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The Birth of Formula One – Austin

Some welcome the new offspring, and some don't, but the high-speed newcomer is at the starting gate

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 16, 2012

The Birth of Formula One – Austin
Photo by Richard Whittaker

Two and a half years ago, Austinites heard for the first time that their city would be hosting the first United States Formula One Grand Prix in half a decade. Frankly, most locals had no idea what that meant, and even now, on the eve of the race, many Austinites are still trying to work it out. What's happened in the interim has been the construction of the Circuit of the Amer­icas: In what was until recently the sleepy Southeast backwater of Elroy, up has sprung a race track/concert venue/business park that will host the first U.S. Grand Prix since 2007. This week, tens of thousands of guests arrive for the three-day race weekend – but many wonder whether the city really knows what it's in for.

That's partly a consequence of its political history at the Texas Capitol, where a sweetheart deal (the state's "Major Events Trust Fund") that would bring to the race sponsors a 10-year subsidy of $25 million a year was on, then off, on again, and now pending – but in the bargain polarized the response of the city to the whole project.

Beyond that political backstory, four questions have pursued the development of Formula One in Austin: Does Austin want it? When is it happening? What is it? And, most importantly, is Austin ready for it? Three of those questions have been answered. The fourth? Well, the city and the Circuit will know when the last visiting racegoer flies away.

Does Austin Want It?

When the F1 announcement was made in 2010, there were four local responses: Some people welcomed it, some were concerned about its impact, some didn't know what it was, and some just didn't want anything to do with it. The criticisms have been all over the map, from the understandable (should Texas be subsidizing international sports when schools are underfunded?) to the nebulous (it just isn't "Austin-y" or sufficiently "weird"). Many seized on the regularly controversial comments by "F1 Supre­mo" (as he's known in the English tabs) Bernie Ecclestone, while others condemned it as a sport solely for the rich, the elites, and foreigners.

Yet for Austin's Mayor Lee Leffingwell, it "represents that maturation of the city of Austin." Just since the project began, Austin has jumped from being the 17th biggest city in America to the 13th. Leffingwell said, "We've been in this transition for so many years from a sleepy college town into a big city – and in a big city, you have people with a wide range of tastes. You have people who like F1 and people who don't. You have people who think it's going to be bad for the reputation of the city, and some people who think it's going to be great."

The Birth of Formula One – Austin
Photo by John Anderson

The anti-F1 crowd pointed to the spotted history of Formula One in the U.S. Propon­ents argue that spotted or not, it's long. There were Grand Prix races held in Amer­ica regularly from 1959 to 1991, before the sport was resurrected in 2000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yet those closing years muddied the issue of whether American fans will support F1. Drivers hated the track, mechanics called it frustrating and dangerous, and track management had its three biggest races – F1, the Indianapolis 500, and the Brickyard 400 – so tightly scheduled that audiences for all three collapsed. But whether it's just initial curiosity or real interest, the first year in Austin has sold well: More than 110,000 tickets have been purchased, 85% of those by U.S. buyers, and half of those by Texans. The race has also attracted a big international crowd, with COTA reporting sales in 46 countries.

However, controversy about construction of the track turned the event into a political kickball. At the state level, Comptroller Susan Combs was savaged by Land Com­missioner Jerry Patterson for letting the track apply to the state's Major Events Trust Fund (see "The Courtship of Susan and Bernie"). Locally, Leffingwell's support was used against him in this year's mayoral race. Leffingwell has battled many misconceptions – that the city paid for the track or for the F1 sanctioning, or that it was all just a backroom deal among power players.

Whatever your perspective, Austin is days away from the biggest single sporting event it has ever seen. An estimated 120,000 people will attend the three-day race event, and organizers claim there will be 300,000 visitors, sightseers, and tourists in the region over the weekend. It's a big event, but Austin regularly does big events – South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits Festival, and Longhorn football home games,. Lef­fing­well is frustrated that – because many people didn't understand it – they've held F1 to a different standard than similar projects. For example, Council faced pushback over Downtown street closures during race weekend, even though street closures for major events are regularly approved by staff. Council also took flak when it reimbursed the developers for installing utilities, even though that is standard practice for major projects in the city's desired development zone. Leffingwell said, "I think that a lot of people are just looking for reasons not to like it."

When Is It Happening?

For a long time, "when" and "if" went hand in hand and were tied to one thing: money. Austin-born former driver Tavo Hellmund provided the vision. His father had promoted motor racing in Mexico, including the Mexican Grand Prix, and Hellmund dreamed of bringing F1 back to his hometown. It wasn't just a sentimental gamble; Hellmund had known F1 boss Ecclestone for decades and secured a favorable 10-year hosting contract. He also calculated that, with Austin being equidistant from both coasts, Canada, and South Amer­ica, it would attract a big national and international contingent. But it was Texas financial behemoth Red McCombs and financier Bobby Epstein who were paying for the track itself.

