Austin's Circuit of the Americas 'highly confident' of U.S. Grand Prix contract renewal

AUSTIN, Texas -- Circuit of the Americas (COTA) boss Bobby Epstein said he would be "surprised and disappointed" if the circuit did not get a renewal to its U.S. Grand Prix deal, which is set to expire after this year's event.

The U.S. Grand Prix appeared on the 2022 race calendar with an asterisk alongside it, subject to a new contract. F1 boss Stefano Domenicali is in the Austin paddock for this year's race on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and Epstein said he believes a new contract is a formality at this point.

COTA aims to release 2022 tickets in April, and Epstein said he is confident everything will be wrapped up by then.

"We'd like to finalise it before we go on sale, although we'll put some [2022] tickets on sale this weekend," Epstein told ESPN when asked about the negotiations.

"I think it's gonna get done. I'm highly confident that we'll get there. I'd be surprised and disappointed if we don't and I think [Domenicali] would say the same thing."

After cancelling the 2020 edition because of the pandemic, COTA is expecting a bumper crowd for this year's event, which should exceed the previous race-day attendance record of 140,000. Epstein credits the enormously popular Netflix series "Formula 1: Drive to Survive" with the rise in interest.

"We were at a sellout point in 2019 but we added capacity since that point ... let's say the capacity we added is 35,000. I would suggest that a good portion of that came from the Netflix growth of interest because the series wasn't racing here in 2020, so we didn't have any races in our time zone, so how did fans become more engaged?

"It certainly wasn't because they were turning on their TV in the middle of the afternoon and joining. Instead, they were in eveyone's home every day and they were streaming the TV show."

COTA has pulled out all the stops to make its comeback event memorable. Epstein admitted last year's cancellation meant budget was not a concern as it may have been in previous years.

COTA has an array of events taking place through the weekend. Billy Joel is headlining on Saturday evening, but fans at the circuit will also be spoiled for entertainment options between track sessions.

NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal is performing at the event under his musical alias DJ Diesel, while COTA is also hosting top-ranked Major League Eaters at a World Spam Eating Contest. The circuit has also borrowed the famous El Pulpo Mechanico, a mechanical octopus that shoots fireballs out of its eight tentacles, from the Burning Man festival.

Epstein said it is important for the circuit to show Domenicali and F1 just how big the fan base is.

When asked about making an impression to Domenicali, Epstein said jokingly: "I intend to drive him around [the circuit] completely! I intend to drive him around a whole bunch and then have a conversation about 'look what we've accomplished.'"

He added: "I think he already appreciates it. I think the teams and the drivers have all expressed that they enjoy coming here -- which is really satisfying for us to hear -- and I think we'll get there."

This U.S. Grand Prix is the last scheduled before the Miami Grand Prix makes its debut appearance next May. Epstein was relieved that Miami was scheduled earlier in the year, giving COTA a five-month buffer before its own event, which is often scheduled in close proximity to the Mexican Grand Prix.

"We were a lot more concerned about the Miami race five years ago when we first heard than we'd possibly be today. Knowing it's spread to a different part of the calendar, I think it's complimentary, and as we've seen from ticket sales this year ... several years ago, I don't think we would have been in a position to have been as comfortable as we are today.

"And we could have sold a lot more tickets for this year's event than we did."

COTA has had ups and downs since its debut race in 2012, and Epstein said he believes surviving the difficult times and establishing the race as a highlight of the current F1 schedule has been key to securing its long-term future.

"New races are most vulnerable in years three to five, and that sort of decides your long-term future. I think we've made it over the hump and we now have some tradition and history.

"We've now had this race the second longest -- Watkins Glen did more races than we did, but now we've done the second most -- and it's been 40 years since Watkins Glen. So I feel like we're on solid ground."