Formula One In The End Times

Capital It Fails Us Now (Except The Bread and Circuses Can Still Be Pretty Awesome).
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The polished, North Face-d young gentleman ahead of me in line at Walgreen's pulled out a fat roll of hundred-dollar bills to buy a box of Klondike bars. His four friends, all similarly groomed, looked too upscale for the student/barrio that they—and I—were in. I had to ask. "Excuse me," I said, "are you guys here for Formula 1, by any chance?"

"Yes," the Klondike-buyer said. "Yes we are! How did you guess?"

The early-thirtyish Pablo Gutierrez, Guillermo Garcia, Diego Pani, and Juan Diego Martinez—two lawyers and couple of tech pros from Mexico City—explained, in the happiest and friendliest way imaginable, that they were taking advantage of F1 returning to North America in the relatively close city of Austin, Texas. They were following their compatriot, Team Shubert driver Sergio Perez. Perez didn't have the greatest result in Sunday's race, but his fans had a very good time, in spite of being gouged—at least in these guys' case—on an apartment in the somewhat dicey nabe. They rated it as a well-organized and a good event except for, as Pablo said, "Hey guys, my name is Rodney and I was hoping you could help me out—my car is out of gas and…"

Okay, that wasn't Pablo. That was an ambassador from the local mendicant class taking advantage of a group of people who looked like they might have some cash on them, and who happened to be hanging out in the parking lot. Pablo offered Rodney a Klondike bar; Rodney took it but still wanted more, and Pablo told me it felt as if there had been a lack of hotel rooms and a shortage of preparation for the transportation needs of fans to get to the edge-of-town, rural Course of the Americas track. The waits for the shuttle bus, he told me, were pretty bad.

I asked Rodney, later, if the race had affected his fortunes over the weekend. "Man," he said, "none of those fucking rich people even slowed their helicopters down to throw change out the window."

***

Ah, yes, the helicopters. The local aviation authority allowed two helipads inside the city for the race weekend, one near downtown and one more southerly. A few natives were irritated, but the rest seemed endlessly fascinated by the high-net-worth individuals—we call them the elite, Formula One calls them its base—blithely hovering overhead.

I asked a few other homeless gentlemen on another corner how they felt about all this money flowing around them. I was, admittedly, patently hoping for a photo-op of them shaking their fists like skinny antennas to heaven, but it seems the local down-and-out population felt no bump in the giving. They hadn't even seen any limos or supercars pulling up to their favorite stoplights.

That makes sense. The real mendicants whenever Formula One Is Coming To Your Town are, after all, the billionaires making it all happen. Texas is the only state with a taxpayer-funded slush account dedicated to Luring Events, and State Comptroller Susan Combs (GOP, campaign motto: "Fiscally Responsible Conservative") is the one who, um, comptrolls those funds. In the case of this race, she made the fiscally responsible choice to throw the Major Event Trust Fund's $25 million at F1 before the race had even technically been confirmed for Austin, and long before its bespoke track had broken ground. Lest you think this the typical grumbling of the "taker" class at the leisure-time preferences of the world's winners, it's worth noting that this same fund has tossed bundles of taxpayer dough at such cash-strapped entities as Super Bowl XLV, the NCAA Final Four, and the NBA All-Star Game.

Granted, there are some formulas dictating the ways in which anticipated sales tax and other revenues will pay back into the fund, but the last time I checked, the only document available at the Window On State Government site was the Comptroller's somewhat breathy—"It’s no secret that I’ve supported Texas hosting a Formula 1 race since 2008. I believe a well-organized event of this magnitude can be a tremendous benefit to Texas if done right"—early press release.

It's worth mentioning, here, that Formula One definitively does not need anyone's subsidy—although it is not at all in the turning-down-of-subsidy business—in large part because of the presence of ultra-wealthy gnome supremo Bernie Ecclestone. While no man should be measured solely by the company he keeps or the costume he prefers during whatever passes for sexual hijinks at his advanced age, Ecclestone is objectively an outsized figure. Someone who, as the London Daily Mail put it, can "finish his game of backgammon before rejecting a request to hand over £300million.” His charitable nature has led him to not only fund the outlandish real estate needs of his attractive, outrageous and otherwise improbable daughters, but also inspired him to allow the sale of a winking 12-inch sock puppet of himself to be sold at £29 each with all proceeds going towards Japanese tsunami victims.

