Autoweek reported earlier this week that Jason Dial, CEO of Circuit Of The Americas (COTA), has been fired. The board of directors voted Dial out but were scant with details. The implications are that he is the scape-goat for the financial failure that was the United States Grand Prix.
There are generally three sides to every story, and the firing of Jason Dial probably has at least that many. The trustees, for the crown jewel of American auto sport venues, lost their shirts with the recent running of the 2015 US Grand Prix. And it seems the ax of blame landed on the neck of Jason Dial.
The COTA management team was well prepared for the event. Much of that preparation involved a capital expenditure of food and beverages that went unsold. I did not spend as much money at the track as I had anticipated. I was prepared to pay track prices for the Texas barbecue and the craft beers at the Biergarden. But the wet weather kept my browsing and exploring of the facility to a minimum, and I expect the same to be true with others. And something gets lost in the experience as your poncho is blowing over your face and rain is soaking you!
But there are other aspects of the planning which, when effective, are successful because their impact went unnoticed. Some of the most harsh complaints I’ve read on social media seemed unfounded and related to the conditions. Some of us struggled for funds to go to Austin, and were disappointed in general. It seems that some fans expect COTA to control the rain for the cost of their travel and race tickets. But sometimes there is no one to blame. COTA was very successful at not losing the weekend completely because people did not get frustrated. Yes people were upset about the conditions and cancellations due to the rain. Due to good information people adjusted their expectations but people were not frustrated by inconsistent information or friction from track staff.
I arrived in Austin Friday night, So Saturday was to be my first track day. I cannot understate how terrible the weather was on Saturday. There is no way to sugar coat it, Saturday was a cold, wet miserable day. It had been raining continuously all night, and somehow thousands of F1 fans seemed to think they could will the weather into compliance, and a track window would appear, It did not. But despite the weather no one was confused or lacked information. Short of a tornado, the weather on Saturday could not have been worse. The sustained winds of over 30 mph was blowing rain sideways for hours. I found refuge under the Grand Stands the entire time waiting for a window. And it seemed like that’s where everyone else was also.
Movement around the track was difficult. The walk ways and parking lots were mud, and at times you were forced to walk thru deep standing water. As temperatures dropped the day turned cold. Track side food and drink accommodations were unable to operate. It was not so much the rain which closed venues as it was the winds blowing the tents and accommodations away! At the end of the day, the track experience that everyone had envisioned never happened and was lost.
Despite the falling rain, traffic into and out of the venue was rather painless on both Saturday and Sunday. But the communication strategy from the race organizers was very effective. The COTA phone app seemed to keep everyone well informed of schedule changes and parking lot closures. Drivers approaching the track from the highway seemed well informed and knew where they wanted to go. The standing escort of Travis County Sheriffs Deputies started at the highway exit and shepherded the flow to the waiting lots. Some of the official parking lots were impassable and closed, but these were well identified beforehand and published. There were still problems in some of the lots and vehicles were getting stuck. I saw a bus buried up to it’s axles in mud while I was leaving the track on Saturday. Twenty minutes later I was at Stella and Pat’s having a beer when I saw that same bus finally pass by . Despite the terrible weather, there was no shortage of help getting out of the mud.
The experience at the facility with track staff was consistent; “no arguments” and accommodate! I cannot understand the comments made by some fans. Most fans just seemed to be upset and needed to blame someone for expectations not being met. I’ve seen threats of “never returning” voiced by some fans. Perhaps there are reasons to justify Jason Dial’s firing, we’ll probably never hear that side of the story. But the attitude amidst adversity is the test of any service organization. I was not hearing complaints regarding staff attitudes, or the message from management. Quite often a poor service attitude is the result of unrealistic expectations from management to it’s employees while the customers demand is also not being met. It seemed that the race organizers realized early Friday that the weekend would be a wash financially. But they made every attempt to be a nice as possible, and overly generous in gate entry policies. It’s the staff’s attitude amidst adversity that will bring me back to COTA!
All indications before the race seemed to support confidence in Dial’s race planning efforts. No reports or rumors of problems ever surfaced around Dial. So his firing must be because the 2015 USGP lost a lot of money. But how attractive is a position where you take all of the contractual risk to hold an event while the other stake holders are secure? The COTA staff had to deal with “the largest hurricane to ever make land fall”. I don’t know how they accomplished what they did but I would give them an overall GOOD rating. The spectacular plans for any race weekend are completely at the mercy of cooperative weather. Race organizers paid $33.3 Million to host the 2015 race; tensions are high. It seems that a rain cloud follows anything FIA touches… And now even after the firing of Jason Dial we hear of trouble for the 2016 USGP. But with a scheduled payment of $36.3 million for the 2016 Us Grand Prix looming, Jason Dial may sigh favorably when he lands in what can only be greener pastures.
I do have one criticism of COTA. Selecting musical guests is not their forte’. Headline guests from the 2012 or 2013 U.S. Grand Prix’s were Pit Bull and Kid Rock; not good choices. They are “B listers” at best. My only criticism to the planning of the 2015 US Grand Prix involves Elton John as the musical headline. Under the best of weather conditions I would not have stayed for an Elton John concert while in Austin Texas. Elton John is not cool and not someone I ever want to see. “Good Bye Yellowbrick Road” is one of my top 10 albums of all time. But a 70 year old international Pop Star has absolutely no mass appeal to any American under 40. Austin Texas promotes itself as the “The live music capital of the world”. Here’s a hint… give the Foo Fighters a call now for next years race. Dave Grohl is like bacon, he just makes everything better!