Global attention from F1 threatens local identity

Pete Stroud

Well, it happened. On Sunday, Nov. 18, Austin hosted its highly anticipated Formula One United States Grand Prix. The race, which had been in planning stages for the past four years, drew several hundred thousand people, placing it up there with the always-growing Austin City Limits and South by Southwest music festivals in size. If all goes according to plan the race (and its accompanying visitors) will be an annual event.

As the tired masses shuffle back to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Austin should take stock of what F1 spells for the city’s future.

In 2008, when Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs sent letters to race promoters indicating Texas’ interest in an F1 race, Sunday’s event became more than an idea. Two years later, negotiations opened between the state and F1 officials, and construction began on the $400 million Circuit of the Americas track. Controversy arose when Combs promised the race organizers $25 million per year in pre-race reimbursements from the state government, then later backtracked and said the funding would come after the race, depending on how successful it was.  And as recently as November 2011 construction of the track was halted, and the race’s future became uncertain due to contractual disagreements between F1 officials and the track’s developers. Those issues were resolved in time for the race, but the public reimbursements are still up for debate.

Perry and Combs justified the race as a worthwhile financial investment for the city and for the state. Perry said in a speech earlier this month, “[The race is] to the benefit of everyone here in Texas over the next couple weeks. The U.S. Grand Prix is going to bring 1.2 million visitors to Central Texas, with an estimated financial impact of half a billion dollars.” Perry and Combs hope that the race will be remunerative enough in the long run to contractors, developers and local businesses to offset any tax dollars that will need to be given to the race organizers to keep the event going. As of right now, it looks like the gamble will pay off, but the key will be whether or not interest in the race can be sustained over the next decade. For example, in 2000, the last effort to bring F1 to the U.S. attracted more than 225,000 fans to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in its first year, but the numbers soon dropped off sharply and the race was cancelled altogether after only seven years. One hopes history does not repeat itself in Austin.

If F1 Austin does succeed, it will bring new attention to the city. Our reputation as the “live music capital of the world” is well-established, and ACL and SXSW are internationally famous. This race and those two festivals are representative of the past ten years’ progression toward bigger and bigger events. Because of that progression and the city’s rapid population growth, Austin is no longer the quirky little college town it has historically been. And that change isn’t set to stop anytime soon.

If the race is considered a success by visitors, residents and faraway spectators, Austin’s international profile will rise. Thousands of visitors from Europe, Asia and elsewhere were here for the race, and hundreds of millions more were watching on television in nearly 200 countries. With all of that attention, this race may be Austin’s audition for hosting similar large-scale sporting events, like the World Cup, and maybe, at some point far down the road, an Austin Olympics.

City and state leaders like Perry and Combs would welcome such developments, but the same cannot be said for Austin residents. According to F1 organizers’ estimates, fewer than 20 percent of the race’s attendees were actually from Austin. In fact, many in the community have loudly voiced their displeasure with it. Many of the disgruntled citizens cite the crowds and traffic, but large crowds are to be expected with any event of this size, and any Austinite with a car knows that traffic in this city doesn’t need a special occasion to get completely out of hand. But the biggest complaint so far — that F1 clashes with the city’s culture — is not so off the mark.

Austin has long been known for its liberal politics, indie culture, predilection for “weirdness” and friendliness to the environment. F1, a glamorous, extravagant sport that has a reputation for catering to the super-wealthy, doesn’t really line up with that mentality. The globe-trotting billionaires following the race, who were denied their stated wish to hold decadent F1 parties on multimillion-dollar yachts on Town Lake, are noticeably out of place here. Even more jarring is that a city consistently ranked among the greenest in the country is now hosting a massive car race. F1 and the Circuit of the Americas have vigorously promoted their efforts to reduce carbon emissions, but the relatively small number of carbon offsets they paid for at the city’s urging does nothing to change the fact that the sport itself burns thousands of gallons of fossil fuels for the purposes of amusement.

It remains to be seen whether or not the effects of this race will be lasting, but it certainly seems capable of contributing to a sea change in Austin’s image. Hopefully the race will bring the promised economic growth to the city, but as we go down this path, we should be careful not to lose the unique culture that makes Austin so cool in the first place.

Stroud is an international relations and global studies sophomore from San Antonio