A Wheelchair User’s Guide to Accessibility at the Circuit of the Americas

I first became a fan of Formula One (a.k.a. Formula 1 or F1) in my late 20s, especially after visiting Monaco for a day and being able to stand right in the middle of the race route. I love fast and exotic cars since even before then, being able to rattle off the names of different models of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis…you name it. But my geek really grew after the debut on Netflix of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a documentary series that followed several of the teams during the 2018 season.

So what exactly is Formula One? It’s the highest class of single-seater auto racing sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and owned by the Formula One Group. The FIA Formula One World Championship has been one of the premier forms of racing around the world since its inaugural season in 1950. Think of big names like Enzo Ferrari, Mario Andretti, and Michael Schumacher. The word “formula” in the name refers to the set of rules to which all participants’ cars must conform. 

A Formula One season consists of a series of races, known as Grands Prix (French for ‘grand prizes’ or ‘great prizes’), which take place worldwide on purpose-built circuits and on public roads. Arguably one of the coolest things about Formula One is the races that take place right in the middle of large cities like Singapore or Abu Dhabi. Formula One cars are also the fastest in the world, achieving speeds up to 215 miles per hour.

The US Grand Prix has been held on and off in the United States 48 times since 1908, and became a part of the Formula One circuit in the 1950s. Races have been held in New York, Phoenix, and Indianapolis, but the current US Grand Prix didn’t begin at COTA in Austin, Texas until 2012 after a 9-year hiatus. I decided that 2019 was the year to attend my first and possibly only Formula One race in the United States. I hoped that the accessibility would be good, and certainly felt it would be better than at other race locations around the world. Here’s what my experience was like.

About the Circuit of the Americas (COTA)

The COTA facility is home to the only Formula One and MotoGP races in the United States. The track itself is a 20-turn counterclockwise circuit with several hills. It has also played host to ESPN’s X games, the FIA World Endurance Championship, the Pirelli World Challenge, and more. COTA opened in 2012, and was essentially purpose built for Formula One, taking design cues from several famous race tracks around the world. It has two concert venues, and the Austin360 Amphitheater is the largest permanent outdoor amphitheater in Central Texas.

Buying Tickets for Accessible Seats

Before you can even consider buying tickets for an event at COTA, you have to decide where you want to set. The track is approximately 3.4 miles long and has 20 turns, with some form of seating at most of them. The primary seating area is the Main Grandstand, which is located directly across from the paddocks at the starting area for all races. You also have a view of turn one to the right and turned 20 to the left. This is where I had my seat. Accessible spaces for wheelchair users and their companions are located along the top row of the 200 level. Accessible seating is also available at the turn 12 grandstand and the turn 15 grandstand.

Row 14W in the Main Grandstand on level 200

I purchased my tickets for the US Grand Prix directly through COTA over the phone since it was my first time attending the race, and I wanted some guidance on selecting a seat. If you know where you want to sit, you can actually purchase your ticket online through Ticketmaster. If you look at the top right corner of the “Search for Tickets” box, you will see a button that says “Request Accessible Tickets.”

There are a variety of ticket purchase options, not only based on where you want to sit but also which events you want to attend. I was seated in the center of the main grandstand in the 200 section, and I purchased a three-day pass for the US Grand Prix for $1125, just to give you a ballpark figure. Formula One races are very expensive, so tickets for other events at COTA will probably be cheaper.

Getting to COTA

There are a few ways to reach the track on race days. COTA does offer a shuttle that makes roundtrips between the track and downtown Austin. I didn’t personally use the shuttle, but they did advise me that it is wheelchair accessible. I believe the shuttle ticket costs $10 round-trip. You do need to buy these ahead of time.

There is plenty of accessible parking at COTA. You must purchase your parking passes ahead of time, and ADA parking must be requested at the time of purchase, whether you buy it over the phone or online through Ticketmaster. The process is the same as when you are buying your tickets. COTA advises that you should arrive as early as possible to ensure space availability, as accessible parking isn’t guaranteed.

The third way to reach the track is using a wheelchair accessible taxi, either through Yellow Cab or UberWAV. I had no trouble getting an accessible taxi in the mornings to get to the track, but leaving the track is an absolute nightmare. More on that in the general observations section below. If you will be taking a taxi to and from the track, the closest you can get to the Grand Plaza is a drop-off and pick-up area by parking lot C. From there, it’s about a 10- to 15-minute roll on a paved path to the Grand Plaza entrance.

It’s a 10-15 minute roll on this path from the taxi drop-off to the Grand Plaza

Getting Around COTA

COTA has free shuttles that transport guests between the different seating areas. For wheelchair users, they have golf carts with ramps that can transport only one wheelchair user at a time. Please be aware that they do not have tie-downs. Although one of the large open-air shuttles (essentially a tram) did have a ramp, the driver said he could only lower it on a flat surface and it was unusable because he had pulled up to a curb. He did not seem amenable to pulling the shuttle farther up to reach a flat area.

To summon one of these accessible golf carts, COTA provides a five-digit text code. They will respond by asking where you’re located and give you an approximate pickup time. Remember that the track is spread out over 1500 acres, and the track itself is 3.4 miles long with multiple seating areas. Sometimes I had to wait 30 minutes or longer for an accessible golf cart, especially if there were other wheelchair users waiting with me.

