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Mario Andretti Takes First Lap at COTA Opening Ceremony

Media and invited guests assemble on Circuit of The Americas' starting grid

An electrifying day at Circuit of The Americas on Sunday as invited guests and media endured the Texas heat, albeit mid-October, to christen the circuit with a "First Lap" opening ceremony.

Official Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli was on hand and did an excellent job of giving members of local media their first taste of a world class motorsports venue. Pirelli signage was evident on the track, branded baseball caps were given away to guests, four Pirelli Grid Girls shuffled around with F1 celebrities, and a large Pirelli branded hospitality tent, a staple at motorsports facilities, informally greeted guests when they stepped off the shuttle in the parking lot.

The Pirelli tent was our first stop. Inside, a Lotus F1 Team R30 sat on display for everyone to Facebook/Tweet/Instagram their photos. A small group of about 30 gathered inside the tent and were snapping photos non-stop. I stood behind four younger gentleman adorning black-embroidered Pirelli polos. As they watched two men battle it out on a racing simulator, I took a closer look and realized it was Jérôme d'Ambrosio taking on Patrick Dempsey.

Thankfully I contained my shreik of excitement and reached for my camera. As I tried to overtake the group (see what I did there?), one of them turned to me and said, "Okay, we know who McDreamy is, but who is the other one?" I informed them of Jérôme's position as Lotus F1 Team Third Driver and explained that he was the only current F1 driver in attendance that day. They asked why Dempsey was here, assumingly as an actor, and I shared that he is a professional racing driver and team owner, currently competing in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series and drove in the Petit Le Mans race in Atlanta over the weekend. They stood up straight and may have reached for their camera phones behind my back.

We wandered about the northern quarter of the Pit/Paddock and wove in and out of a few touring cars on display. We came across the Lotus F1 Team tent showcasing the black and gold cars du jour: a 2010 R30 and a 1978 Lotus 79. The Lotus F1 Team was welcoming and warm; most guests carefully walking around the parameter of the Lotus tent for the first half of the afternoon, afraid they were stepping into restricted, canopied space. However, as the day wore on and guests realized they could slip off their shoes and climb into the R30 (photo op!), the tent quickly became a favored hotspot. 

All of the cars lined up on the grid as drivers were interviewed for the ceremonial day. The majority of media surrounded America's last Formula 1 World Champion, Mario Andretti, as he stood at the nose of his 1978 John Player Special Lotus 79 Cosworth. Although he was scheduled to run the R30, the Lotus F1 Team fired up the Lotus 79 for Mario after the "Ribbon Cutting" ceremony, as the former had engine problems. In this video, Mario describes what it is like to get behind the wheel on a new track before we watch him take off from the starting grid.

Mario Andretti Completes The First Laps of COTA from The Austin Grand Prix on Vimeo.

After the flying laps, Mario piloted his Lotus back to the team's staging area. He had a few minutes to chat and I wanted to hear his opinion of the circuit from a driver's perspective.

Mario Andretti at the COTA First Lap Ceremony from The Austin Grand Prix on Vimeo.

It was such an honor to speak with Mario after this momentous occasion. In tomorrow's post, we'll share interviews with the opening ceremony's Host, Bob Varsha of SPEED, and Jérôme d'Ambrosio of Lotus F1 Team. F1 drivers in the New Delhi paddock this weekend will gain valuable insight from their colleague's perspective.

// Click HERE to view a gallery of our images from the First Lap Opening Ceremony.