Circuit of the Americas

Fast and Furious: Formula 1 Forges Ahead in the Lone Star State


Location: Austin, TX    
Owner: Circuit of the Americas (COTA)     
Circuit Track: 3.4 miles
Height: 250 foot observation tower
Seats: 9,000 grandstand / 15,000 amphitheater
Expertise: Structural and Façade Engineering
Architects: Miro Rivera Architects / HKS
Recognition: 2015 AISC IDEAS2 Merit Award Winner (Tower)
2015 AISC IDEAS2 Citation (Grandstand)
2014 25th Annual Pollstar Awards, Best New Venue (Amphitheater)
2013 Austin Business Journal, Commercial Real Estate, Overall Winner (Facility)
2015 Texas Society of Architects Design Award (Tower)
2014 AIA Austin Citation of Honor (Grandstand)
2013 AIA Austin Merit Award (Tower)
2012 Austin Chronicle Critics Pick (Grandstand)

From its earliest days in the U.S. in 1908, Formula 1 (F1), or Grand Prix, racing has played intermittently to American audiences on what might be called adaptive reuse racetracks, i.e. tracks not formulated for the multiple right- and left-hand turns that differentiate F1 from NASCAR’s oval tracks. Today, Formula 1 runs behind NASCAR in exposure, if not in challenge. But globally it is only second behind soccer in fan attendance. Europe is its primary playground. Austin, the “Live Music Capital of the World”, is planning to change this, however.

There were 26 dedicated F1 courses worldwide in 2015. COTA is the first track in the U. S. designed specifically for Formula 1 competition racing. Built into the rolling countryside southeast of downtown Austin, COTA promises to revive Grand Prix racing in America. On November 18, 2012, after a 5-year American hiatus, the U.S. Grand Prix ran its first race at COTA before a capacity crowd of 117,000+ exuberant fans from around the globe.

F1 racing was back in the USA, this time to stay.

Fast, Furious, & Iconic

World-renowned German racetrack experts Tilke Architects & Engineers master planned COTA’s specialized 3.41-mile, 20-turn racetrack. Walter P Moore worked with Austin’s Miro Rivera Architects, as well as HKS of Dallas, to execute the vertical structures. We served as structural engineer for all buildings on the facility, two pedestrian bridges over the track, infield access tunnels under the track, and multiple site structures. The buildings include the iconic observation tower; amphitheater, and stage; “The Pit Building”, a 1,200-foot-long racecar paddock; a media and conference center; a medical building; and multiple concession facilities.

But there’s more to COTA than even F1. It is also home to the largest, permanent open-air stage in central Texas, the Austin 360 Amphitheater. And it hosts a diverse range of events, from EXPN’s annual Summer “X” Games to the annual American Solar Challenge “Formula Sun” solar car races.

Much More Than Zoom

The first thing you see is the bright red, 251 foot high, tubular steel Observation Tower announcing COTA’s F1 racetrack and the Amphitheater. The Tower is an eloquent expression of the more than 500 tons of steel that went into shaping both COTA’s signature Tower and the Amphitheater.

The size and multiple changes in elevation of the F1 racetrack prevent spectators from seeing the entire circuit from a single ground-level vantage point. The canopied platform at the top of the Tower remedies this in heart-pounding fashion. Before reaching out, fanlike, more than 50 feet across the Amphitheater and fixed-seating below, a series of red steel tubes converge, then sweep up the Tower structure behind it like streaking taillights in the night. At the Tower’s top, they form a trellis-like screen over a 900 SF, partial-glass platform, glass balustrade, and handrail. Spectators have a full view of the racetrack, as well as all of Austin and much of Texas’ beloved Hill Country.

Inside the Tower’s 21 foot by 22 foot trapezoid shape are an elevator and a double-helix stairwell. Together, they provide access to and from the Tower’s platform. There is no core. The stair distributes loading efficiently to the entire tubular system. Below, the Amphitheater’s primary structure supports a 70-ton, concert rigging-grid. At the back of the 140 foot wide by 40 foot deep stage is a concrete pedestrian and vehicular overpass.

The most challenging aspect of COTA was the schedule, specifically the 10-month timeframe for engineering, fabricating, and erecting the Tower. In place of traditional paper drawings for the Tower, we provided a fully-connected Tekla model. Fabrication shop drawings were then produced directly from the model. This shaved three months from the customary delivery time and made it possible for the Tower to be complete for the inaugural race.

This was a project of exacting engineering and intricate details. Collaboration through teamwork, expertise, and innovation was critical to addressing the complexity of the interconnected facilities and the short timeframe that both shaped and threatened the Circuit of the Americas’ debut. Good humor and a passion for the outcome did the rest.

“We now have something modern and global.” –Bobby Epstein, primary investor and COTA Chairman