Circuit of The Americas president
Austin is not known as a racing destination—not yet, anyway.
Steve Sexton, president of the new Circuit of The Americas facility, seeks to change that when the new racetrack hosts the internationally popular Formula One circuit Nov. 18. Construction on the southeastern Travis County racetrack is still under way but is expected to be complete in time for the inaugural race.
In the meantime, Sexton and his staff are working to ensure Austin is ready to host tens of thousands of new visitors. Fortunately for Sexton, he has experience in crowd management, having previously served as president of Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby. The longtime horse racing executive said many parallels can be drawn between the Kentucky Derby and the upcoming F1 race in Austin.
From horses to horsepower—how did that happen?
I’ve spent some 25-plus years in the horse racing industry, and if you looked across my resume, you’ll see I’ve changed probably every five to seven years just because I like to take on new challenges. ... So, I was very intrigued by the [Circuit of The Americas] project. It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s also fun because you get to start from scratch. You’re not inheriting anyone else’s team, style, conditions, policies. You see it from the start, you build the whole thing, and you put the right people in place to help do that.
What will be the impact, you think, on the overall Austin metropolitan area?
Well, the economic impact study that was commissioned by the local organizing committee is in the $400 million range just for the Formula One event itself. ... The economic impact should be community-wide in terms of hotel spending, restaurant spending, airport, rental car and awareness. ... That hopefully is going to help grow the entire marketplace in terms of awareness and positive image—not that there isn’t one already. We just think we’re going to add to it.
How are things going so far? Are things moving along as anticipated?
In 2012, things are moving along very fast. We’re extremely busy because there’s a lot of details, as you can imagine. In 2011, we had a couple hurdles we had to jump over. So, if you asked in 2011, I’d say hectic. Today I wouldn’t say hectic—I’d say busy.
Do you have any advice for the enthusiast on buying general admission tickets?
From a general admission perspective, the track is designed so we can erect temporary seating based on demand around the entire circle. We can put temporary seating wherever customers want to buy, and that’s what we’re seeing right now—where people want to buy what, so we’re planning and erecting the seating accordingly. Where the seating doesn’t exist, our grass berms are sloped down facing the track so you can go sit down on Bermuda [grass], and you get to enjoy the spectacle.
Talk about what Austin is doing to prepare for all the people.
Well, I’ll start out by saying the city and county have been great. They’re getting, as we move along, an understanding of how large this event actually will be. ... We’re adding a road before this fall that goes north out of the site. Can we use more roads in that area? Of course. Any time you have a very large-scale event, you need as much infrastructure as you can use and accommodate, so in the future we’re hopeful that it grows to accelerate and assist the [access] to the site.
Talk to us about the ‘average Joe.’ What does that experience look like?
That’s a really good point, because I’ve heard some people refer to the Formula One crowd as the ‘champagne crowd.’ Not true. Sure, there’s a level of clientele just like there is at the Kentucky Derby … but that’s 5 percent or less of the actual crowd that attends. The core crowd that goes to a Formula One event is well-behaved, there for a good time, having beers, having drinks, eating food, enjoying the experience, and that’s what we expect.
What kind of people are in that 5 percent?
It’s a blend of celebrities who are into or want to watch the sport, business owners, people who are extremely avid fans who will pay $5,000 for a three-day ticket for the weekend—because they want to be seen. It’s the first and second row at a [Dallas] Mavericks game—it’s that type of crowd, some of which are really into the sport and some of which just want to be seen with that level of crowd.
If you don’t hit your projections the first year, what happens?
The project is built for Formula One to be the signature race because that’s what has the awareness and that’s what has the appeal. It just has the media and public recognition, but in reality, the project is a lot more than that. It’s four to five major motorsports events, the amphitheater with year-round usage for product launches, driving schools. That said … [ticket] sales have been extremely positive. ... I would share with you we have a 10-year Formula One contract. Other agreements we’re talking about are multiple years—some that long and some a little bit shorter, so we’re in this for the long haul, and it is an investment.
What was the thought behind building the amphitheater?
Our ownership at the time looked at [the main entrance] and said, ‘Why aren’t we using the space right here? We could do something with it and create a great entrance.’ I don’t know who at the time—I wasn’t on the team yet—said, ‘Why don’t we create an amphitheater?’ ... We cut an amphitheater down below. It literally backs up to the track that runs behind it. And we think, not only because Austin is ‘The Live Music Capital of the World,’ that there’s a marketplace for certain sizes of shows and an outdoor amphitheater in this market. We’ve got a couple partners we’ll soon be announcing [who] are going to help promote that and make that a reality.