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Austin's COTA smashes record for biggest Formula 1 race ever as sport tightens grip on US market

Austin saw the biggest F1 race in history on Sunday at Circuit of the Americas. (Formula 1/Twitter)

Circuit of the Americas chair Bobby Epstein wasn't willing to give up specific attendance numbers for the Austin track's United States Grand Prix over the weekend, but he still assured Austonia that the race was "the biggest sporting event in the world this year."

The weekend's broadcast reported the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees, smashing a previous record held by the British Grand Prix for the most racegoers in Formula 1 history. Around 140,000 looked on as 24-year-old rising star Max Verstappen beat seven-time champ Lewis Hamilton by just over a second on Sunday.

While the star-studded, hard-fought Sunday race may be a blow for NASCAR, which normally reigns king in U.S. territory, the USGP signifies a new age of national interest in Formula 1.

"We had several hundred thousand people over the course of 3 days, the biggest single-day and biggest overall event for us," Epstein told Austonia via email. "It has turned into the largest annual event in Texas and one (of) the largest in the U.S. Much bigger than the Super Bowl."

And with 110 million television viewers to the Super Bowl's 96.4 million this year, Epstein isn't wrong (though record Super Bowl viewership peaked at 114.4 million in 2015.)

Those high television ratings are aided, in part, by television itself: even with nearly two years without F1 motors rumbling on the COTA track, the sport soared in popularity as Netflix documentary "Drive To Survive" gained traction in the States. The show, which gives viewers a sneak peek of driver's lives behind the helmets and hurrah, became a "pandemic passion" for many, including F1 fan Tracy Fives.

With stars like Shaquille O'Neal standing at the Grand Prix podium (and serving up beats as DJ Diesel for the postrace party) and celebs including Chris Bosh, Megan Thee Stallion and Ben Stiller in the audience, it's no surprise that the high-end event has caught the awe of new American fans. Pair that with a neck-and-neck rivalry between Verstappen and Hamilton and entertainment-filled bonanzas, and fans who may have never watched racing before are quickly getting hooked.

And those 36 million stateside supporters will soon be rewarded: a new Miami track, complete with yacht-side race viewing, will be christened with the Miami Grand Prix come 2022.

Formula 1, a European-born race that has seen intermittent success in the U.S., now recognizes the States as its fastest-growing market—it's even looking into adding an American driver in the next few years.

What will this mean for COTA? America's first purpose-built F1 track was built before the hype, and it's had plenty of ups and downs since its opening in 2013.

Most recently, Epstein and crew caught steam for not reaching a deal yet on another 10-year-contract after the first contract expired this weekend. A yearly $25 million stipend from the state requires that the USGP be the only race in the U.S. in order to receive their check, and another state report found inconclusive evidence on whether the race is as financially beneficial to the area as Epstein claims.

After a tough 2020 in the pandemic, Epstein knew he needed to create a world spectacle—and he delivered. With record-breaking ticket sales and a successful weekend behind him, Epstein told ESPN he would be "surprised and disappointed" if the track didn't secure another deal.

"We've proven this is an event that now has tradition, is something you can't buy, and it takes years to establish," Epstein told the New York Times just before race day. "When you find a formula that works, you don't want to lose that. Anything that would stop the momentum of that would be potentially irreversibly detrimental. Given that we start with that as a point of agreement, I'm fairly optimistic this will continue for a long time."

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