Formula One racing might be known throughout Europe and the rest of the world as the height of motor racing, but down in Texas, the sport isn’t exactly suffused throughout the public consciousness. That presents a challenge for a company like Infiniti, which sponsors the Infiniti Red Bull racing team at the U.S. Grand Prix, held in November at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. This is a major international sporting event with the eyes of the world upon it–but to the locals, it’s just a bunch of big go-karts that go really fast. The event brings a lot of visitors to an already-busy city, for an event where general admission passes start at $300. So how do you make the natives excited to see F1 and Infiniti come to town in November?
Formula One cars may look like big go-karts that go really fast, but the “go really fast” part is still pretty thrilling to people, whether they’re in Texas or Monaco. Which means that the key to Infiniti’s activation in downtown Austin is pretty simple: Give the people who you’re trying to reach–in this case, the people in Texas who haven’t made up their minds about F1 yet–a chance to see what these drivers and these cars are capable of on their own terms. “The objective for us this year is how do we take Formula One and really bring it to the mass public?” says Allyson Witherspoon, head of marketing communications and media for Infiniti Americas. “Because not everybody gets to go to Formula One events. They’re great, and it’s awesome, so how do we take that and bring it to the people?”
The idea that Witherspoon and her team settled on was an afternoon activation on October 29 in which a stretch of Congress Avenue–the main north/south thoroughfare through downtown Austin–became an impromptu racing demo. With four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel, Infiniti had the driver alternate between his Formula One car and the Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge concept car–a four-dour passenger sedan–as he darted up and down five blocks of Austin at 80+ mph, spinning donuts and making breakneck turns at high speed while fans watched him work from the sidewalk.
“Austin’s such a great city, and we worked with them really, really closely,” Witherspoon says. “My team came to me and they were like, ‘Here’s what we want to do: we want to shut down the streets of Austin and race the cars in the middle of the city.’ I was like, ‘That is awesome. Go make that happen.’ So we did, working really closely with the city to figure out: How can people have the F1 experience without having to go to the race?”
Infiniti has other events planned for F1–at the track itself, which is on the outskirts of the city, they’ll have a hospitality area, and during the downtown Fan Fest event, which is free and open to the public, the company has an activation that involves putting the Formula One car on display in a building they rented out. “If you bring that car anywhere, it’ll get a ton of attention,” she says. “For people who want to take a break with Fan Fest, they can get up close and personal with the cars.”
F1 has made big strides in introducing itself to Texas, and the rest of the U.S. audience, and it’s going to continue–television ratings for the race have risen steadily since the event returned to American shores in 2012, after a five-year absence, and the possibility still exists for the long-proposed East Coast race in New Jersey to finally come to fruition. But with Sebastian Vettel showing off what he’s capable of behind the wheel to a rapt crowd on a weekday afternoon in Austin, it’s clear that Infiniti is doing what it can to get that message out. “It’s not enough to just have people experience that at the race,” Witherspoon says. “We want everybody to understand that Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsports, and how can you get that across without actually physically demonstrating that in front of them?”