also see glimpses of the cars across the track, through 13 and 14 and then again through 18.

We also spent some time on the grass in front of the grandstands at Turn 1. This grandstand might be the best vantage point on the property. Get high enough, you can see a good chunk of the track, a prime overtaking area directly in front of you, the main straight below and to the left where nice field glasses or a long lens would let you see the action in the pits.

We were there for the Formula One cars, of course, but that’s not all. We also had some historic cars, the Formula Four support race, and people getting rides in the pair of two-seaters. The F1 cars were much quieter than I expected. Off throttle the engines make a noise like the hitting the rumble strips, but louder. Funny, I don’t hear it on TV. The historics sounded fantastic. I think the best sounding cars of the weekend were the two-seaters. High revving and loud, we could hear them from our parking spot.

The support paddock was open to all fans, and we got a nice look at the old cars. The paddocks at all the Champ Car events I’ve attended were much more crowded; this was surprisingly crowd-free. But we didn’t visit it on race day, so that probably made a big difference.

I don’t think they’re releasing attendance figures, and I’m not particularly adept at judging crowd sizes. At our parking lot, I asked one of the attendants how many cars they parked in their lot. He said last year it was 200 on Friday, 400 on Saturday, and 600 on Sunday. He also said there were more cars on Friday this year than there were last year. Last year’s attendance was reported at something like 290,000. So I’m guessing half of them for race day; and perhaps fifty thousand on Friday and a hundred on Saturday.

Slumming with the amateurs

In the minutes before the lights went out for the start, a group of skydivers jumped from planes overhead. At the Broncos games, they bring the game ball to midfield. Here they didn’t even land on the property. One was flying the US flag, another the Texas flag.

Texans are nuts for their flag. It’s flown everywhere. We passed dozens of ranches proudly flying both national and Texas flags. I always understood that the national flag should be flown higher than lesser flags; evidently Texans don’t see their flag as lesser than the US flag as it was without exception flown at the same height. They put it on everything. I’m used to seeing the Colorado or Arizona or California flags primarily as flags. Sure, they’re on the occasional building or t-shirt. But the Texas flag is everywhere. There were several designs of event tees available; more with the Texas flag than the US flag.

Casual

We were subject to some official misinformation. Materials we read indicated we couldn’t bring lenses longer than ten inches, and tripods, selfie-sticks, and monopods were strictly verboten. In actual fact, giant lenses and monopods were commonplace. Scott kindly lent me a monopod and one of his long telephotos.

I struggled with my reflex lens. I hand-held on Friday. Very difficult. Focusing was a challenge. With the monopod the second day things were easier, as I could simulate a tripod by bracing the monopod against the lawn chair. Scott’s telephoto was much easier; auto-focus and image stabilizer. And much faster. I tried to shoot all the cars the first two days and relax on race day. I shot about 800 pictures, none of which are stellar. We confirmed in June I’m no Lewis Hamilton, and this weekend that I’m no Bernard Cahier.

As you’d expect, prices for food, drink, and merchandise were high. I had a giant sausage one day, piled high with onions for $14, a six cheese mac with bacon for $12, and a trio of sliders for $17.25. Yikes! Beers were nine bucks and up. The lowest priced t-shirt I saw was thirty bucks. Hats for fifty. Polo shirts eighty five.

Water was widely available. They had a number of giant dispensers around the facility. I watched them pour two hundred pounds of ice into one that wasn’t at a water source. I carried my empty container in and refilled it as necessary.

All in all, I enjoyed myself. I look forward to going to another one, but I probably won’t return to Austin for F1 in the next few years. Maybe I need to think about Montreal…

 

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