At a time when "billionaire" has been proven to be an unpopular job description to something like 53% of voting Americans, it was bold thinking indeed that must've lead the third richest man in San Antonio—serial sports franchise abuser and Clear Channel co-founder Red McCombs—and Paul Mitchell co-founder John Paul DeJoria, owner of the saddest bronytail in his asset class, to throw in their own many hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that this race would happen, and would happen in Austin. Austin, which is the capital of the state that, upon finding a $27 billion shortfall in the state budget last year, immediately red-lined public education for $4 billion dollars in cuts. The whole endeavor, from its very first moments, has satirized in itself in a manner so merciless and perfect that it can only be described as Texan.

***

But to paraphrase George Barkley, small forward for the British Philosophers: No matter, never mind. On the ground, among the people, here in Austin—where there is a strong strain of green politics that finds itself compromised further every year by the sheer influx of New Californian Ideas and Major Events—the resistance that took the form of kilo-thousands of blogwords and hand-wringing slowly gave way to the implacable force of billionaire-willed reality. Which reality was: holy crap rich people are coming, so we'd better order a lot of beer and food, and maybe jack up the prices on the parking lots, hotel rooms, and pedicabs.

Reports of hotels being booked "from Pflugerville (a northerly 'burb) to San Antonio" seemed to be unfounded—a casual survey of the same homeless guys I'd interviewed recently for another publication found that their hotel-itinerant drug dealers were having no problems moving around; room rates said to be as high as $400 a night for even a crackish Motel 6 must've been closer into the central business district. The more moneyed and desirable visitors apparently kept to a tight radius around the luxe W Hotel, with the Four Seasons serving as a locus for the more conservative, who could take advantage of the chopper shuttles and other upscale transportation to the track itself, if they even bothered with such stuff. Some of these Four Season-ed ultra-classers must have been disappointed that the Lamborghini party was unable to nudge the Army Corps of Engineers into airlifting a yacht into Lady Bird Lake, which bisects the CBD. They almost certainly got over it.

All that wealth clearly didn't trickle down much further than the upscale hotels and immediate track area. The more bohemian parts of the service industry were caught with unused cases of beer and had to send extra staff home. One local who tended bar at the track described the scene as such: "Here are the prices: $8 domestics, $9 wells, $12 premium, $4 for a 20-ounce water. I'll get tipped a dollar on $120 but our sales the first (super lame) day were $16,000. Today (the last day) I never got a look but I'd say it was right around $30,000. Yeah, our pours are strong. They can't possibly take a hit at those prices."

The downtown FanFest, which cordoned off a few blocks to show off some cars and stage meet-and-greets with whatever F1 dignitaries they could round up, were thinly attended as well. The photographers I spoke with told me they were forced to do tight focus on group shots, as if they were hyping a street protest at which only 50 ragtag anarchists had even bothered to show.

Which, admittedly, is a low estimate. By the numbers, the attendance over the weekend was 65,000, 82,000, and 127,000 on race day itself. That's 5,000 rental cars to be returned. This left a largely unfulfilled economic promise, when counted against the projected 300,000 visitors, but F1 did donate over four tons of gourmet leftovers to the Capitol Area Food Bank. As one warehouse worker there was heard to say of the 400 boxes of pita bread that arrived, "Yeah I've heard of it, I just ain't eated any of it." If there needs to be an epitaph on the Austin F1 Experiment, that should probably be it.

***

But! But there was a spectrum of entertainment! Aerosmith and Cheap Trick playing at the large indoor arena at one end, Asia playing at the sad world-music 'theater' somewhere on the edge of town, both perfectly tuned for the locals who chose to ignore F1 but still spend some early-mid-life professional cash on a theme-y night out.

After the champagne was popped and the Pirelli cowboy hats worn on the podium, and for all the hand-wringing and tsuris and lost-and-gone-forever taxpayer dollars, Austin seems to have emerged largely unscathed from its F1 experience. Possibly if temporarily depleted of cocaine and well-rested escorts, but largely unscathed.

And so an event that was, from its first moments, some sort of too-good-to-laugh-at satire played out more or less as it should have, and probably as well as it could have. Everything was insane, but everything was also exactly what you'd expect to happen when a sport that is both the second most popular in the REST OF THE WORLD and a playground for the super-rich arrives in the most modest city in Texas. A moment of high strangeness in the Time Of Late Capital, that is, and also something like business as usual.


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