There was something rather perfect about my last flight of the 2012 Formula 1 season. It departed from Gate “F1” at Hartsfield–Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. I had gone there because airline logic meant that it is always more cost-effective to return home by the way you came and so, having set out to go to Austin, by way of Atlanta, that was deemed the best way home.
Ray Charles was right about Georgia because I had the place on my mind “the whole day through” because there was a 12-hour lay-over between my flight from Brazil and my departure to Paris.
The idea of spending 12 hours in the airport did not appeal at all and I decided that I would escape and discover Atlanta. It is 32 years since I was last outside the airport there and I did not recognise a single thing, which was probably a good thing because I did not have good memories of the place. My only previous visit was on a Greyhound bus and at the time Atlanta was a grim place. I did not enjoy my stay. That was a lifetime ago and in 1996 Atlanta had an Olympic Games, so I figured that it would probably be a little better than before.
It was a beautiful crisp autumn morning, cold but sunny, and the trees were were in a million shades of red, gold and green. I headed downtown just after breakfast with no clear idea of what I was going to do. I got off the train at one point just because the announcement made it sound nice. It wasn’t, so I got on the next train… Exploring is not something we get to do much in F1 and I miss that. Twenty years ago, before the world of responsibility, parenthood and serious relationships came along, I use to spend a lot more time discovering places and people. It was great fun and it was nice to have a day to do it again. I wandered around the downtown for a bit and concluded that I could either go to The World of Coca-Cola or the Martin Luther King district. I’d have gone to Margaret Mitchell’s house if it had been closer to the centre of town. In the end, I chose The World of Coca Cola, in part because the company has just announced an F1 sponsorship; in part because I remember coming home from school and finding my mother weeping the day Martin Luther King was killed and I wanted a lightweight happy kind of day.
I made the right choice. The World of Coca-Cola was as lightweight as bubbles. It is a permanent exhibition designed to show folk with nothing better to do what the Coca-Cola company has been doing since John Pemberton, supposedly a morphine addict after being wounded in a battle during the Civil War, began to make drinks that used coca to take away the pain of life. Initially it was mixed with wine (my kind of drink), but when those boring temperance folk came along Pemberton decided to create a non-alcoholic alternatives which, quite by accident, took the world by storm.
I thought that Coca-Cola was all about making drinks, but I soon realised that in the mind of Coca-Colans, the firm has in fact existed solely to make people happy. I soon spotted that they had caught a very nasty case of Disneyitis, which means that everyone smiles a ridiculous smile and says “awesome” far too many times. Having visited “The Happiness Factory”, where the welcome was so sugary that I got instant indigestion, we moved on to the Vault of the Secret Formula, which was a very dull-looking safe in which there is a bit of paper that we are not allowed to see. There was a small and slow bottling line which was supposed to function but had been turned off during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and so was not working at all. I found the “Taste it!” section interesting and tried some of the more obscure drinks that Coca-Cola produces around the globe. There was a shop (inevitably) where they sell pretty much everything with Coca-Cola written on it. They even gave me a bottle of the stuff. The most exciting moment was when I discovered that this odd place has a million visitors a year.
I paid $16 to get in.
It struck me at that moment of revelation that Formula 1 could easily make a better self-promotional “attraction”, in order to bang the drum about the sport and make more money and attract new fans. OK, that would involve some investment, but it would be a way to engage with the fans, just as NASCAR has done with its Hall of Fame in Charlotte. To me this is very simple customer service and if done right it can make a profit as well.
F1 did try to build a theme park in Dubai a few years ago, but that involved no risk at all for the Formula One group. It picked a company and demanded a price. The F1X theme park never happened and fell apart leaving lots of people unpaid, including me.
If Coca-Cola can create a place that pumps profits by selling bubbles, bottles and bull to the general public, I have little doubt that F1 could do better.
After that I wandered down a street called Peachtree, which seem to be the name of half the streets in the city, and then stopped for a disgraceful lunch involving fried green tomatoes, a rib-eyed of cowboyesque proportions and some serious key lime pie.
It was delightful, even if the waitresses said “awesome” too many times.
And so, cheery in mind and body, I returned to the awesome airport and headed for the totally awesome Gate F1… bound for some peace and quiet.