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Why COTA sees no threat from Miami or Las Vegas F1 races

Sitting in his office at the Circuit of the Americas on the eve of the Formula 1 US GP, track CEO Bobby Epstein is a happy man.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The event is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a sell-out crowd, the last tickets having gone some time ago. The weekend is expected to be an overwhelming success.

Miami is already here, and Las Vegas is coming, but Austin – the race that set in motion the surge in F1's popularity in the USA long before Drive to Survive came along – is bigger and better than ever, with its largest ever crowd expected over this weekend.

"It's easily our biggest event," Epstein tells Autosport. "It's more exciting, I think, than the first year, because we know a lot of things that we're doing right, and we know we've added a lot more to it. I feel people are going to have the most incredible time.

"We have more grandstands, we have more villages for people to go through, we also have more food stands, and we have more shade. We have more programming and more entertainment.

"Ed Sheeran is the biggest artist in the world right now. We feel lucky that we booked him over a year ago, and our music advisors had some good foresight, I think. That being my middle daughter who said you should get Ed Sheeran!

"The logistics of just taking care of a big crowd is what we work on all year, and practice for and get ready for. And I think we're more prepared this year than we've ever been."

This isn't the first time that COTA has had to turn people away, but tickets have never gone as quickly as they did this year.

"We got to sold out last year, but not as fast," says Epstein. "I think it was still super strong last year, but this year, it's just been overwhelming.

"We've probably shifted 10,000 more to grandstands away from general admission. The general admission crowd's a little less predictable as to where they're all going to be, and sometimes they all wind up at one spot feeling it's super crowded.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR22

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR22

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"One thing we figured out was they happen to be wherever there's a big TV screen, so we've just added more screens all the way around. We put a whole village in the infield now. We have a shopping village and famous Hollywood stunt cars on display, and there's historical Ferraris in another area. We just keep adding more things to do."

So what of the new US events? COTA lost a lot of Mexican fans when the country landed its own race, but Epstein is adamant that Austin will continue to thrive, even with Vegas taking place at the same end of the season in 2023.

"Miami gives more visibility and conversation around F1 in the spring, where in the past it's been largely silent in the US," says Epstein. "For the sport, I think it's a real positive.

"I'm excited to go to the Vegas race. It'll be a lot of fun, and it's so uniquely different than ours. It may come close to appealing to two different audiences, and with significant overlap, but they're both going to be unique."

Epstein is adamant that the Nevada street race will have its own character.

"Obviously, you have Vegas as a big part of the attraction. And here the circuit and the festival are a big part of the attraction. And you get with your ticket about 40 hours' worth of entertainment and programming.

"That's very different than the schedule that you'll see in Vegas, where there's a lot of Vegas, and then the pinnacle part of the F1 weekend is the race.

"I don't think they have a support race. I think it's take your seat at 10 o'clock, watch the show, and then go back to the casinos! It's going to be it's like going to the theatre…"

Epstein believes that F1's growing fan base in the US can easily sustain three races in the years to come.

"What's so great is that it's picked up not with the traditional historical F1 audience from the last decade, but more with the F1 audience that probably was following it back in the 60s and 70s in Europe. And I think we're also seeing the young people just passionately exploring the sport, and engaging with it.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"People say the United States has more races than any other country now, can it handle it? The footprint and the population of the United States compared to Europe still says if our fan base grows, which there's room for, that the number of races can easily be sustained."

Could there even be a fourth?

"As long as the pie keeps getting bigger, then you absolutely can see a fourth one, I just don't want our slice of pie to get smaller."

Drive to Survive has played a huge role, but Epstein rightly points out that Austin was doing well even before the TV series began to have an impact.

"In our case, I think we're standing on our own at this point," he says. "And I think we have tradition, and tradition is something you can't buy, and people make it part of their annual schedule.

"There's lots of horse races every weekend, but only a few people really say I've got to be at that. And I think we're becoming a don't miss, we've become an event.

"And when you get some history and tradition behind you, if you keep doing things right, it's harder to defeat. I think F1's popularity is only helping. But I don't think it's Netflix alone at this point for us."

The next step will be a US driver. Colton Herta missed out on his shot at AlphaTauri drive, but Logan Sargeant – who took part in FP1 at Austin – is being lined up for a future Williams seat.

"I'm disappointed for Herta, but if Logan succeeds in F1, we'll quickly get over any remorse," says Epstein.

"It's great to have Logan here. And even better if he starts to win. Because I think that is the next step for the US, because if you want to go from three races to five races, broad appeal with a relatable American driver would certainly make it possible."

Logan Sargeant, Williams FW44

Logan Sargeant, Williams FW44

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

All F1 venues, even the traditional circuits in Europe, are being encouraged to up their games. COTA isn't standing still, and work has already begun on a full-size amusement park adjacent to the track – indeed the plans are laid out on a table in Epstein's office.

It's an inspired idea, for given the infrastructure already in place it will be much cheaper to build than a ground-up facility, and it will be in operation and generating income for the venue throughout the year.

"Our biggest rollercoaster is going to be called the Circuit Breaker," says Epstein. "It's Dutch made, and their working title in all the paperwork is 'The Max'!

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"We've invested more in the infrastructure and the entertainment. I think the competition is great for the fans.

"The year-round things we do to make the business sustainable outside of F1, I don't think we could have until the last couple of years, as we probably didn't have a business that was going to be profitable year-round.

"And now I think we can make it through the year regardless of F1, and F1 just makes it a good year."

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