Awesome Images: A Photographers Guide to the Circuit of the Americas
By Andy Nietupski
Copyright Through the Lens Sports Media
The Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is a world-renown racing circuit situated amidst “Keep it Weird,” Austin, Texas. Opened in 2012, the 3.426-mile circuit is one of the few in the world purpose-built for Formula One.
The facility is massive (Figure 1). Measured at nearly 900 acres, including the circuit, parking and undeveloped areas, the course can be extremely challenging for the first-time visitor to find the ideal picture-taking location.
This guide is indented to help. But please bear in mind, it is intended only for professionals with official race credentials who have access to the restricted sections of the track.
Getting around COTA is not easy. Be prepare to do a lot of walking. Avoid wearing the same pair of shoes two days in around to minimize sore feet.
Your new home for the next three days with be the Media Center. The Media Center is located in the paddock near the entry to the pit lane and inside of Turn 20. The Media Center is well equipped with assigned workspaces, cafeteria, secured lockers, reliable WiFi and plenty of coffee.
Register at the reception desk to be assigned a workspace, a locker and a photographer’s race vest. Participation in a pre-race safety meeting may be required before receiving a photographer’s vest.
From the Media Center
Most of your forays will start from the Media Center. Turn right after exiting the Media Center for the entry to the Pit Lane. Walk straight out of the Media Center for access to the main Paddock. And turn left from the Media Center, passing through admission turnstiles, to reach the Photographers Shuttle pickup area.
Photographers traverse the facility using the Photographers Shuttle. Photographers are allowed access to the shuttle only if they are wearing a photographer’s vest. The Shuttle begins and ends at the Media Center, following two routes.
Figure 1 - Circuit of the Americas layout and preferred shooting locations.
The Outer Loop, Drivers Right, takes photographer to the secured access area between the track and the fan viewing areas. These are called the outside track positions. The Inner Loop, Drivers Left, takes photographers to the secured access between the track and the interior areas of the circuit. These are called the inside track position.
The Shuttle does a reasonably good job of getting photographers out on the course, moving them around, and returning them to the Media Center. There are times when there is never a shuttle when you need it and multiple shuttles when no one needs it. Occasionally you find yourself walking back to the Media Center at the end of a session.
Moving from the Inner Loop Shuttle to the Outer Loop Shuttle requires you to return to the Media Center and change shuttles. Usually this means you are committed to a loop for the session unless you walk using the Tunnels or Pedestrian Bridges.
Two tunnels pass beneath the track, allowing movement from the inner and outer loops. Tunnel 1 is the main point of access to the paddock and the Media Center. It is located between the Starting Line and Turn 1. Tunnel 2 is located beneath the straight-away between Turns 11 and 12.
Figure 2 - Carlos Sainz is driven off the track in Turn 1 of the first lap of the 2019 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on November 3, 2019 (ISO 500, 420mm, f/6.3, 1/3200th sec). (Andy Nietupski)
There are two Pedestrian Bridges that are open to the public. The first connects from the Grand Plaza, going over Turn 16, into the General Admission area of the interior track. The second connects from the General Admission area of the interior track to the General Admission Area of the exterior track. Photographers can walk from the General Admission area of the interior track to restricted areas of the inner loop if the appropriate gates are open.
Access from the General Admission area of the exterior track to the restricted area of the outer track is not possible.
The section makes recommendation on the best locations from which to take photographs. Recommendations take into account the action, background, and interesting track features.
Access to the inner loop between turns 5 and 12 is not permitted for auto races because there is no chain-link safety fencing. Access to this area is permitted for motorcycle races.
The inner and outer loops are restricted access. Only personnel wearing a race vest are allowed entry.
Figure 3 - Lewis Hamilton negotiates turns 3, 4 and 5 in the 2019 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on November 3, 2019. (ISO 500, 420mm, f/9.0, 1.3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Photographer windows are cut out of the safety fencing to provide unobstructed fields of view. From race to race, some of the windows are blocked by advertisement banners. The banners that most often block the windows are located exiting Turn 1 and entering Turn 19.
