FAN ESSENTIALS: US GRAND PRIX

To purloin an expression made famous by the immortal bard and reverse it, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them and some are simply born great. In the case of Austin's Circuit of the America and the current United States Grand Prix, it's the latter that might in the long-run prove true.

 

 

However, while COTA is a wonderful track (as we'll explore later) and Austin a terrific town, it would be wrong to wholly lay such fulsome praise at the feet of the circuit and the city, for a large part of the attractiveness of the US Grand Prix stems from the love affair everyone in the sport has always had with racing in America.

It was a similar tale in 2000 when the sport first went to Indianapolis. It is a fact that the Motor Speedway's road course was not one of the sport's finest circuits and was generally unloved by the drivers, but oh how F1 loved the being-in-Indy part of that particular grand prix equation.

Maybe it's the great hospitality (Americans are properly welcoming) or the fact that you genuinely do feel like you're on location in your own Hollywood movie, or maybe it's just the enormity of everything, from the people to the portions of plastic food, but everything about racing in the US is just great fun. So, even before we'd taken a first glance at COTA we were determined that F1's 2012 return to the US after a five-year break would be a success.

 

 

 



And we weren't disappointed. Austin is just a great town in which to go racing. Indy might represent America's racing heartbeat but perhaps Austin has a bit more soul as a town. It's a young city, a university town, a liberal outpost in predominantly conservative Texas and it's home to a dizzying array of forward-looking tech companies. Add all of that together and you've got a great vibe.

It's also known as the Live Music Capital of the World, which, with endearing charm, the city named itself in 1991 after it was discovered that that Austin had more live music venues per capita than anywhere else in the nation, which, obviously, constitutes the whole world.

Anyway, regardless of geographical misapprehensions, it does have a startling amount of live music happening and that's a good thing, especially when that music is invariably exceptionally well played, properly melodic and delivered with enthusiasm and intensity, which is not something you can about the latest grime anthem out of east London.

The atmosphere is also partly fuelled by the populace's determination to make the city a bit different to other towns in Texas and their embrace of their slogan 'Keep Austin Weird' (in reference to the town's hippie credentials) makes it a very cool and laid back place in which to spend some time. Indeed, it seems most Americans think the same and according to Forbes magazine, Austin is now the fastest growing city in the United States.

 

 

 



At this point you might have guessed that we really like our current US racing destination and the love-in is compounded by a decent exchange rate, the proximity of any number of Apple stores and outlet malls. Indeed, on the Wednesday before race weekend or the Monday after it's almost impossible to get an Apple product in south Texas as every last one has been hovered up by the plague of tech locusts that is the F1 paddock. Food-wise the city is a winner too, with excellent Tex Mex and peerless BBQ at the top of the culinary hit list.

In terms of getting there, there are direct international flights to Austin-Bergstrom airport from London and Mexico City, but otherwise it seems that everyone else will have to connect from somewhere in the US. The alternative is to land at Houston or Dallas and do that quintessential American thing: the road-trip. The trip from Dallas takes about three hours, while from Houston's George Bush International Airport it's 2.5 hours.

Once you're in Austin, the obvious thing to do is stay downtown, somewhere within shouting distance of the 6th Street bars and music venues, the main drags around it and boho Soco on the other side of the river. The only trouble is, on race weekend, that means paying a hefty premium. Thus what you should remember is that Austin isn't a massive city and with a population of just over three quarters of a million it's compact enough. Yes, the traffic does snarl up at rush hours but otherwise you can get somewhere affordable to stay outside of the city centre and you can still be within a 15-minute drive/cab ride of the bright lights.

In terms of accessing the track, COTA is about 20km south east of the city centre, close to the airport. Access is well handled but be warned: on Saturday and particularly Sunday traffic jams on the approach to the track are frequent and long. Give yourself plenty of time to get in and out of the circuit.

 

 

 

 

The Track

And so we come to the track itself. The first thing we liked about it when we arrived in 2012 was how compact it all is. This is no monolithic homage to the vanity of egomaniacal overlords or the thrusting ambitions of a country desperate to get itself on the global tourism map. Instead, this is a circuit that knows what it's about – racing – and it has been built accordingly. The facilities are excellent but not overwhelmingly grandiose and it all feels a bit like an old-school European circuit where the main event is on track and not in the vast paddocks or towering hospitality suites.

And for that main event they've designed an outstanding track. Taking its cues from some of grand prix racing's great corners and stretches of track, COTA delivers a thrilling lap. Turn one is the signature corner – a steep uphill drag into a tight left-hander with a blind apex, it's a big challenge and can be approached any number of ways. It's followed by a terrific, Suzuka-inspired 'Esses' section that runs from Turn Two to Turn 10. Thereafter, there's a tight hairpin and a flat-out blast down to Turn 12, which involves some heavy, heavy braking before the final sector, which is characterised by a sequence of technical slow and medium-speed turns.

It's a terrific track and one all the drivers instantly fell in love with. It provides plenty of thrills and plenty of good possibilities for overtaking and had good rise and fall. In terms of where to watch we'd recommend any of the grandstands through Turns 3-7 in order to get a good look at the incredible changes of direction through the 'Esses', the Turn 11 hairpin grandstands and the seats at the Turn 12 heavy braking point.

