Michael Hurd is director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University and author of the book Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas.
While F1 wants to woo the U.S, Austin wants to win the rest of the world with this weekend’s Grand Prix.
Formula 1 racing has finally found another U.S. home and it should not come as a surprise that its host is the city of perpetual development Austin, Texas, where new skyscrapers are sprouting like weeds, housing prices are soaring, and global high-tech businesses are beating a relocation path to the city's door. On Friday, international racing fans will descend on the city for the 18th leg of the Formula 1 2018 World Championship.
F1 racing certainly seems a perfect fit for a town that has become a major draw: Austin’s job growth has been assessed as the fastest in the nation for the last decade and the city adds about 150 new residents each day, making it the number one city for population growth in the U.S. between 2010 and 2018.
The city has created an almost irresistible lure for entrepreneurs looking to anchor and showcase their wares, and Formula 1 investors happily took the bait in constructing the $400 million state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas (COTA) pastoral venue which opened in 2012.
As the centerpiece of a festive three-day weekend of motorsports and music, gentlemen will be starting their engines in Austin for the seventh race at COTA which is likely to close with another coronation of the United Kingdom’s Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team, as this year’s series champion.
Hamilton’s standing as arguably the best driver in the world has positioned him as the leading ambassador for Formula 1 racing and the effort to increase the sports’ following. However, his mission takes on another element: making the sport attractive to black audiences and potential black drivers.
Hamilton, the biracial progeny of a West Indian father and British mum, is the circuit’s only black driver. (Though in 1987, the American Willy T. Ribbs had a brief run as the first black driver of an F1 car.) At COTA, with its headlining music acts packaged around the races, Hamilton is the real show, a commanding force as a driver as well as a guiding influence in the challenge to increase the numbers of black F1 drivers. Inevitably, at his appearances in Austin, he fields questions about the lack of black drivers in his sport (and a paucity of American drivers overall; there are no Americans among the 20 drivers in this year’s competition.)
While that may speak more to the exorbitant costs and other resources necessary to enter the world of F1 racing, the sport has no real presence in black neighborhoods where young athletes are more immediately drawn to football and basketball, and the related heroes. In Austin, that means former UT superstars—of which there are many—like pro football Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell and NBA All-Star forward Kevin Durant.
Hamilton does not shy away from the issue of being an anomaly in a big money sport that holds little interest for black sports fans, nor from his link to all black athletes. Last year he caused a flurry of speculation when he mused about perhaps taking a knee at the 2017 Austin race in solidarity with black athletes doing the same in the United States to protest racial and social injustice. He did not take a knee but Hamilton does not flinch in response to questions about the dearth of black F1 drivers. He fields the expected questions with enthusiasm, encouragement, and hope, as he did in 2015 in Austin after a competition with local Go-Kart racers:
“As you can see, I’m doing as much as I can, but I’m only one person. Yesterday, I went go-karting with some kids. There were two black kids with us. One passed me, the first time I’d ever been on a track with a black kid and, coming past, it was like seeing myself come by. It was kind of funny. It was good. But my goal is not just to inspire young black kids, it’s all kids—white, Asian—just to show them that it’s open to everyone. When I was growing up, it was like, ‘well, you can’t be a Formula 1 driver because there’s never been a black Formula 1 driver.’ Well, it doesn’t mean there can’t be.”
Formula 1 is working to build a dedicated allegiance of American fans, but it is hard-pressed to attract young athletes as drivers to the sport. Until COTA opened, there had not been a U.S. Grand Prix race since 2007—the last F1 race in Indianapolis. However, COTA may be poised for a long-term run in Austin with its 3.4-mile circuit—the first U.S. track specifically designed for Formula 1 cars—which has drivers and their teams enthused about competing at the 1,000-acre patch of undulating farmland 15 miles southeast of downtown. The course has viewing stands to accommodate 120,000 fans and so far, despite a few hardships, has defied the failure of other U.S. cities to find success with F1 racing. (Formula 1 cars have previously raced through the cities Detroit, Miami, and Long Beach.)
And now, for at least one week in October, Austin will host international racing fans. But, make no mistake, the Austin sports scene will forever be defined by the hometown University of Texas Longhorns football team and the year-round interest and intensity of its fans. Formula 1 racing will never have that kind of fervent following here. The question of whether it can at least build on the COTA race to increase its U.S. fan base and attract American drivers is the overriding issue facing F1 racing.
While the United States has NASCAR (valued at $3-5 billion), and Indy Car racing events, Formula 1 is a globe-hopping, multi-leg auto racing series that compels the rest of the world and in 2016 was valued at $8 billion when it was sold to Liberty Media Corporation.
Even though COTA has encountered a bump or two in the road, struggling in its early years and forced to rely on city and state incentives to thrive as attendance dropped, the COTA event has slowly created a hundred-million-dollar optimism in Austin, with plans to further develop the property (with luxury condos, a hotel and other entertainment attractions). Attendance for the last two events have been encouraging for the venue’s future.
That’s not dissimilar to the slow growth of soccer, another internationally popular sport, in the U.S. Yes, youth leagues and soccer moms are legion, but the lack of home-grown talent equitable to that of other countries still lags far behind on the international scale and only recently has the popular English Premier League developed a U.S. following. That hasn’t stopped Austin from moving forward with plans to bring an MLS team and stadium to the city.
But Formula 1 racing has finally found another U.S. home and all indications, so far, are that its relationship with Austin, Texas, is well into the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It would hardly be surprising if Austin emerges as the magnet for F1 racing fans and diverse drivers.
*An F1 novice? A brief primer: Formula 1 racing is sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (translation, FIA, International Automobile Federation) which governs auto racing for single-seat, open-cockpit machines under a specific set of rules (formula) for how the cars are set up (type of chassis, engine, gearbox, etc.). The number “1” designates the highest class of racing for the fastest, most advanced cars.