As the Texas capital prepares to host the first Grand Prix in the US in five years, some in laid-back Austin say this weekend’s glamorous race clashes with the city’s soul.
In this environmentally conscious college town of 800,000, where the bumper stickers say: “Keep Austin Weird” and there are no professional sports teams, there is widespread opposition to the Formula One race.
Some skeptics have come around, embracing the race and the sleek parties that come with it, while others are still shaking their heads over fears of clogged streets, noisy helicopter traffic and a negative impact on the environment, all for a ritzy event they say is simply un-Austin.
“Many opponents said that this is kind of the wrong image — frivolous emissions, carbon and other pollutants into the air just for amusement purposes — for a city that wants to be seen as the most sustainable city in the United States,” said Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
Officials at Circuit of the Americas, which owns the new racetrack, say they are working to minimize the environmental impact of the event and that F1 innovations lead to more efficient passenger cars.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs touts the economic impact of the event, which she says will generate about US$220 million for the state, and many Austinites are thrilled about the race at the 5.5km, US$400 million track facility southeast of town, as well as a downtown fan festival and concerts by Aerosmith and Enrique Iglesias.
“It’s just another thing that makes Austin weird,” said Julie Loignon, a spokeswoman for Circuit of the Americas, adding that F1 was too shiny, too chic for Austin, more of a Dallas-type thing. “Austin is very European, with its politics, its progressive thinking. People are going to come here, buy their boots, let their hair down and they’re going to have a lovely time.”
F1 has not raced in the US since 2007, when the Grand Prix was held at Indianapolis, and teams are eager to return to a country that is a key market for sponsors and car manufacturers, but one that the sport has found hard to crack over the years.
A second Grand Prix was planned for New Jersey next year, but has been postponed until 2014.
F1 is expected to race for a decade at the 20-turn Austin track featuring a steep climb to a hairpin Combs has called “that extraordinary drive up into the heavens.”
The fact that the race is in Austin is due in large part to Tavo Hellmund, an Austin-born former race car driver who has a close relationship with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.
After working to bring the race to his hometown, Hellmund eventually parted ways with Circuit of the Americas, and there were such serious struggles among race organizers that late last year construction on the track was halted, prompting speculation the race may not happen.
“For a lot of us longtime Austinites, Formula One is hard to swallow,” Austin City Councilor Chris Riley wrote in the Austin American-Statesman last year. “We’re not that big on fast cars; we’re more into hybrids, electric vehicles, bikes and public transit.”
Since then, Riley has warmed to the idea, mostly because the city and Circuit of the Americas signed an environmental agreement that calls for purchasing carbon offsets, limiting traffic, providing access for cyclists, planting trees, recycling and composting, and allowing electric vehicle research at the track.