Welcome to our newest segment here at Tribute Racing. At a select few races each year I am going to do my best to describe to you just how it feels to be in the paddock for some of the most exciting and interesting races in the world. The only WEC round in North America is the perfect place to start as a WEC race is the best bargain for fans today. Especially in the case of the Lone Star Le Mans weekend at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. It has been a full weekend of some of the most spectacular on and off track action anywhere.
I’ll start with the track itself. If you haven’t been to COTA yet, you really need to go. Herman Tilke gets a lot of flak these days as he’s just about the only show in town when the FIA wants a new tier 1 circuit, but he out did himself here. Multiple vantage points offer views of most of the circuit in a way that really show cases just how much thought and planning went into the design of this place. From the hill above turn one, to the hill above the esses. The perfectly placed pedestrian bridges to the now iconic Miro Rivera designed tower. Even the view from behind the Media Center gives you a great look at the cars as they barrel down to the final left hand turn and pit entry.
Standing atop one of these vantage points or down in the middle of the paddock one gets a real sense of how gargantuan an undertaking a modern motor race is. Vehicles of all types whir around constantly ferrying people and equipment in every direction. There are scooters, ATV’s, bicycles, golf carts of all shapes and sizes. Tractors, Fork lifts, cranes, shuttles for fans, shuttles for media, shuttles for VIP’s. Giant haulers are lined up end on end. Volvo clearly being the hauler of choice, though some teams have chosen to be cheeky and rebadge them; Risi Competizione’s is now a Ferrari, Mazda has slapped their emblem on their rig as well.
Between the haulers and the garages lies a proverbial and luxurious tent city, filled with canopies, generators, storage units and more stacks of Michelin’s than anywhere outside of a warehouse in France. Cars lie in pieces, mechanics sweating in the Texas heat work tirelessly and there is always, always a golf cart ready to run down anyone not paying attention. Shade is the second most precious resource at the racetrack after downforce.
Everyone has a badge on a lanyard. Everyone. To the untrained or even semi-trained eye it becomes hard to differentiate if the person next to you is a team member, a media member or just a rich guy who paid too much money to walk around in the way and brag to his buddies how buying a Porsche gets him inside access to every race. There are women dressed to the nines that must be models, grid girls, men in suits. You hear Italian, French, Japanese and about 30 shades of English as you stroll behind the garages. There are nervous looking European mechanics puffing away on cigarettes, journalists carrying cameras with lenses so big they look like rocket launchers. There are even small, very fit guys running around in fire suits, these are usually the drivers.
Everyone walks like they are important and like they are in a hurry, even if they are not.
Everyone becomes a photographer. Even the most jaded mechanics or experienced fans reach for their smart phones to try and capture a moment even the best trained film crew fails to fully translate; the beauty and savagery of the modern race car.
Right before race time is the most interesting, there are dignitaries, VIP’s, marching bands, cheerleaders, TV crews and fans every where.
Once the pomp and circumstance ends, the race finally begins and every one puts on their business face. Crew members and team owners stand, glued to the TV monitors, constantly on the radio. Journalists scour all over the track for the perfect shot, or huddle back in the Media Center, terrified they will miss the big story of the race.
It is in these moments that I like to go out and walk the track among the fans. To stand on a hill side and watch as a Porsche 919 closes down on a Ferrari 458 and flashes past before darting through the esses, to see a young boys face light up with joy at the sight of his first race. The sound is immense, television does not do it justice. the Ferrari’s wail, a high pitched crescendo that sends shock waves through your entire body and makes the hair on your arms and neck stand up. the Aston’s belch a guttural howl, like an angry bear. The Rebellion R-One cackles and pops like a cartoon villain turned up to 11. The Porsche and Audi prototypes scythe through the field nearly silently, sounding more like a muted turbine than a race car. It is both mysterious and appreciated. The rare quiet and then the alarm with which they sneak up on you and the other cars never gets old.
To watch a sports car race of this magnitude at night is like watching an artist paint a canvas. Everything becomes fantastic and poetic. Brake discs glow a bright orange red, head lights flicker a driver’s intention to pass. Exhausts crackle and burble flames when a car downshifts for the next corner. The night takes on a rhythm of cars perfectly or sometimes imperfectly carving up the flowing curves of a race track. The engine notes merge to become a constant roar, the air smells of fuel and rubber and exhaust and the flags, so many flags blow proudly in the breeze.
COTA only ups the imagery, the beautiful tower sparkles with LED’s constantly changing its hue, fireworks light up the night on the hill above turn one. A Ferris wheel blinks its lights in a homage to its more famous brethren at Daytona and La Sarthe. Helicopters hover over head, the Austin skyline twinkles in the distance. Such are the stars, the sights and the sounds of a WEC race, deep in the heart of Texas.
Image: COTA Media