Photographer windows are not always needed. Images with telephoto lenses can be easily taken by pressing the lens against the fencing. A black paint stick can be used to obscure the chain link.
Turn 1 is one of two iconic shooting locations at COTA. Cars accelerate up a steep hill from the starting line and immediately enter into a hairpin turn.
The turn offers a wide variety of shooting locations from the ground level on the inside or outside track positions, or from a raised platform on the outside track position (Figure 2). The turn is most interesting during the opening of race when field is congested and the possibility of collisions is the greatest.
Figure 4 - Hafizh Syahrin leans into the corner at Turn 9 in the 2019 MotoGP on April 12, 2019. (ISO 1000, 560mm, f/5.6, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Two set of scaffolding are in place, one for track videographer and the second for all others. The scaffolding begins to get crowded 30 minutes before the race, and quickly thins-out after the second or third lap. Scaffolding shots are good for the scrum of cars coming up the hill and turning the corner.
Tighter shots with the crowd in stadium seating are possible from the outside track position as the cars are exiting the turn. This is one of my preferred locations at the start of the race as everyone is taking the same shot from atop the scaffolding.
Very unique shots are possible from the inside track position coming out of Turn 1. This perspective provides an unobstructed view of sky as the background.
One of the downsides of shooting from the scaffolding is the time required to move to the next locations. Most all the photographer exit at the same time and there is usually a shortage of Shuttles to transport photographers down track.
Turn 2 can yield few good shots.
I have had some success photographing cars coming down the hill from Turn 1 into Turn 2 from the inside track position. I have also played with panning shots, but the background is limited to the grass covered embankment.
This is a location to play with during the Free Practices.
Figure 5 - Valtteri Bottas tops the hill between Turns 9 and 10 in the 2019 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on November 1, 2019. (ISO 640, 420mm, f/7.1, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Turns 3, 4 and 5 (The Esses)
The Esses can make for a very interesting composition. This portion of the track has large sections of red, white and blue painted tarmac that makes for interesting foreground and background. Cars can be photograph entering the curves from behind and passing through the curves from the front (Figure 3).
Wide angle shots can capture multiple cars cuing through the turns. Tighter shots can isolate individual cars.
Most shots are taken from the outer loop; however, interesting images can be captured from the inner loop.
Turns 6 and 7
This section of track offers nothing that you can’t get elsewhere on the track.
Figure 6 - Sebastian Vettel enters Turn 10 in the 2019 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on November 2, 2019. (ISO 640, 420m, f/9.0, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Turns 8 and 9
This turn is one of my favorites on the circuit. Cars negotiate a series of tight curves as the track elevation rise. An advertising banner along the safety fence usually provide a very clean background.
Wide angle shots can capture multiple cars snaking up the hill. Tighter shots can isolate individual cars (Figure 4). Very tight shots of drivers can be taken at the top of the hill. This works very well for open air cars.
Between Turns 9 and 10
The topping of the hill between Turns 9 and 10 is another of my go-to locations. The grandstands located at Turn 15 can be seen in the distance which produces one of the coolest backgrounds on the circuit, especially when the stands are filled with race fans.
Wide-angle shots capture multiple cars in the foreground and the grandstands in the background (Figure 5). Tighter shots can isolate individual cars. Very tight shots can zoom-in on the drivers.
Figure 7 - Sebastian Vettel enters Turn 12 in the 2017 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on October 21, 2017. (ISO 500, 140mm, f/7.2, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Turn 10 is the second iconic shooting location at COTA. Cars top the Turn 9 hill and come down the hill with the Observation Tower in the background (Figure 6).
Shots are best taken in the morning or on an overcast afternoon. The afternoon sun can produce some significant glare that is difficult to correct in post-production.
I consider Turn 11 to located in no-mans-land and not worth the effort.
