Formula One racing is a sport associated with a certain kind of wealthy international traveler — someone who charters a yacht to enjoy the Monaco Grand Prix. Boy aren't they going to be surprised later this year when they travel to the newest F1 race — in a town on the outskirts of Austin so culturally remote their slogan is "Where the hell is Elroy, Texas?"
Where the hell, indeed.
When people refer to Elroy as a dump they're not being mean. The Travis County Landfill is located on the outskirts of town and for now serves as the most distinct physical landmark on the otherwise unremarkable landscape.
There are mighty hills to the west, rolling plains to the north and piney woods to the east, but all of these distinct features appear to die in Elroy, which resides on a mostly flat and scrubby surface.
Local lore has it that first settler of the area was an officer in the army of General Santa Anna who, upon being given given the land by the General, promptly traded it for a horse and saddle so he could get the hell out of there and back to Mexico.
Many towns in Texas exist because of some sort of economic boom. Oil. Cotton. Cattle. Semiconductors. Not so with Elroy. The population in 1947 was 125 people. The population in 2000 was 125 people.
And yet this unlikely spot is where the Circuit of the Americas is being built. When completed it'll be America's next great track, designed as a home to international events like the Moto GP Championship and the United Stated Grand Prix.
To better understand the local community I ventured with The Austin American-Statesman's F1 Guru Dave Doolittle to Elroy's signature restaurant: Wild Bubba's Wild Game Grill. It also appears to be Elroy's only restaurant.
From the outside Wild Bubba's looks like the kind of beer-and-burger joint connected to gas stations across Texas. If it weren't for a sign advertising an "F-1 BURGER" in various fonts outside you'd have no guess that this is the Formula One mecca of the south.
Walk past the shabby and slanted wire fence through the bright blue front door and suddenly you're in a world simultaneously devoted to the world's premier racing series and burgers made from animals you're more likely to see in a zoo than on a plate.
Sure, there's the checkerboard floor, mounted dead animals and sports memorabilia you'd expect from such an establishment, but look closer and you start to notice a theme. To your left is a wall of F1 photos from Sutton Images dubbed the "Sutton Wall." Opposite that is a wall of track drawings dedicated to the track designer Hermann Tilke called the "Tilke Wall," which leads to the just opened "Tilke Biergarten" as indicated haphazardly in Sharpe on the door.
I'm famished when I arrive so I skip the decoration and start scanning the hand-drawn menu on the wall, which offers up a variety of beef-burger alternatives such as buffalo, yak, cabrito, and antelope. This started out as a regular sort of Central Texas BBQ place but the eponymous Bubba saw his opportunity and decided to imbue his joint with an international flair (Sebastian Vettel can enjoy a kangaroo burger when he's here).
The daily special is a wild boar burger with fries and a drink for $9.99 so that's what I order.
Wild Bubba's is doing a surprisingly good lunch business despite being in a part of Central Texas I only vaguely knew existed even though I used to live only 18 miles away. Doolittle points out many of the diners are construction company employees taking a break from the cold rain that's currently hampering their efforts.
Doolittle pronounces his wild boar burger "a little gamey" and it is, but in a good way. It's a big moist patty slightly charred with a square of melted cheese, a thick slice of tomato, shredded lettuce, all on a stout picnic bun. I dig it. It starts off with a beefy character but a few bites in reveals its subtle pork notes.
My wife has an equally tasty cow-based hamburger with the "F1 fries." Other people will know these fries as "crinkle cut." Perhaps the aerodynamic benefit of the ridges make them more F1-like. Or maybe they're like little potato chicanes?
By Doolittle's estimate only 10% of the Austin area population gets what's going on, evenly divided between people who know what it is and are excited and those who know what it is and are terrified by the implications. The rest "don't give a shit." That's a basic Austin attitude towards most issues, but it will surely change when the populace wakes up to just how big a deal this is.
I inquire as to how Doolittle ended up with the F1 beat and he says he was the only person on staff who was an F1 fan, on account of his father, a geography professor at the nearby University of Texas who'd sneak over to F1 races during international symposiums. Also, it turns out, Dr. Doolittle was one of my professor's at UT. Small world. Especially in Elroy.
Before long Vance Facundo, the gregarious local who founded the Friends of F1 Austin group, sits down to join us. I should probably lead with questions about his life in Elroy, but I want to know if he's had the F1 burger, which is a full pound of beef with BBQ sauce and onions.
Facundo admits the charge.
"It's like three meals in one," Facundo explains. "I didn't eat for three days…"
Like most locals who have suddenly taken to the idea of F1 he admits he was originally a NASCAR fan who previously had almost no idea about F1.
"I only knew about Schumacher."
Facundo's probably not an expert yet, but when talking about Sebastien Vettel it's clear he's given himself over fully to the sport.
"I've been cramming" he tells me, pointing out that he takes every opportunity he can to watch videos of old races.
After lunch Doolittle and I head over for a tour of the track, which is now back under construction again after a showdown between the organizers and F1's muppet head Bernie Ecclestone. From the highest point on the track you can see the airport and, despite the rain, even the outline of Downtown Austin. Otherwise it's just empty land.
No one's going to be pulling up a yacht to this track. Maybe an RV, though.
There are few more provincial places in Texas to hold an international event, but the locals have taken to the idea with a typically Texan zeal.
This is Elroy's first boom. Their chance to be on the map. They're damn sure not going to waste it.
In a few years, if all goes right, the land will be dotted with hotels, shopping centers, and new restaurants instead of rusty cars and shacks.
Not like it matters all that much. I'll still be going to Wild Bubba's for some "coyote tails" and wild antelope chili.