Flights have been buzzing in and out of Austin for the better part of a week now. Mid-March is the city’s Golden Week when the confluence of spring break and South-by-Southwest (or SXSW, or just “South By”) means thousands of party-starved students from the University of Texas vacate to South Padre Island, freeing up space for thousands of aspiring musicians, filmmakers and digital mavens to crowd sponsored parties while pitching each other on their latest projects.
Amidst this year’s annual festival of creativity, a new type of visitor has filtered in to town. Their attire is adorned with sponsors unfamiliar to your typical angel-headed hipster. Their first order of business is not to find good wi-fi. They are not hawking free tacos or Nike Fuelbands to garner attention. They do not sport ironic moustaches.
Theirs is a different festival, held at a new venue southeast of town. In just over a month’s time, the fastest men will launch the fastest motorcycles headlong into the Circuit of the Americas’ intimidating layout, vying for crucial points early in the 2013 MotoGP season. Five of these riders will have a critical advantage after sampling the track and their machines over three days of private testing.
Austin’s circuit has thus far hosted only a handful of racing events, the first and most daunting of which was the F1 race last November. Aside from a few minor teething problems, the facility held up admirably to international scrutiny and garnered praise for its challenging circuit. This week has finally generated feedback from the upper echelons of motorcycle racing, and provided a glimpse into what the upcoming Red Bull GP of the Americas will hold.
While new Tilke tracks can evoke moans from two-wheeled riders and fans, none has yet had the benefit of Kevin Schwantz guiding the layout. Prior to an acrimonious fallout, the Austin resident and 1993 World Champion had been a partner and contributing designer with the Circuit of the Americas organization. The courts will dictate the fiduciary relationships going forward, but the Texan’s imprint will remain ingrained within the asphalt regardless of legal wrangling.
For a circuit competing against two other domestic races in an uncertain economic environment, it seems risky to alienate the fans (and riders) who revere Schwantz. But if there is one thing that the COTA management has demonstrated, it is their willingness to embrace risk in order to do things their own way. The stunning facility, the success of the F1 event, and initial favorability from the MotoGP teams suggests this approach has paid off.
But will it translate into a successful race and, more broadly, an advancement of motorcycle racing in the US market? On Wednesday, COTA reportedly* doubled down on its conflict with Schwantz, preventing the legend from entering the facility. Laguna’s GP is nearly synonymous with Wayne Rainey, while Indianapolis goes out of its way to embrace Nicky Hayden (and all of motorsports, really). It is almost inconceivable that either Laguna or Indy would slap around their local heroes.
Perhaps hero worship and partnership are the “old way” of doing things. Maybe the US racing establishment needs a fresh approach to reverse the decade-long decline in sportbike sales and race attendance. One lesson from the nearby SXSW festival is that the marketing world is trending towards personal branding and one-on-one engagement over mass promotion. Honda are spending their third day of testing building incredible digital footage. Jorge tweets pictures of himself with X-Games stars and Iggy Pop. Those efforts likely appeal to a different audience than the dyed-in-the-wool Schwantz fan.
And Schwantz believes that a rider-friendly track is the key to its success. The teams seem to largely enjoy the layout, particularly the Turn 2 Senna Curve and the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel homage in Turns 4-6. The remaining collection of hard stops and starts may yet be an acquired taste depending on the opportunities they generate in a proper race environment. To paraphrase Schwantz, if the racers leave here in April saying, Holy sh*t, then his contribution may have made the circuit enough of a draw to render his future participation obsolete.
Beyond feuds and test times, this week’s event should draw one more lesson from SXSW. While the Austin test has international coverage, it has garnered barely a blip on the local and national radar amidst the hurricane of activity that surrounds the music, film and digital festivals. Roadracing has very little overlap with the creative class, but MotoGP must surely be “extreme” enough to generate cross-over opportunities. Austin is home to a vibrant car culture and burgeoning custom scene that seems like a natural tie-in with the most custom two-wheeled hot-rods on the planet.
The Circuit of the Americas is a marvel of pavement and concrete. But inside a sparsely-occupied media center, it feels like an opportunity far from realized. Perhaps it’s time to start hawking free tacos and Nike Fuelbands.
* Speedweek.de reported Wednesday that Schwantz was denied entrance to the Circuit of the Americas. American journalist Dean Adams claims to have spoken with Schwantz Thursday in the Attack garage. I was in the Attack garage Thursday afternoon did not see Schwantz at the time. If Schwantz was in attendance, then the circuit did not in fact "double down" on its conflict. In either scenario, I believe it is still fair to say that COTA's relationship with Schwantz is effectively opposite from the approaches taken at Laguna or Indy.