It is located in the far reach of the circuit and is removed from the most active portion of the facility. The isolated location makes for a very long walk to the Media Center when are get abandoned by the Photographers Shuttle, which can happen at the end of a session.
Figure 8 - Takaaki Nakagami enters Turn 15 in the 2019 MotoGP on April 12, 2019 (ISO 1000, 490mm, f/5.6, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
The effect of the hairpin corner can be obtained from Turns 12 or 15.
Turn 12 is the first corner after the straight-away. Cars will cluster togethers as they slow to take the turn.
I prefer shooting from the outside track position into the curve. Wide angle shots can capture the cars and the crowd in the grandstand (Figure 7). Zoom shots can isolate on one or more cars as the take the turn. The photographers window is far enough from the corner that you cannot isolated on the driver.
Shooting from the inner loop has great potential that often doesn’t materialize. The outside of turn has a massive red, white and blue painted tarmac that leads to a run off area for cars unable to break after the straight-away. Cars usually take the corner tight which doesn’t allow you capture the painted of the background.
You have to be quick when shooting from inside this corner. The cars take the corner very quickly and with little notice, sometime too fast for auto focus. Consider pre-focusing when taking this shot.
Figure 9 - Lewis Hamilton accelerates from Turn 18 into Turn 19 in the 2017 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on October 22, 2017. (ISO 500, 420m, f/7.1, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Turns 13 and 14
These corners can be shot from either the inside or outside track positions. Shots from the outside position are average. Shots from the inside position are more interesting when cars are captured entering the turns while clipping the borders of the painted track.
Turn 15 offers some interesting perspectives and is best shot from the outside track position.
The turn is usually shot capturing the front of the cars in the turn and exiting the turn (Figure 8). Multiple cars can be capture negotiating the turn or you can isolate on one car. Very tight images can be capture of the drive and car.
The turn can also be shot with a wide angle from behind as the cars are in the turn and is exiting. This captures the car and the ground in the grandstand.
Figure 10 - Thomas Luthi passes through Turn 19 in route to his 2019 MotoGP victory on April 14, 2019. (ISO 200, 120mm, f/20, 1/80th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
I have a lot of fun shooting Turn 16 from the inner loop. It’s a location not frequented by many photographers.
The corner has a broad painted tarmac. Cars entering the turn catch a large section of the paint in the background.
An advertisement banner usually hangs on the safety fence that also cleans up the background.
Turn 17 offers limited potential. When shot from the inner loop the corner is located at the foot of the Observation Tower street vehicles and trailers parked at the base.
Turn 18 is best shot from the inside track position. It offers average images of cars taking the corner. I have had good luck with panning shots that captures people sitting on the embankment beneath the Observation Tower.
Figure 11 - A member of the Aston Martin Racing team exits Turn 19 during the 2019 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on November 3, 2019 (ISO 640, 420mm, f/8.0, 1/3200th) (Andy Nietupski)
Turn 19 is another of my favorites because it offers many different perspectives.
From the outside track position cars can be captured before entering the corner with a massive red, white and blue painted tarmac in the background. The shots can show clusters of cars entering the corner, or single cars can be isolated (Figure 9).
Unfortunately, the photo window in this section of fencing is sometimes covered with an advertising banner that obstructs the shot.
Images of the front the cars can be captured as exit the turn from a window just beyond the corner. This angle and proximity is suitable for a tight zooms on the driver (Figure 10).
Also, from the outside track, cars can be photographed exiting the turn from the rear as they jump the multi-color curb and head toward Turn 20 (Figure 11).
Turn 19 also produces some very nice shots from the inside loop. I have taken great panned-images that blurs the people sitting on the embankment as the car takes the corner.
Turn 20 is the final of the circuit and also provides many different perspectives.
Figure 12 - Alexander Albon exits Turn 20 in the 2019 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on November 3, 2019 (ISO 500, 200mm, f/5.0, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
Cars can be shown lining up to take corner at a distance. Cars can be shown exiting the corner, capturing both multiple cars and tight shots on the drive (Figure 12). Images can also be taken entering the final straight-away with the grandstands to the side (Figure 13).
