Circuit of the Americas
Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is a grade 1 FIA-specification 3.426-mile (5.514 km) motor racing track and facilities located within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Austin, Texas. The facility is home to the Formula One United States Grand Prix, the IndyCar Classic, and the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas, a round of the FIM Road Racing World Championship, as well a round of the Americas Rallycross Championship. It previously hosted the Australian V8 Supercars, the American Le Mans Series, the Rolex Sports Car Series, the FIA World Endurance Championship, and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The circuit will host the NASCAR Cup Series for the first time on May 23, 2021.
The circuit and Grand Prix were first proposed in the middle of 2010. The circuit was the first in the United States to be purpose-built for Formula One. The layout was conceived by promoter Tavo Hellmund and 1993 Motorcycle World Champion Kevin Schwantz with the assistance of German architect and circuit designer Hermann Tilke, who has also designed the Sepang, Shanghai, Yas Marina, Istanbul, Bahrain, Yeongam, and Buddh circuits, as well as the reprofiling of the Hockenheimring and Fuji Speedway. The circuit has an FIA Grade 1 license.
In a news conference on July 27, 2010, Tavo Hellmund announced plans to build the track on about 890 acres (3.6 km2) of undeveloped land in southeastern Travis County. The majority of the site had been planned to be developed into a residential subdivision called "Wandering Creek". In the same news conference, Hellmund also revealed that Texas billionaire Red McCombs was the project's largest investor. McCombs wished to call the site "Speed City", but the owners originally anticipated selling the naming rights to various parts of the facility for $7 million. On April 12, 2011, the track's name was announced as "Circuit of the Americas" at a press conference. The circuit homologation design was submitted to the FIA in Geneva for approval on December 17, 2010. HKS, Inc. and Tilke Engineers & Architects designed the track, and Austin Commercial, a subsidiary of Austin Industries, was the general contractor. Construction began on December 31, 2010, and was due to be complete by June 2012. Following a stop-work order in December 2011, the completion date was revised to August. The first tasks were building the silt fences, taking core samples, and shredding existing vegetation.
On January 21, 2011, a $900,000 check was posted with Travis County that permitted grading to begin. The money was to be used to restore the land if the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declined to allow the project to move forward because part of the site lies in a floodplain. FEMA issued a letter on June 28, 2011, stating the project meets its floodplain management criteria.
In January 2012, Travis County announced that Elroy Road—one of the two primary public access roads to the circuit—would receive an upgrade to handle the volume of incoming traffic, but not before the running of the 2012 race. At the time of the announcement, the unstable clay soils under the road surface had caused Elroy Road to gradually buckle and shift, necessitating the upgrade.
On June 13, 2012, Charlie Whiting—the FIA-appointed Race Director for Formula One—declared himself satisfied with the circuit's construction, scheduling a final pre-race inspection of the circuit for September 25, sixty days before the first race, which the circuit later passed.
To ensure the demanding FIA specifications for the track were met, GPS-based 3D paving equipment was used on the asphalt paving and milling machines. The first layer of asphalt was completed on August 3, 2012. Construction began laying the final layer of asphalt on August 14, and was finished on September 21. The track was officially opened on October 21, with Mario Andretti running the ceremonial first laps in a Lotus 79, the car he drove when he became the last American to win the World Drivers' Championship in 1978.
A crowd of 117,429 watched the Formula One race in November 2012.
The Grand Plaza, Observation Structure, Tower Amphitheater, and Main Grandstand were designed by Austin-based architectural firm Miró Rivera Architects.
