I want to preface this by saying that I have no problems with the Circuit of the Americas; it is, by far, one of my favorite race tracks in the world, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending countless different races there—everything from Formula One to random testing weekends, just because I liked being there. If I hated the track, then I most definitely would not have dragged my then-fiancé to watch IndyCar at COTA the day before we got married.
With that being said, I was fairly disappointed with the fan experience for the NASCAR race, which left a hell of a lot to be desired—starting with the very fact that you couldn’t bring anything in through the gates.
I’ll be honest and note that I did not review the bag policy to its fullest extent. Apparently, all bags must now be smaller than 14x14x14 inches and clear. There’s a clause in the FAQ that notes you can bring in small purses that are no larger than 4.5 x 6.5 x 2 inches—but that appears not to apply for motorsport events. The in-depth bag policy is a broken link, so I couldn’t double check, and no one responded to my email, so I assumed that I’d be able to bring in my tiny purse, which is about the size of a fanny pack.
I was wrong. We walked from the parking lot to the main gate in sideways rain only to be told that I couldn’t bring my purse in. They said my continental wallet was also too big. But it appears that several other women were able to bring in tote-sized purses; it seemed to depend on which gate you went to.
It was a similar story with umbrellas; some clauses in the FAQ allow for small, collapsible umbrellas, and COTA has allowed you to bring them in at every other event I’ve attended there. I usually bring a personal collapsible umbrella to put over my legs to avoid a sunburn while I’m sitting in the grass. Umbrellas also weren’t allowed for this event, despite the damp forecast for the weekend.
And it was the same for water bottles. COTA has never allowed in outside food, with the exception of a single sealed, plastic water bottle. I had to leave mine outside the gate.
The clear-bag and umbrella policies are newer for COTA, but they also appear to be specific to Texas. I can’t say I’ve attended many sporting events in the past year (or, like, any sporting event ever before that was not a race), but the clear bag rule has been in effect for countless football games, soccer matches, and more. I didn’t know this until I mentioned it to my mom, who told me it’s become standard. It prevents people from bringing guns or other weapons into a venue that may be missed during a standard bag check, and in this pandemic era, it enables security guards to check the contents of your bag without actually having to get too close.
But it was a pretty harsh come-to-Jesus moment for myself and for many of the NASCAR-only fans who attended the event. As one fan told me, she’s used to the “bring everything, including the kitchen sink” policy for NASCAR events, which includes a few events since the series started allowing fans to attend races during COVID. COTA has always been fairly strict about what you’re allowed to bring inside, but it was a bit of a culture shock for a set of fans that can normally bring in a cooler and settle in for the day.
(IndyCar fans had a similar experience during COTA’s one-and-done event in 2019. Some IndyCar circuits are stricter than others in terms of what you can bring inside with you, but you can generally err on the side of being able to bring in some beer and a backpack.)
And with the rain came other issues. The Turn One hill turned into a muddy mess that sent several folks slipping. There’s a winding, paved walkway that leads up to the rear of the grandstands there, but if you’re in the general admission zone, you generally have to trek up the hill, then around the stands, which turns the whole area into a mud pit. After rainy weekends like the 2015 United States Grand Prix, fans were hopeful the area would receive a makeover—or, at the very least, a paved path that leads to the front of the grandstands. But that has yet to happen.
In addition, most of COTA’s parking lots are unpaved; they consist of gravel paths and patches of grass. After race day ended, many fans were left digging their cars out of mud ruts that had been churned up on Saturday. Teams were also directed into the facility through fan parking lots, which left key personnel being directed through busy throngs to try to get to the garage area.
I don’t want to make it sound like it was a miserable experience, because it wasn’t. COTA was decked out with tons of merch stores, food trucks, and activities to keep you entertained—although the permanent concession stand nearest to us ran out of half of its menu items before noon on Saturday. There was a kick-ass fair with tons of rides for folks of all ages, which I’ve never seen at the track before. The permanent bathrooms remain some of my favorites in motorsport and were a welcome relief from relentless rain. A lot of my NASCAR friends who traveled in for the race had a hell of a good time… once they got in the gate.
And NASCAR put on one hell of a good show, even if the series’ first-ever rain race got a little too wet and wild at times. I do hope the series comes back on a sunnier weekend, when we can show it what Austin, Texas can really do—and hopefully we’ll be able to bring in our fanny packs without problems.