Commentary

Texas track a true test

Updated: November 15, 2013, 5:44 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Sebastian Vettel, Circuit of the AmericasMark Thompson/Getty ImagesThe Circuit of the Americas track outside Austin, Texas, is ready to host its second Formula One race.

Christian Epp is trying to play it cool. He is doing a horrible job.

"This part that is about to happen, this will never get old to me," he says, striding with steps of increasing speed across the pit lane of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He jumps up onto a short concrete ledge and grips the fence that separates the pits from the frontstretch. A group of McLaren crewmen and Mobil 1 engineers stand to his right. Jay Leno stands to his left. Epp doesn't see them. Instead, the tall, lean man crouches to poke his head through an opening in the fence, looking to his right, down toward the start-finish line, grinning all the way.

A sparkling silver McLaren Formula One machine suddenly hammers by, buffeting the banners that line the grandstands, its engine screaming at a pitch that causes most to instinctively cover their ears. The race car is being piloted by McLaren test driver Oliver Turvey, who approaches 200 mph as he rockets skyward into Turn 1, a visually-striking 133-foot climb, braking hard into a 45-degree, blind downhill turn. As he reaches the summit, Turvey's race car pauses, burps, and then whines off into the distance.

"When that hill was still covered in brush I had pictured in my mind what we just saw," Epp says, pointing up into the racetrack's signature corner, still grinning. "Years later, to see it happening in real life and say that is satisfying -- that word, satisfying, is simply not strong enough."

Epp is a racetrack designer, a job that is all parts architect, engineer, landscaper, artist and sadist. He is of German descent, born in Peru, raised in Mexico City and educated in Ontario, Germany, and Berkley, Calif.

For the last five years, his life has been directly tied to the construction of the $400 million, 3.41-mile, 20-turn Circuit of the Americas road course. On Nov. 17, COTA will host its second annual Formula One event, the latest incarnation of the United States Grand Prix, barely thirteen months after its doors were opened. More than 115,000 fans are expected to attend the final event of the 2013 calendar at the track that has included the American LeMans Series, FIA World Endurance, MotoGP and even Australian V8 Supercars.

It's a far cry from Epp's first visit to the site five years ago.

"My trailer was right there," he says, pointing across the frontstretch to a rising hillside that borders the climb into Turn 1. On this day that slope is covered in track workers installing grandstand additions. "I lived there. Slept there. Had some great days. Had some difficult days. But every day you looked out the window and the view had changed."

Epp's employer, Tilke Engineers & Architects, is the world's leading racetrack constructor. They have become the go-to team whenever someone wants to build a new Formula One-ready course. Since 1996, Tilke GmbH's circuits have sprung up from Bahrain to Beijing, and they've been called on to update legendary facilities such as Hockenheim and the Nurburgring.

Anyone who calls on Tilke from the Western Hemisphere is calling on Epp, the company's director of the Americas. In "2008 or '09," Epp found himself driving around and choppering over Austin with former F1 driver-turned-Texas race promoter Tav Hellmund and former world champion motorcyclist Kevin Schwantz. Hellmund had reached out to longtime pal and F1 president Bernie Ecclestone about hosting a race in Austin (and got a 10-year deal). Ecclestone put him in touch with another pal, Hermann Tilke. Now the two racers were beating Epp over the head with their dreams for a racetrack.

"We had a meeting with Tavo and Kevin at the beginning where we basically checked the wish list of what they wanted," Epp recalls with a laugh. "It began 'OK Christian, we want elements like Eau Rouge, we want the corkscrew, we want like Suzuka, we want Maggotts/Becketts section …'

"So we began doing the list basically and we came up I think with 10 or 15 different turns that they liked."

[+] EnlargeSebastian Vettel
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Circuit of the Americas track has elevation changes and plenty of challenging turns, but is that enough?

The biggest determining factor in what elements would make the cut was finding the right piece of land and seeing what the topography would allow. After considering multiple sites, they settled on a nearly 900-acre site in the southeast corner of Travis County that was originally supposed to be a housing subdivision, 15 miles south of downtown Austin and 15 minutes away from the airport.

The logistical aspects of the location immediately looked great. But to Epp, they always took a backseat to the earth itself.

"We were lucky enough to choose a piece of land where we can play with the topography," Epp explains, quick to add that no major alterations were made to the landscape other than grading for the racing surface. "The opportunity to choose the land made it much easier for us. Within moments of seeing it, we sensed a potentially perfect mix of rolling hills, elevation changes and straights where speed could be found. That is rarely the situation we are given."

His comments were a thinly-veiled reference to Tilke-built racetracks in places like the Middle East, where the tracks lie in the center of cities, where creativity is limited by everything from lack of land personality to immovable municipal structures. The critics of those facilities have included current drivers such as Mark Webber, living legends such as Sir Jackie Stewart and the often-unsatisfied F1 media corps.

They point to lack of creativity, lack of passing zones and a homogenized "cookie-cutter" feel from Tilke, who has either built or redesigned more than half of the current F1 facilities and routinely takes ideas from one and applies it to another. (Tilke was also hired to design the new Grand Prix of America course that is under construction alongside the Hudson River in New Jersey. The planned 2014 race remains up in the air.)

Epp is well aware of those complaints. He quickly points to the land restrictions of other locales. He also reminds of FIA safety regulations that must be incorporated into all new racetrack designs, governing everything from the width of the frontstretch to the depth of runoff areas. But he also explains that Austin's signature turn was created even within the boundaries of those rules, which state that a circuit's first corner must "preferably" be at least 250 meters (820 feet) away from the starting line and that the corner must be at least 45 degrees with a radius of at least 300 feet. "I can tell you firsthand," Turvey says after his demonstration runs, "there's no lack of creativity there!"

"I have been critical of Hermann Tilke designs in the past," says former F1 racer-turned-analyst David Coulthard, who famously drove a Red Bull F1 car around the course when it was still dirt. "But in the case of Austin I think they really listened to the drivers. It reminds one of golf course designers. There is some art to it, but the land gives you what it gives you. The rules give you what they give you. Someone's always going to be unhappy. But I have described the Austin circuit as mouth-watering."

Those words are even sweeter to Epp's ears than the sound of Turvey's race car. Standing on the pit lane, the designer and racers have a conversation that involves laughter, seriousness, and hand motions. A lot of hand motions. Turvey compares the winding stretch between Turns 12 and 16 to the stadium section at Hockenheim. Epp confirms that was his inspiration, explaining that from Hellmund and Schwantz's original wish list, at least four of their ideas are out on the course.

Epp tells Turvey of the original site, covered in mesquite trees and rattlesnakes. "Really giant rattlesnakes." Then he begins bouncing on his knees. "The original soil, it was like a sponge. Soaked up everything and turned to mud. We had to take out several feet of it throughout the entire facility and import more robust soil to replace it."

The young British racer's mouth hangs open. A group of Mobil 1 engineers also listen, slack-jawed.

"These are the things no one sees," Epp continues. "I don't want them to see it. I just want them to see racers and their machines pushed to their full potential."

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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