One week from today on November 16, the first international event will be held at the brand new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The COTA is the first purpose-built Formula One track in the U.S., so its opening has been highly anticipated for several years. The F1 event officially begins with practice day on Friday the 16th. Qualifying will be on Saturday with the final race on Sunday. As a longtime car nut and Austin resident, I am offering an up-to-date insider’s view of this seminal event, bits from the history of its development, and what you can expect to happen next week.
You should also read Twelve Seasons of Austin, an in-depth description of some unusual things to do during your visit to Austin. The emphasis of that article is on scenic drives and classic Austin restaurants. Note that the F1 race is not even mentioned in that piece composed last spring. There has been so much controversy over COTA in the local news these past few years that I did not want to jinx the premiere before it happened! If you wish to wander a little further into my perspectives on cars and other topics, you can visit my website and read a slightly updated version of Twelve Seasons of Austin. Unfortunately if you are attending the F1 race next week, you are a little too late to view the famous swarm of Mexican Freetail bats leaving the Congress Avenue Bridge as shown in the accompanying photo. Since the weather is still warm here this year, you might plan a side trip to the bridge anyway. The bats may still be there, although lesser in number than during the peak summer season.
Speaking of weather, you can expect the temperature to be between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit throughout race weekend. The Weather Channel link is for 78703 in the center of Austin. The racetrack is about seventeen miles southeast of that central zip code. I picked this location because one of the big stories in the local news is that several companies are competing to offer temporary helicopter service from several locations in Austin. The 78703 zip code is approximately in the center of Loop 1 (Mopac). There is currently a dispute over noise and other side effects if a helicopter pad is utilized from a rooftop located near Mopac at Barton Springs. Whether or not this location is active during the race, my best guess is that others will be available somewhere around the Loop 1 corridor. Austin is more or less divided east-west by Mopac. West of the highway is where the beauty of the Texas Hill Country begins. East Austin, east of I-35 where COTA is located, is relatively flat by comparison. This is why the scenic drives described in my earlier article all begin at Mopac. There is not likely to be any precipitation during your entire visit. Although a 20% chance of rain is noted on a few days by The Weather Channel, the weather here is nearly always a little better than they say. Most of the time when I look at the predictions for my own zip code, a realistic guess is to add about five degrees. One final comment I want to make about the weather here is that the overnight temperature prediction is often reached only at the last possible hour. Nighttime temps up to about midnight are quite often much more pleasant than you would expect.
Let’s talk numbers for a bit, shall we? As I emphasized repeatedly in the earlier article, Austin’s #1 problem is traffic. Local authorities are saying that concert events in Zilker Park usually draw about 70,000 and UT football home games draw about 100,000. This first F1 race is predicted to bring 120,000 visitors to Austin. The COTA track has just recently been completed and a celebratory footrace that drew 5000 was staged there just days ago. Local media reported that some visitors endured up to 45-minute waits in traffic near the track just to complete their journeys and park their cars! Most of the backups were at the points at which the also brand-new Toll Road 130 downloaded traffic onto the smaller roads to the track. COTA officials are insisting that their plan of shuttle buses and helicopters, etc., will alleviate the problem, but don’t hold your breath! The stretch of I-35 from Temple to San Antonio often seems to be the busiest freeway in the nation. The new toll road bypass from the I-35 nightmare has been years in the making. The full route from Georgetown to I-10 at Luling has opened just in time for the F1 race next week. Although a few local residents are whining about the all-new 85-mph speed limit on 130, I doubt that anyone who comes to watch any sort of auto race will be so inclined! The full price of the entire stretch of the toll road from Georgetown to Luling is $8 and change, but from either direction, you will only use part of the toll road to reach the Circuit of the Americas. The unexpected bad news is that on the very first night the final, southern leg of the new toll road was open, four cars splattered into wild pigs crossing the new highway. Yes, these boars have become a nuisance recently in the area, but 85-mph is a helluva way to make bacon! The good news is that unless you are coming up from San Antonio or Houston at night, this is unlikely to be an issue for you. The hogs seem to be most plentiful near Lockhart and Luling, miles south of the track.
Far more race fans will be arriving from Dallas and many locations from the Great Frozen North down I-35, where you can turn east onto 130 at Georgetown or other locations closer to central Austin. Many of you will be sleeping in western areas of the city, or even way out west in Marble Falls. Proprietors of hotels and bed and breakfasts in the scenic, touristy town were interviewed by the media weeks ago and most were already sold out. If you are coming from Marble Falls or anywhere else in the local area, such as the Horseshoe Bay Resort, avoid FM 1431 unless you enjoy a snaky, hilly two-lane road with traffic lights. Also avoid FM 620 unless you like loads of traffic punctuated with numerous traffic lights. Although it may not look like it on a map, Highway 71 is the quicker. more pleasant route if you are just going from Marble Falls to Central Austin, never mind the scenery. Yes, there are a couple of 50-mph two-lane construction zones, but it will still be faster. Marble Falls to Mopac rarely takes more than an hour. Alternatively, it also does not look like it on a map, but you can go twelve miles north on Highway 281 in Marble Falls to Highway 29 East in Burnet, continuing over to I-35 in Georgetown near the 130 entrance. Trust me: either of these routes will get you to the track faster than either 1431 or 620. For scenic views, the situation is reversed, as described in the earlier article.
The race teams and their support forces will probably begin arriving in Austin via planes and trucks as early as today. COTA is nicely positioned a few miles east of Austin Bergstrom International Airport, just south of Highway 71. (Yes, this is the same Highway 71 that you can drive in from the Hill Country.) The COTA area will officially be annexed into the City of Austin soon. The city council vote has already passed. You might find the location listed currently as either Del Valle, Texas, or just Travis County, but it will certainly be a part of the city before the next event is held early next year. Most of the traffic hassles described here are the result of the minimal road development that has been carried out during all those years when this was one of the least developed portions of the Austin metro area. With the high-pitched scream of exotic engines burning the highest octane available, that’s about to change.
Floyd M. Orr is the author of Plastic Ozone Daydream: The Corvette Chronicles, Timeline of America: Sound Bytes from the Consumer Culture, and four other books. He has been a dedicated fan of Austin TX since 1977 in the heady days of the Armadillo World Headquarters.Â