US GP project in jeopardy? UPDATE
A noticeable work slowdown at Austin's Formula One racetrack site and a possible change in the track's promoter or management is raising new questions about the future of the circuit and the ability of developers to meet a tight construction schedule with the inaugural race now 14 months away.
On Monday, promoter Tavo Hellmund called state Comptroller Susan Combs asking whether a change in management or promoters would affect the circuit's eligibility for money from the state Major Events Trust Fund. The state has pledged $250 million over 10 years from the fund.
Combs said the race would still be eligible for the incentives in a letter Tuesday to Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. Combs' letter revealed that major investors in the track, including Texas billionaire Red McCombs, haven't secured the rights to hold the race. Ecclestone bestowed the rights to Hellmund, but he has not transferred them to his partners in Circuit of the Americas, according to Combs' letter.
On Thursday, Ecclestone, Hellmund, McCombs and Rad Weaver, McCombs' point person on the project, did not respond to calls or emails from the American-Statesman. Another investor, Bobby Epstein, declined to comment.
Ecclestone's London-based company stages Formula One racing events in cities like Montreal; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and next year, Austin.
Combs' letter to Ecclestone refers to a proposed transfer of the contractual rights from Hellmund's company to Circuit of the Americas, a group that includes McCombs, Epstein and others.
The letter states, "Should the proposed assignment be consummated, the State of Texas, through this agency, looks forward to working with the Circuit of the Americas to bring the Formula One United States Grand Prix to Texas in 2012."
Brooke Botello, a spokeswoman for the comptroller, said Combs didn't ask Hellmund why there might be such a change.
What's unclear is how a change, any change, would affect a race estimated by some to have a $300 million annual economic impact on the area. Work has slowed dramatically at the 3.4-mile track in the past few months. Construction of the grandstands, paddock and medical center has yet to start.
Developers have maintained they are still on schedule and that building will begin soon on what has grown to a 1,100-acre site.
On Monday, Weaver, CEO of McCombs Partners, said in an email, "We are as committed as ever to the project and are encouraged by the growing interest."
Hellmund pitched the project to Combs for two years in more than 20 meetings before the race was announced in May of last year. Since then, Hellmund has been the face of the project.
Hellmund is a founding partner of Circuit of the Americas, yet a little more than two weeks ago told the American-Statesman he had begun doing consulting work for groups hoping to attract a Formula One race to Mexico, Argentina and South Africa. At that time he mentioned that he was basically a race promoter and that his work in Austin was almost done. He then quickly added: "The U.S. Grand Prix is the most important thing. … The next thing is to promote the U.S. Grand Prix."
Hellmund is an Austin native and a former race car driver. His father, Gustavo, played a key role in bringing Formula One back to Mexico in the 1980s. As a teenager, Tavo worked for a Formula One team owned by Ecclestone. Hellmund's long-standing relationship with the 80-year-old Ecclestone had been considered key not only in attracting a Grand Prix but in dealing with Ecclestone during the length of the race contract, which runs from 2012 to 2021. The Statesman09/30/11 (GMM) There are fears about the ongoing involvement in the 2012 US grand prix project of the race's promoter Tavo Hellmund.
Hellmund has been the driving force behind the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, scheduled to host its first formula one race next November.
But the slowing of construction work at the venue has been "noticeable" lately, according to the local Austin American Statesman newspaper.
And it is now suggested that the "promoter or management" could be changed after Texas comptroller Susan Combs this week wrote to F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone. The letter was written after Hellmund reportedly asked Combs whether "a change in management or promoters" would affect the funding promised by the Texas government.
Ecclestone and Hellmund did not respond to calls or emails on Thursday, the newspaper said.