Gentlemen, start your negotiations: As NASCAR leaves Austin, will it come back for more?
NASCAR's third full weekend in Austin left race organizers and many drivers looking for more.
Speedway Motorsports rents Circuit of the Americas for the EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix, and there is an option year for 2024.
"We hope we can continue to come down here, and it looks very likely," executive race director Bryan Hammond told the American-Statesman on Sunday. "We have an option (for 2024), but it's contingent on SMI, COTA and NASCAR all agreeing on a new deal.
"Austin is a great market for attracting visitors. As I tell people all the time, Austin and Nashville are the two hottest cities in the country right now from a place people want to be. That's why SMI is hosting races in both cities."
COTA chairman Bobby Epstein counts Formula One, MotoGP and NASCAR as his three big-ticket items.
"We want NASCAR to return, absolutely," Epstein told the Statesman. "The fans want them at COTA, the drivers tell us they love the track and the city. It makes for great TV, and it pairs the leading U.S. racing series with America's premier road course."
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson told the Statesman over the weekend that NASCAR needs to race at North America's top tracks, and that Circuit of the Americas is one of its top tracks. "To me, it's simple logic," he said.
Attendance numbers and television viewers are critical, and it's not clear how well they match up. NASCAR no longer discloses hard crowd counts, but SMI officials estimated between 50,000 and 60,000 attended the first COTA Cup race in 2021. Last year those numbers seemed to drop off.
"The first year it rained 8 inches, and we were pulling campers and cars out of the mud," Hammond said. "We had to do a diligent job earning those customers back. Last year went off really well, and word got out. Our ticket sales did grow from last year."
Yet plenty of seats could be found Sunday on the Turn 1 grassy hill and grandstands that have been so popular with F1, which drew upward of 140,000 on race day the last two years. Epstein has previously said MotoGP, which returns next month, is COTA's second biggest gig.
The inaugural Cup race in Austin attracted 2.4 million viewers on Fox Sports 1. Last year the main Fox station picked up the race, and there was a 58% boost to 3.7 million, almost exactly the Cup average for 2022.
More: Zane Smith surges to victory at NASCAR truck race
Sunday's race was not only up against the NCAA Elite Eight but also had that added burden locally of competing against Texas' March Madness run, along with the finals of Dell Match Play golf at Austin Country Club. The Texas game likely hurt attendance at COTA and TV numbers for Fox7 Austin.
"That was definitely a factor, but we're happy for the Longhorns," Hammond said. "I hate it that (the PGA event) is going away. We worked with those guys on cross promotions and had fans who came to Austin for the week to attend both. But it would mean we'd be standing alone next year, and that's potentially a plus."
Hammond said there was a surge of interest the last two weeks.
"Austin is such a fickle market, a late-buying market," he said. "If you live in Austin, it's like, 'hey, what are we doing this weekend? or even 'hey, what are we doing tonight?'"
The majority of the crowd comes from out of town. San Antonio is a huge market for this race, Hammond said, and Dallas, Houston and even down the Gulf Coast are solid. Most out-of-staters come from Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.
"I wasn't sure how I'd like a road course because you can't see everything like an oval, but I'm impressed with the overall experience here" said Beth Thomas, a first-time attendee from Shreveport, La. "We did go-karting, carnival rides, heard (musician) Darius Rucker. It's not too crowded and you can get around. The overall package has me thinking of coming back."
Terry Whitfield, a fan from Galveston, said, "the racing has been pretty damn good, edge-of-your-seat stuff. You've got the big-name Cup guys, the F1 interlopers for fun, and you really don't know who will keep their wheels on the course. I'd like to see Austin become a regular NASCAR stop."
The 2024 Cup schedule will drop near Labor Day, but Hammond said the next 60 to 90 days is a realistic projection to know if a deal can be struck.
"Bobby (Epstein) is a fair negotiator," he said. "We'll get together and talk. I think it looks promising for a return."
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: NASCAR, Circuit of the Americas have some big future decisions to make