We recently had the opportunity to spend a weekend on track at Circuit Of The Americas during a track day event hosted by MVP Track Time. Because COTA is a new track and a singular facility in the US (e.g., United States Grand Prix site, $400 million facility) we thought you might enjoy some of our thoughts on the experience before we can do our standard Track Profile.
Just as a reminder, COTA is a purpose-built racing and entertainment facility just outside of Austin, Texas (it is 9 miles from the Austin airport and 14 miles from downtown Austin).
Length: 3.4 miles (can be divided into two shorter tracks)
Elevation change: 133 feet
Longest straight: 3960 feet (0.75 miles)
Designer: Tilke GmbH (also designed or worked on Bahrain, Buddh, Catalunya, Zandvoort, Fuji, Hockenheimring, Istanbul, Sepang, Shanghai, and Yas Marina among others), based on a concept developed by Tavo Hellmund and Kevin Schwantz
What We Drove
We brought two cars to this event, both of which we are in the process of testing for races later in the year. First, we brought a Radical SR3. This 2004 car has the 1500cc PowerTec engine with fuel injection and a six-speed manually-shifted sequential gearbox. The car makes about 190 wheel horsepower and weighs about 1300 pounds without driver.
We also brought a 2013 Boss 302S. This is the car Ford Racing builds for Pirelli World Challenge GTS class. You can indeed just go down to your Ford dealer and order one, if you time it right (they only build 50 in a batch each year). We took delivery of this car a week before this event, so we ran the car pretty much as delivered (we put on Hoosier R6 race rubber, set alignment and camber to factory specs and corner weighted the car). The Boss 302S comes almost ready to race (cage, fire, data, suspension) and is not street legal, though it is based on the street car. The car makes about 450 crank horsepower and weighs 3350 pounds without driver.
We did not have a high-performance street car or a low-power racecar (e.g., Spec Miata or SRF), so our notion of the track is somewhat biased by the cars we were using. There were a lot of Porsches at the event and they seemed to enjoy it. We’ll do our best to try a variety of cars in the future and report back.
What Is COTA Like To Drive?
Naturally if you are an F1 fan, as your editors most assuredly are, it takes some time to shake the thoughts like “I’m standing in Alonso’s garage” and “Now what was Hamilton’s line in this corner?” and just generally “Holy Shxx!” Fortunately you get past that after one or two sessions on track and rather quickly get down to learning the track, just like you would at any other facility you haven’t driven before.
The caveat above is important, because we can summarize our essential takeaway: COTA is a completely amazing track to drive, and, for a track day, matches any circuit we’ve ever driven. Other people with more experience, and experience in Europe, might prefer another track, but we think COTA is clearly world-class. That’s not because it has the “F1 Seal of Approval,” but because it delivers a great driving experience.
One way to think about COTA (or any track) is to break it down into a few experiential elements. Remember, we’re thinking about this from the perspective of the novice racer or the racer on the steep part of the learning curve. Old hands might have a different view.
Here’s what we liked about COTA:
1. The track is basically pretty easy to learn at a gross level, which is helpful for a track day weekend because realistically you don't have that many laps to get your money's worth. Perhaps because we’ve watched so many F1 laps run here, we came in having a basic idea of the layout and we really never felt lost. Considering that the track has 20 turns, we were a little surprised at that, but if you look at the track map, COTA is basically a triangle with some squiggly bits on the each side.
2. The turn complexes have plenty of technical challenges. We did about 100 laps between two drivers, and on lap 49 we were still thinking new variants of “Oh, that’s the way that corner should be set up.” Sure, that happens with a lot of tracks, but COTA seems to offer a well-above-average number of learning opportunities which makes it fun to drive on a track day, lap after lap. Part of why COTA may have a learning curve with more headroom than normal is that so many of the corners are huge expanses of asphalt. That makes multiple—quite different—lines possible and the “proven line” (if there is such a thing) unobvious. We suspect it will also make for interesting mid-turn passing during races (watch Jenson Button in the USGP passing in Turns 14/15).
3. The track throws a wide variety of situations at you. COTA was designed to very roughly borrow and blend some of the great turn complexes from important tracks. Like political compromise and rock and roll supergroups, such an approach can often fail miserably. At COTA however, it works. You have esses and more esses, with decreasing and increasing radius sweepers. You have a kink. You have multiple hairpins leading onto long straights. You have a big carousel. You have short chutes and medium chutes. You get the idea, and we could go on listing “features” but that really isn’t the point. In our short experience, the key is that all of this variety works because you really can get a rhythm going and at the same time the track tests most of the elements a good driver and race car.
A good race track is to a larger degree measured by good racing. On this weekend we weren’t racing, so we can’t say much about that. Nonetheless, we expect good things.
A Contrary View
Almost every driver we talked to seemed to be enjoying himself greatly. We did find some dissenting opinion, though. For example, one driver said “I don’t like it; it’s kind of an F1 track.” We originally shook our heads and thought, did he just say “I don’t like the way she looks; she’s kind of a supermodel?”
But on further reflection we can see two kinds of drivers who might not have that much fun at COTA. First are drivers in low-powered cars on street tires. The long straights might seem a bit boring and frustrating as Vipers and GT3s blow past you. And on street tires, the twisty sections might be an exercise in car control that some would rather avoid. Those conditions coupled with the inevitable track day mix of vehicles in a run group (e.g., CSRs together with SRFs, S2000s mixed with Vipers) mean the slower cars are doing a lot of point-bys.
The other group who might not enjoy COTA are drivers who don’t like so-called technical tracks. For example, COTA has a lot of complex turns where your line in one turn affects your ability to navigate two or more turns downstream. One man’s “challenging” is another man’s “frustrating.”
We don’t think it matters that much, but you might want to know about the facility itself. In short:
- The pit buildings are on a scale and architectural plane unlike other US tracks; the ability to rent one of the 34 garage spaces that open onto pit lane is a bonus, and minor though it is, we liked the way COTA left the F1 driver names from the 2012 race above the garages.
- It appears that COTA requires its own flagging staff, and EMS and tow crews; that means more flagging and better emergency action than is normal in our experience (on the other hand, this and the first-class facility are why COTA is so expensive to rent).
- COTA is still learning, so some things aren’t ideal; for example, the café shuts down at 2:30, which is hardly luxurious if you need that last bottle of Gatorade—BYOB.
- COTA infamously requires you to pay for repairs (e.g., if you bend the guardrail, you pay to fix it); this has caused consternation, though we don’t understand why exactly since the cost is either spread across all racers (unfairly some would say) or, as is done here, specifically paid for by those who cause damage.
- The track surface is the smoothest we’ve ever driven on and the rumble strips seem quite manageable and consistent.
- COTA is not really set up for amateur events yet; example: we assumed race fuel would be for sale, but only 93 octane is available (MVP warned us, to be fair—we’re just saying it isn’t ideal).
- The COTA support people are almost frighteningly cheerful; COTA therefore currently delivers an odd mix of corporate bureaucratic coldness and southwestern hospitality—we hope the latter wins out.
In the end, we would go back in a heartbeat (and we are going back for an SCCA weekend in March). We had a seriously large amount of fun, enjoyed the other participants, and saw many cool cars. It is hard to think of a better way to spend a long weekend. Without racing, that is.
A Turn By Turn Guide For Those Planning Track Time