City endorsement and lawsuit
In order for the race to take place, the Austin city council was asked to be the sponsoring municipality for the event. Through being a sponsor, the city could apply for money from a state fund, the Major Events Trust Fund (METF), designed to attract major sporting events to Texas that would be used to pay the Formula One race sanctioning fee. This matter was complicated by opponents of the project who filed a lawsuit against state comptroller Susan Combs, claiming that she had promised the funding to the circuit without having been legally authorized to do so, though promoters have responded stating that all necessary guidelines had been followed. On July 1, 2011, a state district court judge declined to enter a temporary restraining order against Combs preventing payments from the METF; nonetheless, Texas Comptroller Combs reconsidered and chose not to make the July 31 advance payment to FOMC/Bernard Ecclestone as previously agreed for the first year's sanctioning fee. The attorney for the project's opponents has stated that he is unsure if they will continue pursuing the lawsuit.
In June 2011, the Austin city council agreed to allow the circuit to apply to the Texas Major Events Trust Fund but withheld its full endorsement requiring the circuit to pay the financial match normally borne by the local government sponsor. As a part of the endorsement, the sport will pay $15,000 in carbon offsets and $5 million to establish an on-site research project into environmentally friendly technologies.
Breach of contract and reinstatement
In November 2011, Bernie Ecclestone expressed what he called "minor" doubt over the future of the United States Grand Prix in Austin after "disagreements inside the [management] company". These issues were later confirmed when construction of the circuit came to a halt because of a dispute between the circuit owners, promoter Full Throttle Productions, and Formula One Management. Promoter Tavo Hellmund admitted that his company had been in breach of its contract with Formula One Management since May 2011. The situation further escalated when state comptroller Susan Combs described the planned Grand Prix of America as a threat to the race in Texas, and said that the first $25 million payment from the state sports fund would only be made available after the first Grand Prix at the circuit, despite having previously promised to make the funds available in time for the inaugural event. Bernie Ecclestone later issued an ultimatum to the owners and organizers: find a solution before the December 7 meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council or else risk being removed from the 2012 calendar. Ecclestone emphasized that if the Circuit of the Americas were removed from the calendar, it would not be added again at a later date.
On December 7, 2011, the World Motor Sport Council released the final calendar for the 2012 season, with the Circuit of the Americas retaining its November 18 date. Further details revealed that the race investors, McCombs and Epstein, had reached a new arrangement with Ecclestone, with work on the circuit scheduled to resume immediately. As a part of the arrangement, organizers paid the sanctioning fee for the 2012 race one year in advance as a show of good faith. At the time of the circuit's reinstatement, there were no reports supporting Tavo Hellmund's continued involvement under the new contract. On March 4, 2012, The Austin American-Statesman reported that Hellmund had launched legal proceedings against investors Bobby Epstein and Red McCombs, with Hellmund claiming that he was still a part of the management company and had not been paid since September. Further details emerged, reporting that Hellmund was in the process of attempting to acquire Epstein's interest in the company, describing the condition of the circuit as of March 4 as "teetering". Epstein responded to the lawsuit by stating that Hellmund had been found to have been in breach of contract by Formula One Management.
In June 2012, the dispute between Hellmund and Epstein was reported to have been settled out of court.
Dispute over planned MotoGP race
In April 2011, plans were unveiled by Tavo Hellmund of Full Throttle Productions and Kevin Schwantz of 3fourTexas for the circuit to host a round of the 2013 MotoGP World Championship, with the race to be known as the Texas Grand Prix. The race was the brainchild of Schwantz, the circuit co-designer, who would serve as event promoter with his company, 3fourTexas. However, following the settlement of the lawsuit between Tavo Hellmund and Bobby Epstein, Schwantz announced that he would be suing Steve Sexton. Schwantz claimed that upon the resolution of the dispute between Hellmund and Epstein, Sexton moved to negotiate directly with MotoGP's commercial rights holder, Dorna Sports, ignoring what he claimed was an existing contract between Dorna and 3fourTexas to hold the race. Circuit representatives denied that there was ever a contract between Schwantz and the Circuit of the Americas, and that his dispute was with Dorna Sports. Dorna later claimed that although a contract for the race between Dorna and Schwantz had existed, the contract had been terminated in July 2012 as they believed Schwantz had failed to acquire the necessary rights from the circuit to hold the race. Schwantz then accused Sexton and the Circuit of the Americas of "undermining" him, deliberately blocking his attempts to establish a race in order to have the contract terminated and allowing them to negotiate a more-favourable arrangement with Dorna.
