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Watching the Formula 1 party get Texas-sized in Austin


Watching the Formula 1 party get Texas-sized in Austin

The city of Austin approached last year’s inaugural Grand Prix at the Circuit Of The Americas like a royal wedding coming to town, with lots of gaw-shucks boosterism and gaze-at-the-helicopters wonder. This year’s F1 event, on the other hand, was just another mega-event to a town now used to absorbing foreign invaders like a well-fortified immune system.

The crowds were large, the sausages $10 per, the traffic nearly unbearable. Sebastian Vettel dominated the race weekend, winning an unprecedented eighth grand prix in a row with such cool record-setting blandness that it took all the fun out. Everyone looked forward to 2014, when F1 will force teams to run with a V-6 turbocharged engine and will cut the amount of fuel they’re allowed to use per race by a third. Formula One, from now on, I was told at a private briefing with Shell executives (who will be providing that fuel for Ferrari), will now be about “fuel efficiency.” That’s like saying the NFL is about “mental health care,” but it should be interesting to watch for fans of a sport whose results are more or less decided by tire-changing speed (another record set at Austin, when Red Bull did a 1.9-second pit stop)

The other story of Formula One’s invasion of Texas, though, is one of class stratification. I’ve been around Austin long enough to remember when a big Saturday night meant a burger at Casino El Camino and a Riverboat Gamblers show at Emo’s. You could get out alive for 20 bucks or fewer. But for F1 this year, the most exclusive party involved a $300 minimum buy-in. I slinked in to have a look for free, based on my charm and connections.

My Yacht Club pops up when F1 does around the world. It has a legitimate connection to the sport’s history; the guy who started it is the son of the founder of Car, the ultimate British magazine for motoring enthusiasts. At every race for a few nights, it transforms a random urban location into a high-end nightlife spot worthy of a scene from Entourage, complete with bottle service, dancing girls, and enough hair gel to lubricate a Renault engine for a whole season.

— My Yacht Group (@MyYachtGroup) November 17, 2013

The “club,” such as it was, comprised three areas. First, an entry hall, where several women behind a desk battled off a small army of people saying, “my friend said they were leaving a pass for me.” Then, once you cleared that gantlet, you got access to a bright room with a lot of stand-up tables illuminated by lamps made out of Patron tequila bottles. The room washed away in tequila, being poured in all manner of configurations — in shots, in margaritas, and also available via spouts in a wall installation. One of them was the “Spicy Austin Sipper,” featuring Patron Silver, apple cider, maple syrup, and cinnamon, obviously created by a 10-year-old mixologist from Canada. Black-and-white photos of F1’s presumed golden era — mostly the '60s and '70s, when men were men and died horribly in their cars —were projected onto the upper walls of this white room, serving in stark contrast to what was going on them below, in color, where hot women wearing black cowboy hats garishly posed for photos against a Patron backdrop while an enormous floor fan blew up their hair and their skirts.

“Why is everyone so tall and beautiful and with all these older men?” I wrote in my notebook. “It’s Silicone Valley in here.”

After taking in this marvelous scene, I walked through some black curtains, where the action was really going down, dark and loud with premium alcohol by the pour. Many women wearing two-piece skintight gold lamé bodysuits were grinding on platforms, their eyes nearly rolled up into their heads, while a Girl Talk manqué DJ played songs that were mostly about partying. You can’t go to a Formula 1 party without hearing "Titanium" at full volume. The music pretty much always equals what you’d get at a high-end bat mitzvah.

Three hundred bucks seems like the magic number for thinning the herd. But of the people who did pay, or had someone else pay, a good 60 percent were impeccably made-up women with legs up to their necks, and then a few guys who looked like football players, and a handful of middle-aged businessmen from Dallas who had a private table and were laughing and drinking a lot while wearing fake mustaches and berets.

From $300, the prices go up fast; $4,500 gets you a “V-8 Table,” with full bottle service but uncomfortable location in the middle of the dance floor. For 25 large, you and your friends get to travel beyond the velvet rope, which isn’t very far since the party area is about the size of an average conference room. But you do get to sit next to the DJ and enjoy the private, if disappointingly chaste, dancing services of four “Golden Girls.” For $50,000, which accommodates up to 20 guests, My Yacht Club gives you ten Golden Girls, six commemorative bottles of gold-plated champagne, and two private security guards. I stood among the plebes and watched whoever had paid that massive ticket. They were getting really drunk, but the Golden Girls still wouldn’t look them in the eye, grinding laconically with glow-sticks. We may not have been in Miami Beach, but this was still a long way from Willie and Waylon hanging out in Luckenbach.

Meanwhile, among the plebes, an athletic young woman, dressed in lamé and bodystocking, did tricks on the silks and trapeze, pouring shots of Patron as she went. Everyone danced and drank. Walking in and out of the artificially-generated mist, I saw at least three women who looked exactly like Cameron Diaz. Then, like a dream, the actual Cameron Diaz appeared, looking very A-list but much, to my surprise, not going to one of the bottle tables. She ordered at the bar like the rest of us and then sat on a sofa cushion and stared at her phone for an hour.

I guess I was doing the same thing, because a beautiful young woman came up to me and said, “Don’t look at your phone! Formula 1 is about having fun!”

“I am having fun,” I said.

“You are adorable,” she said. “Can we have a dance later?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

The magic of My Yacht Club had transmuted me. Just by getting through the door, obviously mistaken for someone important, I, a middle-aged car-writer and house dad, had been elevated to the status of “adorable.” But that’s what F1 is all about: Access to elite experiences. The top teams get all the spoils, and the top fans get to dance with the Golden Girls. As Ice-T once sang, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.

I went to the men’s room, which had been branded with the My Yacht Club™ logo, but they weren’t fooling anyone. Then I headed back into the white room, and toward the exit. There stood my never-to-be dance partner at a table, drinking a weird tequila cocktail.

She was looking at her phone.