When last spotted paddling out of Austin after a May monsoon in 2021, NASCAR left a trail of wrecked race cars and gushing water around Circuit of the Americas. Yet America’s most popular motorsports series was intrigued enough by the venue and the city to give this another shot.
Moving the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix race weekend up two months brings a sunny outlook. The weather forecast is immaculate: mid-80s, low humidity and no rain.
“I’m excited to see what it looks like with a dry track,” said Chase Briscoe, driver of the No. 14 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing and one of five Cup Series winners this season. “All the rain made the track a mess last year, but I know from a facility standpoint, it’s pretty remarkable. As for the city, Austin is a really cool town. I look forward to exploring it a bit more.”
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NASCAR is again bringing its full experience to Austin for the three-day weekend. Friday kicks off with practice and qualifying for the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series. Saturday offers a doubleheader: the XPEL 225 truck race followed b the Pit Boss 250 Xfinity race. Sunday is the main event, the Cup Series EchoPark Grand Prix.
Speedway Motorsports President Marcus Smith, after last year’s event, estimated to the American-Statesman a Sunday crowd in the 50,000 to 55,000 vicinity, and race officials expect similar numbers this weekend.
SMI, renting COTA for the week, is turning this into a festival. There will be concerts from Grammy-nominated Midland, an American Country Music award winner from Dripping Springs, and Hairball, a Minnesota-based arena rock tribute band. Circus-style entertainment will include pig racing, ax throwing, BMX stunt shows, full steel combat, stilt walkers, fire breathers and Fan Zone gaming. Daily tickets and weekend passes are available.
“We’re creating the most entertainment value for the price of a ticket,” SMI Chief Operating Officer Mike Burch said Thursday. “But above all else, you’ve got to have good racing. We’ve had that this year with a wide variety of winners and close races. Now we’ll be able to showcase our new car at COTA in dry weather. We have high expectations for this weekend.”
With the pandemic easing, fans can have easy access to drivers and teams making numerous appearances at the track and around the city.
“Last year fans didn’t get the full experience of what NASCAR can be,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro for JTG Daugherty Racing. “You can get autographs, pictures, walk right into the garages. I could be getting into the car in 10 minutes and still taking pictures with the fans. It’s different than almost any other sport.”
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NASCAR also is bringing a sleek new machine. The Next Gen-7 car will make its debut on the first of six road courses the Cup series visits in 2022. It provides more downforce, independent rear suspension and rack-and-pinion steering.
“This car is absolutely designed more for a road course,” said A.J. Allmendinger, who drives the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. “It’s a more symmetrical car designed to go left and right, not just left turns like the old car. It handles well. It’s got much bigger brakes than the old car. It’s a bit more thrilling to turn it loose on this road course.”
William Byron, who took the No. 24 Chevy to victory lane in Atlanta last week, said, “The Next Gen car will make for a lot more aggressive passing at a place like COTA because I think guys are going to dive bomb into the corners. If you’re close to a guy, you’re going to try to out-brake him.”
Chase Elliott won last year’s rain-shortened Texas Grand Prix, holding off Hendrick teammate Kyle Larson, who went on to win the Cup championship. Elliott, who has seven wins in 19 road course starts, is the only one of four drivers on his high-powered team who hasn’t won in 2022. Nevertheless, Elliott is the Vegas favorite to repeat at COTA with 2½-to-1 odds.
Big names such as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are still searching for their first victory of ’22.
Fourteen drivers who’ve won on a road course are entered in the Cup race, including specialists Allmendinger, Joey Hand, Boris Said, Andy Lally, Loris Hezemans and Kaz Grala, driving the No. 50 Chevy for the Money Team Racing, owned by boxing legend Floyd Mayweather.
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NASCAR continues to attract the most TV motorsports viewers in America. Last Sunday, Fox drew just over 4 million viewers for the Atlanta Cup race, while 1.35 million watched the Formula One opener from Bahrain on ESPN and 954,000 saw the IndyCar race from Texas Motor Speedway.
“We’ve usually been No. 1 or 2 for all weekend sports events,” Burch said. “We’ve beaten events like the Duke-Carolina game, the NBA with Warriors games and the PGA. NASCAR still delivers eyeballs.”
Burch knows NASCAR is competing on a crowded sports weekend here with Dell Match Play golf, the Texas Relays, Rodeo Austin and the NCAA Sweet 16 nearby in San Antonio.
“A lot of times, people coming in from out of town look to see what else you have going on,” he said. “Often it’s the more, the merrier. People will go to different events, try to get a fuller view of a destination market like Austin.”
- New Braunfels native Parker Chase will make his Xfinity debut in the No. 26 Toyota. Chase, who ran 18th at COTA in the ’21 truck race, has extensive experience running sports cars at the track.
- Bubba Wallace, the Cup’s lone Black driver, will double up in the Xfinity and run the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
- Kyle Busch, who won COTA’s Xfinity race in ’21, will moonlight in the truck race, as will Alex Bowman, making his first NCWT start in five years.
NASCAR Austin weekend
NASCAR’s second-ever stop in Austin and at Circuit of the Americas will include racing in all three of its major series. Here is what you need to know going into the three-day weekend:
Camping World Trucks XPEL 225
When: Saturday, noon
Length: 142 miles, with stages 12/26/42
2021 pole: Tyler Ankrum (GMS Racing)
Defending champ: Todd Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Xfinity Pit Boss 250
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Length: 156 miles, with stages 14/30/46
2021 pole: Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Defending champ: Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing)
EchoPark Automotive Cup Grand Prix
When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Length: 231 miles, with stages 15/32/68
2021 pole: Tyler Reddick (Richard Childress Racing)
Defending champ: Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports)
1:30 p.m. — Gates open
2-2:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice
2:30-3:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series qualifying
4-4:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series practice
4:30-5:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying
8 a.m. — Gates, Fan Zone open
9-10 a.m. — Cup Series practice
10-11 a.m. — Cup Series qualifying
Noon — Camping World Truck Series XPEL 225 race
3:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series Pit Boss 250 race
6-9:30 p.m. — After Party at the Amp, includes live music, entertainment and driver meet-and-greet sessions
7:30-9:30 p.m. — Rock tribute band Hairball concert
10 a.m. — Gates and Fan Zone open
11 a.m.-2 p.m. — Track Pass access open
12:45-1:45 p.m. — Prerace concert by Grammy Award-nominated Midland
2 p.m.— Cup Series driver introductions
2:30 — EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix race