I’ve been to the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas just about every year since 2014, and believe me when I tell you that last weekend’s event really was that packed. In fact, I’ve never seen so many people at the track before, for any event — ever.
The US GP in Austin has always been a great event, but it’s always felt a little niche. In 2014, the race fell on Halloween weekend, and while downtown had transformed into a Grand Prix party, most people who were out and about had literally no idea what F1 was, let alone the fact that any international event was happening that weekend.
And the vibe at the track was pretty similar. On Friday in 2014, I was one of maybe 5,000 people at the track for practice. Most concession stands weren’t open. We had free rein of the entire circuit and picked a few different General Admission spots to watch from during the day — most of which might have had a smattering of 20 other people.
And race day itself wasn’t a particularly massive event, either. In fact, there were so few people in the GA areas that, after buying grandstand tickets for that first race, I vowed to never again spend the extra money for an assigned seat, since there was plenty of space on the Turn 1 hill.
This year, it was different.
For this year’s Friday practice, people were actually lined up outside of the entrance gates waiting to get in, and by 11am, the GA areas were packed. I spent the weekend wandering around with former Jalopnik writer Alanis King, and we both agreed — it was like we were looking at a race day crowd. For practice.
And it only escalated from there, to the point where I woke up at four in the morning on race day to make sure I’d be able to make the commute to Austin without getting stuck in massive amounts of traffic. I got to the track right before gates opened, and I could not believe my eyes. The lines to enter were so long that they were actually meeting up with lines for other gates. As one friend told me, he was waiting to enter the gate near the front stretch grandstand only to find the end of the line for the main plaza gate. That main gate line stretched all the way around Turn 20 and back to the front stretch.
While I was walking into the track, gates opened, and it was like chaos descended on the track.
I was still walking through the parking lot, which meant I had full view of people sprinting to Turn 1 from two different directions. My friend Jay, who was in line, told me that security gave up trying to check bags because the crush of people was so intense. He watched countless people jumping over fences and climbing over barriers just to enter the track faster to claim prime GA real estate.
Gates opened at 8:30. By 8:31, the best GA spots at Turn 1 were taken. By about 10 a.m., the entire hill was packed.
Other folks on Twitter captured the madness as well:
And that was only the inside of the track. People were sharing videos of the lines at the gates as early as 5:30 in the morning.
As someone who’s been coming to the track for years, the sheer amount of hype for this race was mind blowing. The only time I ever felt like I needed to get to the track early was back when COTA used to host first-come-first-serve autograph sessions. You’d arrive about 30 minutes before gates opened, run to the amphitheater to collect wristbands, and then go about the rest of your day. We’d show up about 45 minutes early on race day to get a great spot at Turn 1, but in 2017, I wandered the track for a few hours and hopped up to T1 just before the race started. There was plenty of space to set up camp.
A lot of people are making wild conjectures about why the race was such a hit. There’s no doubt that the fact that the US hasn’t hosted a race since 2019, and that COTA’s contract for next year still hasn’t been renewed, has something to do with it. But I couldn’t believe how many people were there because of Drive to Survive.
Alanis and I wandered the track on Friday and Saturday, asking fans how they got interested in F1 and why they were at the race, and there was about an equal split between folks who had been a fan of F1 for ages and never missed the US GP and people who were attending their first race after watching DTS. This was also the first F1 race I’ve been to where the number of groups of women in the crowd was obvious. I’d normally be one of a few women who showed up with a group of female friends; this year, there were tons. And most of the women I talked to had gotten invested in F1 through DTS.
The true test of popularity, of course, will come next year, when there are (likely) two F1 races in the United States. If both are well-attended, then we’re seeing an F1 breakthrough in America. If not, then there’s still work to do. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that F1 in America is growing, and it’s time to capitalize on it.