Sunday, November 18, 2012

For some reason, Formula 1 Racing Came to Austin

About two and a half-years ago, Austinites woke up to find that some deal had been reached to bring Formula 1 racing to our city.  Mostly, the news was met with puzzled stares.  This is not a motorsports kind of town, and F1 is something that takes place in Monte Carlo, not in our berg.

If you do not know (I didn't), F1 is monstrously popular everywhere but the US, and despite astronomically high tickets prices, tends to draw hundreds of thousands of people to each city.  Rich people.  Who supposedly spend money.

Since SXSW exploded into a two week orgy of people who all fancied themselves iconoclasts in high school and which now draws hundreds of thousands into town every March, more or less making dowtown impassible for two weeks each year, the City Council has more or less rubber stamped everything to come along.  F1 was a bit different in that it seemed to have come through the same mysterious channels which also gifted Austin with a toll road where we were supposed to have a bypass for the 18 wheelers that make I-35 a daily game of Russian Roulette and saw the money going to a French company that happened to fund Rick Perry's various war chests.

I'm still unclear as to why Austin has this race, or what happened, but arrive it did, barely.  Not that long ago, it seemed like something else shady was happening with financing, and the race almost fell through with less than a year to go.  But the financing arrived.

As the date grew closer, news began to percolate that we could more or less expect total gridlock in southern Austin - where I live - as the 300,000 spectators rolled into town.  Much like soccer or the ballet, you're going to turn up some rabid fan who begins frothing and telling you that YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND when you question why on earth we're supporting this thing financially as a city if all it seems like it will do is mess up traffic worse than the usual messed up Saturday traffic.  Expectations were that anyone headed out 71 near my house would be stuck for hours.  An American Airlines Flight Attendant told me on the shuttle at the airport that she was told to give herself 4 hours to commute in the days of the race.

I've always wondered exactly why cities are asked to pay for sports stadiums when they're housing for-profit companies, but if you can get enough people to vote for it... whatever...  people are odd.  F1 just sort of appeared and then levied a burden on the city of infrastructure and services.  It's still not very clear what Texas and Austinites are paying.

In the days to come I'll be curious to hear if the tourism was what we were promised.  Early reports were of lots of filled hotel rooms, but the fact that the fans spend all day at the track was translating into slower-than-usual weekend business in downtown as F1 fans were absent and locals were avoiding the F1 traffic snarls that had been predicted.

I don't think its that much of a mixed-bag.  In general, things went really, really well.  The guys on the Speed Network were absolutely enamored with the town.  Apparently guests felt very welcome.  Traffic-Pocalypse did not occur as predicted.*  F1 might actually bring some needed money to the city.  That is - if the City Council hasn't given away the candy store by luring hotels by giving them whopping tax incentives which would mean big profits for the stock holders of hotels, but not a whole lot for Austin's struggling schools, for example.

We'll see what locals say about the race in the coming days and how it helped the city.

It all feels a little unnecessary to me, in a way.  And I don't love that the only idea the City Council has for Austin's future is to turn us into happy servants to wealthy people bringing money to town.  Tourism is great, but so is nurturing the high-tech industry, Austin as an educational center, and the coming health center.  I'm about "evented" out in this town, and the weird messages from local media telling us why we should be excited about the thing which I am not doing and, weirder still, the suggestion that if we weren't all super nice to tourists on this one, we'd look bad in front of moneyed Europeans and George Lucas (yes, he was here).

Mostly, though, I'm just glad the traffic predictions were incorrect and that we can host something like this without worrying about the whole city shutting down.  And the only effect I've seen is the sound of helicopters a good chunk of the weekend, I guess shuttling people around.

Oh, and some British guy won driving for something called McLaren.  Bully for him!

*And, if I might, there is such a thing as not looking forward to a predicted minor disaster that is different from relishing the woes of F1 organizers.     They're two mutually exclusive things.

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