The thing is that unlike some venues COTA is exceptionally well attended and is often an early sell-out, so you have to get in early to get the best spots.

 

 

 

 

Eating and Drinking

As mentioned, Austin is a bit of a foodie's paradise if you like Tex Mex, BBQ or steak. There are countless good place to dine in around Austin, though in our opinion you should try to avoid the big chain restaurants lining the highways. Instead, opt for these...

La Condesa
400A West 2Nd St,
Austin, TX 78701
T: 512-499-0300
This is a modern restaurant that does Mexican food a little better and in a pretty classy way. Its lovely décor extends to the outside patio, which allows you to watch downtown while indoors it's cosy and dimly lit during the evening.

Bob's Steak and Chop House
301 Lavaca St,
Austin, Tx 78701
T: 512-222-2627
This is considered one of the country's top steakhouses for a reason, serving nothing but the best prime steak. The service is exceptional, the wine list is extensive and the drinks are stiff. If you're not a regular already come by and let them prove why they're so proud of what they do.

Searsucker
415 Colorado St,
Austin, TX 78701
T: 512-394-8000
Searsucker boasts a relaxed, inviting atmosphere, with the emphasis on approachable and unpretentious dishes. The space includes an open-air kitchen, stylish modern rustic décor which creates a one-of-a-kind social dining experience.

Maggie Mae's
323 East 6Th St, Austin,
TX 78701-3627
T: 512-478-8541
Live music every night, three stages, sports bar with big screens, authentic English pub, New Orleans style courtyard, rooftop under the stars, amazing downtown views, art gallery and special events shows.

The Dogwood
715 West 6Th St,
Austin, TX 78701
T: 512-531-9062
Offering by far the best patio in town and a great bar space within, Dogwood is the ultimate indoor/outdoor entertainment space. Outdoors is a full service bar with big screens for sport and elevated stage area for live music.

Kingdom
103 East 5Th St, Austin,
TX 78701
T: 512-653-2546
Looking for the best late night after-party? Kingdom is a boutique dance club located in the heart of downtown Austin. It serves as a home for all dance genres, with an emphasis on sound, lighting and architectural design to enhance the experience for all guests. Open until 4am.

 

 

 

 

The Sounds Abound – Our Top 5 Music Venues in Austin

Austin bills itself as the USA's prime live music town and as such there's a wealth of venues to choose from. We've picked our favourite five sources for music in the city...

1. The White Horse
500 Comal St, no phone, thewhitehorseaustin.com. Open every day 3pm-2am
One of Austin's newer venues, The White Horse attracts a properly diverse crowd from grizzled rockers to old-timers to bearded hipsters all drawn to some of the city's best new country talent almost every night of the week as well as presenting some great conjunto outfits (known as Norteño music in its native Mexico).

2. Paramount Theatre
713 Congress Ave, +1 512 472 5470, austintheatre.org. See website for opening and visiting acts
This is where all the major touring artists play. As a theatre and venue it's been around for about 100 years, so it's steeped in tradition. Its attractions are usually fairly eclectic, from comedy to movies to live music. It's a beautiful theatre too, so seeing a good band perform here can be a really memorable experience. This year (2014) Austin's Film Festival is on while we're in town, so while there's unfortunately no music at the Paramount, the movie screenings are good.

3. Hole in the Wall
2538 Guadalupe St, +1 512 302 1470, holeinthewallaustin.com. Open every day 3pm-2am
As mentioned above Austin is a college town and the Hole in the Wall is probably the most famous and best college bar. Located on The Drag, a block-long strip of shops, restaurants and bars facing the University of Texas at Austin campus, the Hole in Wall is also a renowned music venue and it's this year celebrating it's 40th anniversary. Best of all the yellow sign out front reads 'cheap music, fast drinks, live women', while a mural of twin cowgirls wielding six-shooters decorates its exterior. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams have all performed here – and it continues to be a great place to catch up-and-coming local acts.

4. The Elephant Room
315 Congress Ave, +1 512 473 2279, elephantroom.com. Open Mon-Fri 4pm-2am, Sat-Sun 8pm-2am
It's not all country, alt-country and indie in Austin, there's also jazz and The Elephant Room is where to hear it. As jazz clubs should be, it's a cosy basement space. Inside, the walls are brick, the lights are low, it's intimate and authentically jazzy.

5. Waterloo Records
600A N Lamar, TX78703, waterloorecords.com. Open 10am-11pm Mon-Sat, 11am-11pm Sunday.
After all that live music you'll want to shop for the records and CDs of those sounds and our favourite record store in Austin is the excellent Waterloo Records. It's got a fantastic selection, knowledgeable and helpful staff and it's a brilliant place to spend several hours browsing the racks. It has a good second hand section, but if it's vintage vinyl you're after then check out Friends of Sound in Soco. It's a little tricky to find but well worth it. Last time we were there they were spinning a copy of Funkadelic guitar legend Eddie Hazel's awesome and rare solo lp Games, Dames and Guitar Thangs. Sweet.