What to Expect on Race Day

I can only speak to my own experience attending the Formula One US Grand Prix. The experience might be different at other racing events, so please keep this in mind. The capacity of the facility is approximately 120,000 people, and COTA announced on race day that tickets sold out. Mind you, all of these people are spread out over a wide area, but regardless, it’s extremely crowded everywhere.

The security line that fortunately I didn’t have to wait in

During the US Grand Prix, there are many more racing events going on than just the Formula One cars. Having paid what I did for my tickets, I wanted to experience absolutely everything! I arrived at the track at approximately 7:30 AM on race day for the first event at 8:05 AM. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was completely by myself in the stands. I got to watch the Masters Endurance and Masters Historic races, as well as a Formula 4 race. These drivers can be as young as 14 years old, and it’s considered the first stepping stone on the way to Formula One.

Masters Endurance Legends 2019 rolling start

The preliminary events such as the drivers’ parade, national anthem, aerial shows, marching bands, etc. started at around noon, with a race start time of 1:10 PM. Even so, the stands didn’t start to fill up until 12:30 PM. As a result, prior to that time, I had no trouble getting to and from the concession areas and the accessible restrooms on the ground floor. I would suggest doing all of this prior to the race, which at only 56 laps, took only a little longer than 90 minutes. You don’t want to miss out by having to wait 20 minutes in line for hot dog.

The Haas team paddock

I need to make sure you understand that you will not be able to see anything at the very beginning of the race and the very end of the race because everyone will be standing up in front of you and blocking your view. I was able to roll to the very end of the top row in section 200 to get some photos of the finish over the guardrail.

My view for the first three and last three laps

I was also very lucky that I was able to see the trophy presentation at the top of a stairway at the opposite and of the grandstand because no was standing on the stairs. However, this was a bonus, and it’s best if you make the assumption that your view will be blocked at these times.

After each day’s events, there was a concert held at one of the two big theaters along the track. While it was a hard choice, I chose not to attend the two bigger concerts because it would have taken so long to reach that side of the track, and would have made it more difficult for me to get a ride back to my hotel after the concerts were over at 9 PM. I did attend the concert in the early evening after the end of the US Grand Prix at the Austin 360 theater near the grand Plaza because it was much more convenient.

To make the most of the day, there are still plenty of things to see and do after the race is over. Just be aware that it will be very crowded with lots of people moving in different directions. Also, many of the guests will have been drinking all day, so be aware of anyone who’s tipsy that might bump into you or cut in front of you. 

General Observations

If you’re having trouble finding the location of your wheelchair accessible seat, don’t be surprised if no one knows where it is. I asked four track employees, and no one knew how to get to the top row of section 200. It turns out it was as easy as getting off at level 2A on the elevator, and there was even a huge sign next to the elevator indicating that level 2A was where the accessible seating was located.

Duh.

You will have an extremely difficult time purchasing souvenirs. There were pop-up tents all over the track selling merchandise for each of the Formula One teams. Unfortunately, they were all on top of a platform with at least one step to reach the merchandise. In a couple of cases, I was able to get relatively close to the counter, but it was still difficult to see anything. The employees were happy to bring me anything I wanted to see more closely, but was still very frustrating to not be able to access the merchandise at a single tent.

While virtually everything in the Grand Plaza area is paved, the ramp going down to the Austin360 Amphitheater level with accessible seating was covered in gravel. Some of it was hard-packed, but some of it was loose enough that I got stuck several times on the way up. I have absolutely no idea why they wouldn’t pave this ramp. There is a flat route from the Main Grandstand to the Grand Plaza that is also hard-packed gravel, but I didn’t have any trouble here. If you don’t want to wait around after the race for an accessible golf cart, it’s only about a 15-minute roll between locations.

You do not have to wait in the long line to go through security. Just go to the exit and they will screen you there.

Bring money, because everything is ridiculously expensive, especially at a Formula One race. For breakfast, I paid a reasonable $11 for to breakfast tacos and a fountain drink, but for lunch I paid $16 for a small Pizza Hut personal pizza and a soda. Formula One team merchandise is also exorbitantly priced, with an average of $60 for a T-shirt and baseball caps starting at $35 for the ones that are out of season. You could actually pay up to $120 for a current team baseball cap. If you have the patience, you can buy team gear on Amazon for much less.

Leaving the races each night is an absolute nightmare, especially on the final race day. Traffic is at a virtual standstill for at least two hours, which will affect you whether you are leaving one of the parking lots in your own vehicle or waiting for a taxi/Uber pickup. It was taking so long for my UberWAV driver to reach me at the end of race day that he actually abandoned the call after an hour at his shift change and just told me to call back after the traffic died down. I got very lucky that only a couple of minutes later, a regular Uber driver was looking for passenger and I was able to take my Whill Ci power chair apart to fit in his trunk. While there are literally hundreds of people in that little area waiting for their own taxis and Ubers, please be aware that there is no track security at that location. If you need any help, you need to roll another 10 to 15 minutes back to the Grand Plaza if it hasn’t already closed the gates.

Saturday evening’s Uber/taxi wait. Double it on race day.

I’m definitely glad I went to the US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be going again. It was very expensive, it seemed disorganized at times, the accessibility was severely lacking in some critical areas, and there were just way too many people for my comfort. Fortunately, several members of the track staff helped me out on race day, and they were incredibly kind, courteous, and generous with their time. If you are a racing fan, and definitely a Formula One fan, I still recommend that you experience it in person at least once. The speed of everything, from the cars to the pit stops, and the sounds are almost overwhelming, and incredibly exciting despite the challenges.

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