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Unmoored socially by Formula One weekend

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Wolfie Kutner and Steve Kutner

After four days of round-the-clock Formula One reporting, my social sensibility has come somewhat loose at the moorings.

No, it wasn’t the piercing, alien whine of the viper-quick F1 cars. Neither was it the endless ambling between downtown events Thursday through Saturday, then around the perimeter of the 3.5-mile track on Sunday.

It was the telescoping of time, space and personal interaction.

I think back to a revealing moment along South Congress Avenue when I received my only cold shoulder of the weekend. Involuntarily, I thought like a European, silently cursing the couple: “Germans!”

Tribal animosities don’t fade easily, I was ashamed to admit.

That brief bitterness was counterbalanced by the easy openness and kindness of visitors and locals during the remaining 96 hours.

There was the local family who invited me to join them in their Paddock Club suite at the Circuit of the Americas. Without their impromptu generosity, I would not have interviewed a half-dozen guests at the track’s prime party spot.

There were, too, the countless staff employees at hotels, clubs and parties who directed me to the social action — then gave me access to it — during the Formula One weekend. They also warned me away from false temptations.

Local financial planner Austin Spencer and his parents from Missouri offered me a ride back to the newsroom at the end of a long reporting day, when my clothes were covered with dust from the circuit’s footpath. Stephanie Archer and her social group invited me to share their table at an oversubscribed Frank restaurant.

Tacodeli owner Roberto Espinosa and his wife, Debra, along with their friends, made sure I was entertained at Bar Mirabeau even though I had missed the guest of honor, legendary driver Mario Andretti. South Austin neighbor Rusty Irons and her daughter Madison Ashpitz kept me company in a hotel lobby while we waited for a planned Formula One event to take off. If it ever did.

It was that kind of weekend.

Among my first encounters at Fan Fest were a father and son, Steve Kutner and Wolfie Kutner, from London. They had just begun to explore Austin and betrayed that awe and anxiety of humans when presented with an unfamiliar environment. I broke the ice by honestly mistaking them for brothers.

I caught glimpses of many fond fathers and sons on holiday this weekend. While most were Americans, almost as many seemed to be from Mexico. I met folks from Japan, Brazil, France, Canada, India, Italy and Spain. Their social rhythms differed from ours, but not radically so.

Perhaps because Europeans and Latin Americans go out so late and so many Austinites stayed away from downtown in fear of traffic quicksand, some prime entertainment districts seemed underpopulated until well into the night. Despite the presence of visitors in team outfits, Rainey Street and West Sixth Street were quiet. Even perennial tourist magnet South Congress Avenue didn’t bring out the expected throngs, despite blissful weather.

“It’s actually slower than usual,” said SoCo leader Rob Lippincott.

Special Formula One parties at the Four Seasons Hotel, W Austin, ACL Live, Parkside, Ballet Austin and La Zona Rosa ramped up late. At the same time, hotel bars buzzed like they do during South by Southwest and other social high points.

I dodged visitors on East Sixth Street. They seemed to learn the invisible geographic link between that older party zone and the Warehouse District, which, because of Fan Fest, sizzled later at night. I’d bet, however, that these new tourists have not discovered emergent Far East Sixth Street yet.

Ran into enthusiastic downtowners Linda Ball and Forrest Preece, who were steering their way through Fan Fest to taste a truffle-themed dinner dreamed up by Congress chef David Bull. They seemed to have discovered a secret other locals missed: Cull the best of the special weekend offerings for yourself as a treat.

To tell the truth, Fan Fest felt a little underpowered. It was a few steps up from the usual street festival but nothing remotely on the scale of SXSW or the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Part of the problem was diverting some social attention to the Convention Center and Erwin Center through big concerts, not all of them well attended.

Well, dreamers had to try everything the first year. Some of those ideas won’t survive. Others will grow and mature.

The social snares that seemed to work best put a classy spin on Austin’s authentic culture.