In October 2012, Dorna Sports announced that they had come to agreeable terms with organizers of the Texas motorcycle Grand Prix, including the race on the 2013 calendar as the Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas, but made no mention of the dispute with Schwantz or any outcome of it.
Prior of the 2014 Motorcycle Grand Prix of the Americas, the circuit announced that COTA and Schwantz had amicably settled their legal differences and reached an agreement to collaborate to promote motorcycling racing, with Schwantz taking the role as official ambassador for COTA.
On September 4, 2018, IndyCar announced that it has reached a multi-year agreement to add the Circuit of the Americas to its calendar replacing Phoenix Raceway (then known as ISM Raceway), finalizing the IndyCar Series calendar. COTA will debut on the IndyCar Series schedule on Sunday, March 24. It will serve as the second race of the 2019 campaign. The addition of COTA at the end of March fills the large gap between the first and second races that has existed that past couple of years. Often it seemed as if the some of the momentum built by the series at the season-opener in St. Petersburg was lost by the time Indy cars got back on track a month later. Now with COTA in the fold for late-March, there will only be one off week between the season-opener at the second race of the season. This will be the first time since 2014 that 2 tracks in Texas will be on the IndyCar series calendar.
In an episode of Speed TV's Wind Tunnel program broadcast on August 22, 2010, Tavo Hellmund revealed that the circuit would be 3.4 miles (5.5 km) long and would be made up of twenty turns with an elevation change of 133 feet (41 m). The final plan of the circuit was released on September 1, 2010, showing a design inspired by the European tradition of sculpting the circuit to the contours of the land. The design draws from several European Formula One circuits, including a recreation of Silverstone's Maggotts–Becketts–Chapel sequence, Hockenheim's arena bends, and a replica of Istanbul's Turn Eight. Other corners were loosely inspired by the Senna 'S' at Interlagos and the Österreichring's Sebring-Auspuffkurve. A feature of the circuit is a deliberate widening of corners, to encourage drivers to follow multiple racing lines. A similar feature was used at the Buddh International Circuit in India, where the circuit widens on the approach to certain corners.
The circuit was one of only a handful on the Formula One 2012 calendar to be run counter-clockwise, the others being Marina Bay, the Korea International Circuit, Yas Marina, and Interlagos. Because of this, the circuit contains more left-hand turns than right-hand ones, placing greater physical demands on the drivers whose bodies, particularly their necks, are more adapted to the lateral g-forces of clockwise circuits.
From the start line, the drivers climb a gradient of over 11% to the first corner—the highest point of the circuit—with the apex of the corner positioned on the crest of the hill. They descend the hill to navigate a series of fast sweepers modeled on Silverstone's Maggotts–Becketts–Chapel complex and through a blind corner at Turn 10, taking them to the far end of the circuit and a hairpin at Turn 11. The drivers then follow a 0.62-mile (1.00 km) straight back towards the pit and paddock area before entering the final sector of the lap and weaving through a series of corners modeled on Hockenheim's stadium section. This is followed by a downhill, multi-apex corner with limited run-off before the final two corners of the circuit, a pair of left-hand bends that return the drivers to the main straight.
The reception from drivers ahead of the inaugural race was highly positive. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton both praised the circuit, suggesting that it would be considerably more difficult to learn than other recent additions to the Formula One calendar. Jenson Button described the first sector as "spectacular", but remarked that he felt that starting second would be better than starting first as the placement of pole position put it on a steeper incline than the rest of the grid. Kamui Kobayashi, on the other hand, was less complimentary, claiming that he did not feel intimidated by the steep climb to the first corner as it was no different from Eau Rouge at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and accusing the media of hyping it up without precedent. Mark Webber was also unimpressed, stating that while he enjoyed driving the first sector of the circuit, the second and third sectors were similar to other circuits on the calendar.
