NASA Texas plays host at the Circuit of the Americas, home of the U.S. Grand Prix.
The NASA National Championships have been held twice at what was then called Miller Motorsports Park, a track designed to comply with Formula 1 regulations and for which no expense was spared in its construction.
But Formula 1 never raced there.
The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, also was designed to host Formula 1 races and also was built at great expense. Formula 1 has been racing there every year since 2012, and now, at long last, in 2017 NASA has added its name to the ranks of organizations that have raced at COTA.
People kept asking and wondering when NASA was going to stage an event at COTA, and NASA Texas Regional Director Will Faules was finally able to make it happen this past Memorial Day weekend.
It has been a long time in the making, longer than most people might realize. When COTA was under construction, NASA Executive Director Jerry Kunzman and Faules jumped on a plane and flew to Austin to meet with track management about holding an event there. That was back in 2012.
“Since that first meeting, I’ve personally met with every single management team of COTA as they cycled through staff throughout the years and changing views of what their board of directors thinks is right or wrong or how to operate,” Faules said. “And, finally along came this gentleman named Eric Paradis, and he’s a racer. He’s a club racer, too. He has a club racing background, so he gets it, and he’s the first person we met with from COTA who not only wanted our business, but also assisted in making it happen.”
With help from NASA Director of Business Development Jeremy Croiset, Faules navigated a 28-page contract to hold the inaugural event at COTA. If you’re reading this, you know how a NASA weekend works. The track is hot from as early as we can get away with till as late we’re allowed. With racing, Time Trial and HPDE all running concurrently, the track is always hot. But the officials at COTA didn’t know how the NASA system worked. To get this event to happen, Faules essentially had to educate everyone at COTA what NASA was all about.
“Some guys sitting in the control room for a track might not even have a clue what group is out and what the difference is between HPDE and TT,” Faules said. “All they know is to communicate to flaggers and whether to send out a safety crew. Most of the folks at COTA had no idea what the NASA program was other than they knew that 350 amateurs were going to show up to this event.
“They’ve seen Formula 1 and LeMons and everything in between, and they had no idea what NASA was,” he continued. “So, it took tons of work leading up to that event to explain how those sessions were going to go, when it’s OK to black-flag all an HPDE group or a race session. Countless hours went into working with each department, explaining the differences to get them to be OK with running the program how NASA programs are supposed to be run — which is 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag when you get HPDE, Time Trial and racing all in one day. We run to the second on time and it’s tough to make it happen.”
And they made it happen on a holiday weekend. NASA drivers of all stripes took to the circuit for the first time — and hopefully not the last. The event was remarkable because it was the largest gathering of NP01s to date. Twelve NASA Prototypes battled all weekend long. Spec Miata had 24 cars, and there were 14 Super Unlimited cars on track that weekend. What’s more, every NASA region from across the country was represented on the entry list, a testament to the drawing power of this track.
Designed by Herman Tilke, the man behind the F1 circuits at Sepang, Shanghai, Yas Marina, Istanbul and Bahrain, COTA is a 3.427-mile track with 20 turns and 133 feet of elevation change. It has tight turns, fast sweepers, huge braking zones and a series of esses as challenging as you’ve ever seen. The track has that endearing quality in that it takes 20 minutes to learn, yet a lifetime to master.
“Decreasing radius esses, are my single-least favorite types of corners, but the decreasing radius esses at COTA are probably one of my favorite sections of track,” Faules said.
During the event, one car hit a wall and one car caught on fire, prompting a red flag. Other than that, the weekend went off without a hitch.
“Our staff was obviously super-taxed for this event, with it being a new facility, with new ways to do things and new places to be and new info to communicate to our customers. They were awesome,” Faules said. “Having a career in putting on events, you get used to certain kinds of feedback. People usually don’t hold back when it comes to telling an event operator when they’d like to see something done better, but I think the overwhelming response with COTA is, ‘We can’t wait to come back.’
Check out more COTA action on video: