Is Tavo Hellmund the next Chris Pook?
A British expatriate, Pook brought the emerging glitz and glamour of Formula One into a major metropolitan area in the U.S. for the first time with the creation of the Long Beach Grand Prix. Who would have thought the streets of Long Beach would quickly rival the revered Watkins Glen as the best showcase for Grand Prix greats? Or that racing would convert the gritty seaport town’s domain of lowlifes and longshoremen into the home of glistening seaside hotels, condos and shops?
Hellmund, the son of a Mexican father and an American mother, intends to turn an unlikely tract of scrubby land just outside of Austin into a permanent home for F1 in the U.S. At a time when F1 is the most expensive sport in the world, if not the most glamorous, Hellmund has figured out how to bring in $200 million in private investment and $25 million in state money to build what promises to be a spectacular circuit and to host F1 near a toll road running through the most desolate stretches just outside Austin’s city limits. The nearest town is a tiny burg known as Elroy.
While en route to bringing prosperity to the poorest corner of Travis County, Hellmund intends to pick up where the most revered track in America, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, left off.
The story stretches all the way back to mid-1970’s to the beaches of Acapulco, where Bernie Ecclestone first began discussions about reviving the Mexican Grand Prix with Hellmund’s father, Gustavo. Ecclestone was in his early days as the president of the Formula One Constructors Association. The senior Hellmund, who had a fondness for black silk shirts and was a wildcatter when it came to business, eventually brokered the rights to promote the Mexican Grand Prix when it returned in 1986 to the Abed brothers. But it was the beginning of a long-running association between Ecclestone and the Hellmund family – including Tavo, who as a teenager worked as a gopher at Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
“I was fortunate enough that at a very early age, I had a big interest in F1 not just from a driving standpoint but on the business side,” said Hellmund, dressed in a well cut suit and tie while seated in the offices of Formula 1 United States not far from the capitol building in Austin. “I was around Bernie a lot as a kid. I was really interested in how the branding and the mystique and how he’s created this juggernaut. Is he an incredibly tough businessman? Yes. Is it incredibly one-sided? Yes. Having said that, I’ve been talking to him for so many years, almost two decades, about what is needed for Formula 1 to be successful in America, for it to start to get traction.”
Tavo Hellmund's relationship with Texas is an old one. Here, he drives a Formula 3 car in Belgium in 1995. (Photo courtesy of Formula One United States)
Hellmund’s initial ambition, like most promoters, was to arrive as a driver. In his case, that meant F1. He tried to get the job done on his own, without financial assistance from his father.
“When I went to Europe, I was doing miracles with nothing,” said Hellmund. “I had $37,000 to run seven Formula 3 races. I went over to Europe with the very naive impression that there were two types of drivers. Poor fast ones and rich slow ones. When I got over there for the first time I realized how wrong I was. There were some really fast rich ones. I think the Vauxhall and Formula Ford races that I ran showed that I could run up front, because the budgets were not as big as Formula 3.”
While living in Cambridge, Hellmund would occasionally meet Ecclestone for dinner. The domo of F1 encouraged Hellmund to take up promotion like his father. “He would constantly tease me about I was going to get killed, sponsors are tough,” said Hellmund. “At the time, there weren’t very many Americans who were trying to go racing in Europe. But I think if you talked to any of my crew chiefs, they would say I was a competent driver.”
During his driving days, Tavo Hellmund drove a Modified sponsored by Red McCombs. (Photo courtesy of Formula One United States)
Following a rather impressive Winston West series victory at Laguna Seca in 2001 with a pick-up pit crew in a car bought from Tim Beverly and powered by B&R Motors, Hellmund began to realize he could get more traction as a promoter putting together deals than as a race car driver struggling to advance himself.
With his rapid-fire delivery, Hellmund is the living example of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm. As with driving, he went after promoting full-bore. “There are a lot of track owners,” he said, “but not many promoters.”
Hellmund, 44, can never be accused of thinking small, although he initially staked his company Full Throttle Productions on promoting events for stock cars, sprints and midgets in Kyle, Texas, just south of Austin at the 3/8ths-mile Thunderhill Raceway. Having spent most of his schoolboy days in Austin after his American mother Bobbie separated from Gustavo, it was only natural for Hellmund to go to work on creating a permanent home for F1 near the Texas state capitol.