Bordered by the track on three sides, the Grand Plaza is a 20 acres (0.081 km2) space designed by Miró Rivera Architects of Austin, Texas that includes a large reflecting pool, lawn, and varying landscape zones. A promenade along the north side of the Grand Plaza hosts concessions, retail, restroom facilities, and entrances to spectator seating. From the southeast end of the Grand Plaza, two pedestrian bridges cross over turns 16 and 3 to provide access for visitors to other areas of the circuit complex.
Circuit of the Americas features a 251 feet (77 m) observation tower designed by Miró Rivera Architects and built by Patriot Erectors as a landmark for the venue. The structure of the tower consists of an elevator hoist-way surrounded by a double helix staircase of 419 stairs, both of which lead to an observation platform 230 feet (70 m) above ground level. The platform provides a 360-degree panorama of the circuit, as well as views to downtown Austin, Texas. The observation platform, which is accessible to the public for an admission fee, can accommodate up to 70 visitors and features glass railings and a partial glass floor. In addition, a "veil" consisting of 18 bright red steel tubes runs nearly the full height of the tower, acting as a canopy for both the observation platform and the stage below. The design of the observation tower was inspired by the visual imagery of sports cars and movement, and the red color was selected to mimic the streaks of lights trailing racecars at night.
Germania Insurance Amphitheater
On July 23, 2012, COTA announced a booking agreement with Live Nation to book major concerts at an open air amphitheater to be built at the base of the observation tower. Designed by Miró Rivera Architects, the venue opened in April 2013 with a concert by Kenny Chesney. The amphitheater accommodates up to 14,000 people with 5,240 permanent reserved seats. Another 1,700 seats can be configured on the stage-front floor or there is standing room for 2,300. The remaining general admission spots are on a sloping grass area behind the reserved seats. The venue was originally going to be called Tower Amphitheater, but under a deal closed in March 2013, was renamed to Austin360 Amphitheater, with naming rights sold to the entertainment/events website associated with the Austin American-Statesman. Beginning January 1, 2020, COTA renamed the venue the Germania Insurance Amphitheater under a seven-year deal with the Brenham, Texas based insurance company.
The primary permanent seating at Circuit of the Americas is located within the Main Grandstand, designed by Miró Rivera Architects. Above-ground construction on the grandstand began in March 2012, and the "topping out" occurred in June 2012 with completion in time for the inaugural United States Grand Prix.
The Main Grandstand is 65 feet (20 m) tall, and has a total capacity of approximately 9,000 spectators. The seating is divided into three levels: lower level (capacity ~5400, including Loge Boxes), club level (capacity ~2900), and suite level (capacity ~750). The majority of seating is covered by a tensile fabric canopy. The primary structure is 500 feet (150 m) long, while the lower risers extend an additional 500 feet. The grandstand also contains concessions, restrooms, offices, and two lounge spaces located at the second and third levels. The Velocity Lounge on the second level is approximately 7,100 square feet (660 m2), and contains a 36-screen video wall and the acrylic painting "Velocity" by Dallas-based artist Christopher Martin measuring 120 feet (37 m) in length.
Both the Main Grandstand and the concessions buildings in the Grand Plaza were conceived as a modular system consisting of several components that can be arranged according to need. The concessions, with banners and deep canopies, can be expanded with restrooms, permanent seating or suites. Inherent to this “kit-of-parts” construction system is flexibility allowing the site to grow and change.
In August 2017, a new soccer-specific stadium was announced to be built between the Amphitheater and the Grand Plaza. A professional soccer team known as Austin Bold FC began playing in the USL Championship in 2019. The stadium seats 5,000 people. The Austin Gilgronis of Major League Rugby plays home games at the stadium in 2020.
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But fellow Australian Mark Webber was not quite as fulsome in praise, pointing out that after the first sector it became much like any other modern circuit: “It’s a pretty good track, it’s quick, especially the first sector which is quite full on, although sectors two and three are more traditional and similar to other tracks.”
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