By Jim Vertuno
AP Sports Writer
AUSTIN, Texas — With the promise of blue skies and some sizzling pop from Taylor Swift, the U.S. Grand Prix is back after all those worries about its demise.
There’s even a gripping title chase on the track, too.
The future of the race at the Circuit of the Americas was in question for months after the 2015 version was swamped by torrential rains that chased away crowds and nearly cost Formula One the entire weekend. The weather cleared just long enough for Lewis Hamilton to win in a wild finish and claim his third championship.
Within days, race promoters warned they had taken a devastating financial hit and there were fears that the lone F1 race in the U.S. would move elsewhere.
Yet here it is, and F1 is ready to ready to run in America for a fifth consecutive year, an important milestone for the series’ long-term survival in a nation where NASCAR remains king to motorsports fans.
“The race is on,” said former Formula One champion Mario Andretti. “This event is established and that’s very important, and very good.”
After last year’s struggles saw fans slogging through ankle-deep mud, race organizers knew they needed some punch year to bring them back. The U.S. Grand Prix has seen declining attendance every year since its debut and saw a chunk of fans leeched away by the 2015 debut of the Mexican Grand Prix, which runs the week after the Austin race.
Circuit of the Americas President Bobby Epstein, who admits the race was in “great jeopardy” in early 2016, reached for a pop star and got one of biggest when Swift signed on for a Saturday night show at the track after qualifying. A three-day general admission ticket gains entry to the racing, the Swift concert and a Sunday night post-race concert with Usher and The Roots.
It’s a move Epstein hopes will boost race weekend attendance, and be a window into Formula One for a new generation of fans who may not know much about racing. Last year, Elton John played the Sunday night after the race. If fans of Swift, Usher and The Roots decide to watch the race, everyone wins, Epstein said.
It’s a formula that will be closely watched by Formula One’s new ownership group, U.S.-based Liberty Media, which announced last month it would buy the series for $4.4 billion .
“What I hope to do with this is make an investment in the future of Formula One and bring out and audience that has never experienced an F1 event, which is more than a race,” Epstein said. “With Taylor Swift, it crosses into another, younger demographic. We think there will be 30,000-40,000 people who might not otherwise have come.”
A Swift spokeswoman declined comment.
Epstein also threw in a weather guarantee for race weekend. Reserve seat tickets get a 105 percent refund if more than two inches of rain fall on race weekend. Forecasts predict rain Thursday and clear skies once practice starts Friday and through the weekend.
On the track, Nico Rosberg has pushed Hamilton — his Mercedes teammate and rival — to the brink of desperation with a 33-point lead heading into the final four races. Hamilton won season titles in 2014 and 2015 but now faces a must-win scenario if he hopes to catch Rosberg over the final month of 2016.
Hamilton wiped out a big deficit earlier in the season but Rosberg has been on a roll with four victories in the last five races. Hamilton has been exceptional in Austin, winning three times, including the last two when he passed Rosberg late both times.
“I’ll be holding nothing back out there. First up, we’re back in the States, which is like a second home race for me these days. I love the country, the culture, the people and the track,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton has appeared to struggle with the prospect of losing the title this year. He was criticized for playing around with Snapchat on his phone during the official drivers’ news conference in Japan two weeks ago, then protested what he considered “disrespectful” media coverage by not speaking with reporters at the Mercedes briefing after qualifying.
Rosberg, who cracked under the pressure of chasing Hamilton the previous two seasons, has been cool all year. He dominated the early part of the season and roared out of a slump after Hamilton surged to catch him.
A year ago in Austin, Rosberg infamously threw a podium cap in Hamilton’s face after Hamilton clinched the season title with the victory on the rain-slicked course.
“Last year this race obviously didn’t work out so great for me, so I’ m looking forward to getting back out there and doing my best to get it right this time,” Rosberg said.