“Anyone who says Austin’s not the right location for Formula 1 is an idiot,” said Hellmund. “When you look, if you were to take a globe and forget which sport, F1, soccer, anything. Wipe the slate clean, erase the names of the cities, where would be a great purely geographic location to service this hemisphere? Directly in the middle of both coasts, directly in the middle of Canada or Central America? If you did it purely like a pirate, the best place would be within 100 miles of Austin.”
The lynchpin to the deal has been tapping into $25 million annually from the Special Events Trust Fund operated by the state of Texas since 2004 to stimulate economic activity and help the state get a leg up when competing for events like the Super Bowl or the Major League All-Star Game. In February, Super Bowl XLV will be hosted at the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas with help from the Trust Fund, which is theoretically replenished by a bump in the amount of sales taxes collected from out-of-town visitors for big events. The U.S. Grand Prix will be the first time Austin has been tabbed to benefit from the fund – but it wasn’t until Hellmund successfully lobbied to have the law changed in 2009 that it could include a wider variety of events such as a motor race.
With partners Bobby Epstein of Dallas, a billionaire whom he met through a mutual friend, and Red McCombs of San Antonio, a billionaire and former sponsor of one of Hellmund’s race cars, America’s newest F1 promoter has the private funds to build the first permanent F1 circuit in the U.S. since Watkins Glen was established in 1956, five years in advance of its first Grand Prix. Asked why he gets along so well with so many wealthy and powerful people, Hellmund is typically blunt. “There is no gray area with me. I am incredibly direct. If I don’t know people personally I know enough about people to get the sense of who they are. And I’m not out to mess someone up.”
Led by track engineers Tilke and the architects at HKS (builders of Cowboy Stadium), Hellmund has assembled a deep team to make the F1 event in 2012 a reality. The line-up includes a public affairs company and law firm to guide the political process when it comes to environmental impact, permits and getting water to what is now a rather desolate site. (Hellmund constantly reminds folks that the city of Austin will be in full view in the distance from the main grandstand along the front straight.)
This past week, a variance granted on the flood plain analysis will allow Tilke to begin grading before the end of December and the actual track design has been submitted to the FIA for its approval – two months in advance of the deadline. The wrangling over a permit from Travis County to start constructing buildings once the grading is complete continues over the issue of who will pay to widen the two-lane highway leading from the nearby toll road to the track. And, the formal acceptance of the $25 million in Trust Fund money from the state by the city of Austin has not yet been executed. But in the case of the county and the city, both want to see the world-beating a path to their doorsteps with money in hand. The details will get sorted.
Can the track be built in the next 14 months – in time for an anticipated race date in June of 2012 after the Canadian Grand Prix, and in time for an FIA inspection 90 days prior to the race?
“It’s not a matter of do we have enough time to finish the build,” said Hellmund. “It’s a question of do we have enough time to finish the build and stay within the budget? You can build anything in four months by throwing 20,000 people on it.”
Sue Edwards (Left) - Assistant City Manager of Austin, Marc Ott - City Manager of Austin, (Center) and Tavo Hellmund. (Right) (Photo courtesy of Formula One United States)
Will the U.S. Grand Prix sell enough tickets to make it economically viable? With the Trust Fund money headed to Ecclestone and Formula One Management, the three local promoters in Texas formally known as Accelerator Holdings will live or die on ticket sales in the short-term. In the long-term, they plan to develop the track area for business and likely have options on more than the 900 acres they currently own.
“I think there will be a lot of people who are disappointed they can’t go,” said Hellmund, typically blunt and typically confident.
Quote of the Week: “I’ve never seen a guy so professional, so committed to a project. That I can say for sure.” – Christian Epp, the director of projects in North, South and Central America for track designer Tilke GmbH, who has been working with Tavo Hellmund since early 2008 on the effort to build a permanent home for Formula 1 in the U.S.
See ya! …At the races.
Article by Jonathan Ingram, RacinToday.com