SPEED Quotes: USGP Austin Promoter Hellmund on Wind Tunnel
Hellmund: ‘I think the most important thing for American fans … for a true, natural terrain road course, kind of like in the ‘60s, you’re going to be able to see a lot of the track.’
‘We don’t want to do this event for five, six, seven or even 10 years. The idea is for the Grand Prix to be here for the next 40 years.’
Tavo Hellmund, promoter for the recently-announced Austin USGP, was a guest Sunday night on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain on SPEED in his first major national interview regarding the 2012 date. The Austin grand prix will return Formula One to the United States for the first time since Indianapolis dropped the date after the 2007 race. Following is the transcript from the interview in which Hellmund describes the various intended uses for the yet-to-be-built Austin facility, the course layout, length and number of turns, as well as other aspects of the new venture.
Despain: Tell me a little about your own racing history. You won races in several series. How serious were you about making a career as a driver?
Hellmund: I was pretty serious. I did all the short track stuff here as a kid and then I went overseas really … tried to do the open wheel stuff and went over with the impression that there were two types of drivers – slow, rich ones and fast, poor ones – and I got a wake-up call when I got to Europe and realized there were a lot of really fast, rich ones too.
Despain: Tell me if I’m inferring too much … your personal relationship with Bernie Ecclestone appears to be a key in your getting a Formula One date for a track yet to be built. How far back do you and Bernie go?
Hellmund: As far as the relationship, it’s really since I can even remember. I know that my dad and he were good friends even before I was born. I’ve had a great relationship with Bernie – I should have used it when I was trying to be a race car driver. I never asked him for any help and maybe that’s helped me out now. And as far as the USGP here in Austin, we really started talking about it in the late ‘90s. He wanted me to kind of pack it in as a driver and get back to the family business of promoting. I wasn’t ready – I was still chasing the dream and the timing wasn’t right for what I thought needed to be done for a US Grand Prix, at least for me to be involved. So, it took a little bit longer but it’s something I think we’re doing the proper way.
Despain: Reaction to the announcement that Austin would host a Formula One race has been all over the ballpark. Tell me why you think Texas’ capital city is the right place for the latest iteration of the US Grand Prix?
Hellmund: Bernie and I talked about it a lot in the mid-2000s – 2005, ‘2006 and 2007 – and when you really start looking at it – there’s really a lot of locations in the US that have pros and cons. I think the one negative drawback to some on the East Coast – to New York or something like that – is they already have that region being a little bit served by Montreal. Other places, I think the big drawback is where do you find somewhere you can acquire the land necessary to do something more than a one-off? Because, at least from our perspective, just doing a one-off race or a street course doesn’t really make sense from a business model standpoint. For us, it was the course – F1 - we wanted it to be the crown jewel of our facility, but at the same time, to be a facility that is multi-purpose. It’s not just an entertainment facility but research and development also. So, from that standpoint, you really start narrowing down what makes sense long-term as far as infrastructure, location, geographic location. Austin really had just about everything to offer. I know it seemed a little outside the box thinking but once you really start peeling the onion back, it’s actually pretty obvious. Bernie realized that fairly early on. Great location to South America, Central America, great location from both coasts, from Canada, and the fact it’s the state capital – great economy, the tax factor. I know you’re familiar, Dave, with Austin – it’s on the top five of every kind of conceivable list right now. Kiplinger just named it for the next decade the “best city in America.” So, I think once you really start looking at all that, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Despain: What do you and your partner, Red McCombs, know that the previous promoters (of US Grand Prix) didn’t?
Hellmund: Well, I don’t know if it’s that we know anything. When I was dealing with Bernie and this started many, many years ago, he understood … I think he gets a bit of a bad rap … it’s not that he’s not an awfully tough negotiator – he’s legendary for that – he knew that he had to be a partner. He needs to want for F1 to succeed in the United States. There were certain things we had to get him to participate in and be reasonable on things because the idea is to get a lot of traction. We don’t want to do this event for five, six, seven or even 10 years. The idea is for the Grand Prix to be here for the next 40 years. Hence, the reason we’re going to the trouble of building a perma-facility – a grade-one facility. In that regard, we have an active and he’s eager. I think he feels like we’re going about things right. Mr. McCombs – obviously when he was involved in the NBA and NFL, he didn’t look at the NFL as not being a partner and we’re doing the same thing here with Formula One. We’re looking at Formula One as being a partner just like our investors and everything else the sponsors we’ll have. But it’s really, Dave, more than just about Formula One. For us, we’re going to have an education component that is a true education component tied in with the universities. We’re going to have alternative fuel research and development with manufacturers. We’re going to have motorcycle safety. There’s a lot of things here besides the things you see traditionally. I don’t think anyone could make a facility – a $200 million-plus facility work on one event. So, there’s a lot of things we’re going to roll out over the next 12 months. It’s more than just an F1 facility.
Despain: Here’s an email (from a fan) that says you’ve been promising a lot as far as the track is concerned … the last thing the American public needs is another cookie cutter “Tilkedrome.” Tilke, of course, was the guy retained to build the (Austin) track. Reassure that it’s not going to be Bahrain (course also designed by Hermann Tilke).
Hellmund: In fairness to (Hermann) Tilke, they did get a little bit of a bad rap because there are so many groups they have to please. They have to please the promoter, they have to please the FIA and they have to please FOM – maybe they take a little bit of a beating that’s unfairly thrown their way. But like I said two months ago to Bob Varsha (voice of F1 on SPEED), is that I think as close in the modern era as you can get, this will be a little bit of a throwback. The layout’s done. Everything’s done on it. We’re going to start sharing it with the public soon. I can tell you that there’s over 20 turns; the track is more than 3.2 miles long. There’s a lot of elevation – I say a lot – for America at least – over 130, 140 feet. Some really fast, fast corners. Some slow technical ones. I think the most important thing for American fans – since we’re used to not only NASCAR but a lot of IndyCar racing and most stick-and-ball sports in a stadium setting where you can see a lot of the track, I think they’ll be pleased that for a true, natural terrain road course, kind of like in the ‘60s, you’re going to be able to see a lot of the track.