Circuit of the Americas (COTA) – EchoPark Texas Grand Prix
Photos by Eric Moreno, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.14
Circuit of the Americas 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd Austin, TX 78617
Year Opened: 2012
Circuit of the Americas – EchoPark Texas Grand Prix
Envisioned as becoming the premiere motorsports racing facility in the United States, the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) first broke ground on the outskirts of Austin, Texas in 2010 and was opened to the public in 2012. The complex encompasses 1,500 acres and features the 3.41 mile racetrack, Germania Insurance Amphiteater, and Bold Stadium. It has been the site for the Formula 1 US Grand Prix, the MotoGP Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas, and also serves as the home of the Austin Bold and the Austin Gilgronis of the United Soccer League and Major League Rugby, respectively.
In 2020 it was announced that COTA would add an official NASCAR race to its calendar beginning in 2021. The EchoPark Texas Grand Prix would feature races as part of the Camping World Truck Series, Xfinity Series, and Cup Series. A storm blew in from the Gulf of Mexico and put a slight damper on the first major event in Austin since the State of Texas eased its COVID-19 restrictions, however, while the torrential downpour put a damper on the festivities and cut the race short, it did not affect the enthusiasm of the NASCAR faithful that showed up for this historic race.
Food & Beverage 5
The food and beverage scene at COTA is nothing short of spectacular. This was my first trip to a NASCAR event and the experience to me was something akin to a cross between a State Fair and a big-time college football game. This is especially true for the food and drink scene.
As you enter the main gate, the entire concourse area is filled with food trucks, carnival rides, NASCAR memorabilia trucks, sponsor displays, etc. When it comes to food and drinks, these are, as mentioned, very reminiscent of fairground foods. You can get your funnel cakes, your turkey legs and corn dogs, as well as beer and soft drinks.
COTA Concessions, Photo by Eric Moreno, Stadium Journey
There are lots of other specialized options to choose from with the food trucks – if you’re adventurous, be on the lookout for Pineapple Ninjaz. As you venture onto the grounds, there are also pop-up stands and food carts selling barbecue, pizza (be on the lookout for Austin staple Southside Flying Pizza at their multiple locations on track grounds), tacos (another Austin favorite, Torchy’s Tacos has a stand), burgers, chicken fingers, nachos, and more. There are also “traditional” concessions kiosks near the main grandstand.
Be forewarned that for the rest of 2021 (at least), all the food and beverage operators will be accepting payments by credit and debit card only.
The overall look and feel of the event was something I’d never experienced before. Carnival-like is the best way I can describe it. While the weather did all it could to not cooperate, the attendance was still spectacular (more on that in the Fans section). Parking was completely sold out by the third day of racing, including in the RV/camping lots, as legions of motor homes and recreational vehicles filled the grounds of the five parking lots on-site.
NASCAR fans are passionate about their sport and their drivers, and this shows up in the stands and on the grounds during race days. Again, the weather did not cooperate, and one has to wonder what it would have been like without any rain. However, those who did show up (and it has been reported that the crowd was anywhere between 40,000 and 50,000) really added to the energy and the excitement of the day. For more seasoned race fans, this might be old hat, but for a newbie like myself, it was awfully impressive.
COTA was built in kind of an out-of-the-way location. Much of the surrounding area is rural farmland and industrial businesses. However, the track is only 15-20 minutes from Downtown Austin and all its splendor. Live music, college bars, great restaurants, historical sites, shopping, outdoor activities – it’s all there for visitors in the capital of Texas.
When it comes to dining, some of the finest restaurants not only in Texas, but in the country can be found in downtown Austin. Some of my personal favorites include the legendary Franklin BBQ, which routinely earns the crown as the best barbecue joint in the state. It specializes in true Texas barbecue, and lines form literally at the crack of dawn to get in before they sell out. Another personal fave is the oldest restaurant in the state, Scholtz Garten, which serves up old-school German food in honor of some of the region’s original pioneers.