No trip to COTA would be complete without a visit to the pit lane. You have multiple chances. The beginning of the Pit Lane is located adjacent to the east exit of the Media Center.
The Pit Lane is easily accessible to accredited members of the photographer before any of the sessions. Crews can be seen working on cars and preparing for the runs. Only take pictures of cars in the garage with permission of the crews. Team are very protective of the technology.
During the Race
Some of the most exciting action at COTA occurs in the Pit Lane during the race. Unfortunately, access to the pit lane is not allowed without special permission and with special safety equipment due to the hazards.
Some races allow access after the final fuel stops. This give the opportunity to capture action like tire changes. Caution: Keep your heads on a 360-degree swivel so not to get in the way of the fast action.
Figure 13 - Lewis Hamilton turns towards the finish line near the end of the 2017 Formula 1 United States Grand Prix on October 22, 2017. (ISO 500, 70mm, f/7.1m 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
The Pit Lane immediately after the race’s finish gives you the images that your editors will love.
The top place finishers will pull into the first pit position and can be photographed exiting their cars and celebrating with the support teams (Figure 14). Post-race television interviews are conducted.
The drivers then move to the balcony immediately above to receive trophies and a confetti shower.
Line up outside the gate between the Media Center and the Pit Lane at least 30 minutes before race’s end to be a part of the scramble for the preferred locations.
COTA is filled with photo-opportunities beyond the Circuit and the Pit Lane.
Figure 14 - Lewis Hamilton exits his car and bows to the crowd after winning is sixth Formula 1 World Championship at the United States Grand Prix on November 3, 2019. (ISO 500, 125mm, f/5.0, 1/3200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
The Grand Plaza is the main entrance to COTA. It includes a large reflection pond, the Austin Bold FC Club stadium, the Germania Insurance Amphitheater, the Observation Tower, music stages, and numerous food and drink concessions.
A big part of the Grand Plaza is the entertainment and attractions. Be on the lookout!
You must try the Observation Tower at least once. It looms over COTA and can be seen from miles around. Its construction is integrated to the Germania Insurance Amphitheater and is an impressive site.
Shots of the racing are limited but the views are to die for. Your best chance at a race related shot is as a car passes through a painted part of the tarmac of Turn 18.
Figure 15 – Driver Patrick Dempsey, Dr. McDreamy from Grey's Anatomy, takes a selfie with fans at the 2015 Lone Star Le Mans on September 19, 2015. (ISO 1000, 70mm, f/20, 1/200th sec) (Andy Nietupski)
You can count on the traditional pre-race Grid Walk at COTA where fans walk among the cars immediately prior to the race’s start (Figure 15). You count on COTA to set a high standard for Grid Walk. You can view marching bands, acrobatic acts and massive flag displays to precede the start.
General Admission Areas
I would wager that the most interesting fan images will be capture in the General Admission viewing areas. General Admission is essential any portion of the Grand Plaza and the areas between Turns 1 and 11 where spectators sit on the grass. People from all over the global in attire that is worthy of a good picture can be found (Figure 16).
Access to these areas can be made by taking the either the outer loop shutter, or the inner loop shuttle and then crossing over the Circuit by using either of the Pedestrian Bridges.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski has photographed greater than 40 race events at COTA since 2014, including multiple F1, MotoGP and IndyCar races. He is the founder of Through the Lens Sport Media in 2015 while on a creativity sabbatical from enterprise software sales. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes 1,000’s pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes greater than 1000 social media posts.
Copyright Andy Nietupski and Through the Lens Sports Media / 2020
Figure 16 – Fans wrap themselves in the Australian flag on a chilly morning on November 1, 2014 at the 2014 Formula 1 Unites States Grand Prix. (ISO 500, 170mm, f/7.1, 1/1000th sec) (Andy Nietupski)