Co-Founder Is Bullish on Grand Prix in Texas
Bobby Epstein is the chairman of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, the new track where the U.S. Grand Prix was staged on Nov. 18. Epstein attended his first F1 race at the age of 19 in 1984, in Dallas, where he was living with his family. He is now the majority owner of Prophet Capital, a private investment company based in Austin that he founded in 1995. He is also the promoter and co-founder of the U.S. Grand Prix, having signed the 10-year deal to bring Formula One to Austin this year. Despite a decades-long history in the United States, the U.S. race had not been run since 2007, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where it had been held since 2000. The first race in Austin, won by the British driver Lewis Hamilton, was a public success, with 117,000 fans attending. Epstein spoke recently with Brad Spurgeon of the International Herald Tribune.
Q. What was the biggest challenge to being ready for the U.S. Grand Prix?
A. The construction guys did a phenomenal job. They built everything in less than eight months. We owe so much to the work that they did. The amount of time was not a worry. They hit every deadline when they said they would. The challenges were in gathering support from so many different entities, so many moving parts to put together when you are simultaneously working with F.O.M. [Formula One Management] and with Bernie [Ecclestone, promoter of the series] and obtaining the proper contracts and at the same time balancing that with the local politics and the dynamics of working with the city, the county and the state — they operate very independently of each other — as well as keeping the investment teams together to get this project through.
Q. How does the city of Austin feel about the event? Has there been resistance?
A. This is where I think we have a terrific platform to build and, maybe, I think, we have the opportunity to create a better experience here than many other places, from the experience of the city standpoint. Austin is small enough to embrace the event in its entirety, citywide. And the economic impact on the city here — if you think about bringing $200 million to $300 million to a community, when you bring it to a community this size it’s a tremendous impact. If you are in a city of 3 million to 5 million or larger, it may be one of many other big events happening that weekend.
We don’t have any other pro sports in Austin. This is one of the big reasons why I think Austin is really excited. I think sports are really part of the fabric of the community.
Q. When was the first time you heard of Formula One?
A. It might have been when Mario Andretti drove, when I followed IndyCar as a kid. Then I grew up in Dallas. We had an event there that was less than ideal, in 1984. Then I disconnected for a long while, until it was brought to my attention that it was possible that Formula One was looking at Austin. That was less than three years ago.
Q. Can Formula One succeed in Austin, having failed in Indianapolis?
A. That is one of the first questions I asked. Why is Austin on the radar to have an event like that ? Why does it make sense for us as a city? Why would people come here? But most of all, I think the answer to the question is in why would people come back? Why will the sport be embraced? And I think there are a multitude of reasons. I think there are a number of qualities that you need to possess and that have to work together well, and I think one without the other doesn’t make a complete experience.
This track is the first one purpose-built for Formula One [in the United States]. We are not modifying a street or street circuit or an existing facility. This was built for cars and bikes of this variety. One of the things that makes racing exciting is overtaking, and we have at least four obvious areas to pass. So from the driver’s standpoint, we had to say, “Let’s make a course, use the topography here, make it something unique that the drivers will walk away and say, ‘That was challenging, that was exciting, I look forward to coming back.”’ And it makes for great competition.
From the other standpoint — and I think equally important — is the fan experience. One does not come at the expense of the other, the driver and the fan experience are not mutually exclusive. I think both can have the best experience.
So we’ll have some diehard, huge fans. Particularly because of our proximity to Latin America, and the influence that Latin America already has on our state. We were once Mexico, where we stand here, right now. So I think we have some amount of fans who visit; but how do we convert more into F1 fans? The on-site fan experience. I would say one of my criticisms in my previous experience is that I couldn’t see a lot. At a NASCAR race, you are elevated and you see so much of the racing. Clearly, the American fan is used to being able to see a race. Here, from the seats you will see 5 to 10 turns out of our 20 turns. This has been one of the most intentional parts of the design process, so that the diehard race fan comes and says, “This is the greatest experience in the world.” And the one who is the casual fan, who doesn’t recognize how great it is, comes but they are engaged by the sport because of their experience. And beyond that, the race is part of a festival of the whole weekend. So we have really tried to create a campus here of experiences.
Q. To popularize Formula One in the United States, some problems look insurmountable, such as the fact that most of the season’s races held elsewhere in the world run in the middle of the night or early morning U.S. time. And you really need a winning American driver to fire people’s imaginations, don’t you?
A. I heard that about this circuit even existing and getting built last fall: People said there are insurmountable problems. I saw Alexander Rossi out on the track a little while ago. I would hope that we see an American driver whether it is Alexander or others. But [the Mexican driver] Sergio Pérez, we certainly embraced him — and if you look at the Hispanic population in Texas alone... I’m very happy for him to be — as you call it — an American driver, or as I might think, a North American driver. We certainly think Mexico counts. We are not far down the road. San Antonio is an hour away. NY Times