In terms of activities, Austin (as mentioned) has everything you could possibly want to do both before and after your trip to COTA. Austin is the live music capital of Texas, and you can find someone playing in just about every joint in town on almost every night. There are also tons of other options for activities for visitors to Austin – for those looking to learn more about Texas’ storied history, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum is a multi-story immersive museum that tells the complete story of the state from prehistoric times through the Texas Revolution and on into modern times; it is a must-see for history buffs.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Lady Bird Lake (named for the former First Lady) offers hiking and biking trails, watercraft rentals (kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, etc.), and more. With the weather usually temperate year-round in Austin, this is the go-to place to be outside in Austin. It also gives you a view at dusk for the Congress Avenue Bridge bats that come out every night from around mid-March through early November. Austin is home to the largest urban colony of Mexican freetail bats in the world with over 1.5 million calling the Congress Avenue bridge home. It’s really a breathtaking site to be hold.
NASCAR fans are a passionate bunch, pretty much in the same vein as college football and soccer fans. They care deeply about their sport and their favorite driver/drivers. As mentioned, the expected final crowd was about 40,00-50,000 for the races, which is easily the largest non-football game sporting event crowd I’ve experienced. Despite the weather and despite the current coronavirus precautions, the fans showed up in force.
It was impressive to see the massive camping field filled end-to-end with campers and RVs. It was also impressive to see all the signage and paraphernalia (hats, T-shirts, etc.) being sported for specific drivers. Everywhere that there could be fans, there were fans – in the stands, on the grounds, in the hills overlooking the track, in the bridges crossing over the track, everywhere.
The fans cheered for the winners and gasped in concern at wrecks and spinouts. They are a great crowd and if this is typical of NASCAR events, it surely must add to the energy, excitement, and spectacle of all races the way it did for this one.
As was previously mentioned, it is a little tricky to get to COTA for races. If you’re driving, it is about 15-20 minutes from downtown Austin, or about an hour and 45 minutes from San Antonio. The closest highway is state highway 130, which is a toll road. If you are flying in, the track is actually not that far from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Public transportation doesn’t head out to COTA, so your only options other than driving yourself are rideshare services. Once on-site, parking is technically limited (there are five lots with ample parking, but they did fill up on the Sunday race day) but is free on race days. When you get on the grounds, there will be a ton of walking; I recommend taking advantage of as many of the free shuttle services (they do work for tips though) as possible so you minimize the racing action you miss.
Return on Investment 4
General admission tickets for the COTA NASCAR event are $50 per person with reserved and VIP seating ranging from $90-$125. Concessions are also a little on the higher side as well (a slice of pizza from Southside Flying will run you about $12).
In addition, the carnival/midway gaming area all run on tickets, which need to be purchased with cash. If you were looking to do it up right with the family at the races, it will cost you a pretty penny even with parking being free. Still, the racing should help balance out the cost, as you’re getting a full weekend of events with the top drivers on all three NASCAR circuits.
This section is where COTA truly excels on race day. In addition to all the games, carnival rides, memorabilia and paraphernalia stands, interactive experiences, and great food and drink options, there is still even more built into your experience at COTA.
The centerpiece of the track is its signature observation tower. It can be seen from miles away, looming like a giant over the track. Not only does it add a great look, with its observation deck jutting out into the sky and its double helix staircases invoking something from the future, but it is also allows for visitors to ride to the top and watch the races from a bird’s eye view.
COTA also boasts a go-kart track that runs throughout the day in front of the main grandstand even when there aren’t races going on. The experience gives visitors the opportunity to say they raced at COTA, which would make for a great story to tell anyone.
One last thing to keep an eye out for is the #COTA sign in front of Bold Stadium. This is a prime selfie/photo op spot, as visitors are invited to fill in the “T” with their own body while taking their photos. Just look for the large crowds waiting to take their turn and you won’t be able to miss it.