That division of power nearly crashed the entire project.

The Fédération Internationale de l'Auto­mob­ile – FIA, the sport's governing body – originally scheduled the race for June 17, 2012. Cue a collective groan – a race in Austin's blazing summer sounded like no fun and set a tight construction deadline. Behind the scenes, there was a multimillion-dollar game of chicken. Rumors of a go-slow had circled for months, and finally, last fall, construction ground to a halt for 11 days. Hellmund broke the icy silence – accusing Epstein and McCombs of cutting corners and failing to fulfill their deal with him, and so he refused to hand over the event contract. Ecclestone threatened to pull the plug on Austin, and rumors started spreading that F1 would instead hold a race in New Jersey.

The Birth of Formula One – Austin
Photo by Devaki Knowles

Finally, Ecclestone set a deadline: If the warring parties could not reach a settlement before the FIA approved the 2012 calendar in December 2011, then the Austin Grand Prix would be cancelled. That shattered the ice – but left Hellmund out in the cold. At the time, he said, "I am willing to do whatever it is for this project to happen, including not be a part of it." He withdrew, settled out of court with Epstein and McCombs, and the Circuit signed a new, tougher deal with F1. But Hellmund did not go quietly: Lawsuits and allegations of dirty tricks and underhanded dealings have been flying back and forth for months.

What Is It?

With so many arguments about when and if the race was happening, the pivotal question – what "F1" exactly is – remained unanswered for many.

It's not the city's job to explain what F1 is, and there have been long stretches – especially when the writs were flying – when the Circuit was keeping a low profile. Six months ago, British expat and F1 enthusiast Ian Weightman took part of the responsibility for spreading the word – first through his Formula1AustinBlog.com, and then in his day job as a PR professional. This summer, in collaboration with COTA, he organized Formula Expo – a two-day crash course in the history and spectacle of F1 that hosted 15,000 attendees.

The enthusiasm is not all out of the goodness of Weightman's heart, as he will be running two big events over race weekend: the high-rolling Blu at the W Hotel event and the Prohibition-themed Gold at the Four at the Four Seasons hotel (see "Ibiza on the Colorado," p.34). He's been making presentations to Downtown residents and the real fixers (like condo concierges) to explain what F1 means for Downtown. "It's ramping up," he said, "but I still don't think the majority of people understand the difference between this and what we're used to with SXSW and ACL."

Is Austin Ready?

The last remaining question is arguably the most practical: Will Austin be prepared for the estimated 300,000 visitors?

No doubt Circuit management wants the first year at its $300 million track to be a success. And the city administration doesn't want to be left looking like chumps who can't handle a major event.

Tavo Hellmund (l) provided the vision for bringing F1 to Austin, but after a falling out with investors Red McCombs (c) and Bobby Epstein (r), the project moved forward without him.
Tavo Hellmund (l) provided the vision for bringing F1 to Austin, but after a falling out with investors Red McCombs (c) and Bobby Epstein (r), the project moved forward without him.
Photo by John Anderson

The official mantra is simple: This is like SXSW or ACL, only bigger. The Austin Police Department will be focusing on what Chief Art Acevedo called "tourism-based policing" – preventing problems before they occur and making sure visitors do not get into trouble. That means massive personnel commitments, shifted staffing schedules, and detectives on uniformed patrol.

Acevedo is confident that his staff can handle public safety – but when it comes to getting to and from the race, both the city and the Circuit are more cautious. On Nov. 5, the Circuit broke in the track with Formula Run, a 5K footrace. The race itself went smoothly, but the 5,000 runners faced traffic jams.

The Circuit blamed some of the delays on unexpected fog, and road construction still in progress. Moreover, Circuit management and the city have arranged race-day shuttle buses and limited car access that – if everyone follows the plan – should mean a 40- to 50-minute ride. Yet this is an unprecedented public transport task, and, Acevedo said traffic management will be "the biggest part for us." (See "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles")

Then there's the airport. The city of Aus­tin took over Bergstrom Air Force Base in 1999 because the old Robert Mueller Munici­pal Airport was beyond capacity. Now Austin-Bergstrom International Air­port is approaching the same problem, with hourlong security lines on many mornings. Council has already approved a $50 million expansion, but that will not be complete until 2015, and a proposal for a temporary extra terminal was shot down. Considering too the usual Thanksgiving rush, staff is expecting record passenger numbers and record lines.

And that's all just a fraction of the preparation. City and county staff have been approving permits, ramping up trash collection schedules, coordinating EMS coverage, and preparing for a PR onslaught. Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Dep­uty Director Rodney Gonzales said, "We're not planning for a perfect event." Instead, he said, the city is planning "for those contingencies and those emergencies that might happen."

The Future of the Circuit and the Future of F1

Whatever happens this weekend, the Circuit of the Americas plans to remain a major presence in Austin. As long as COTA can front the hosting fee – in theory the outcome of its incremental sales tax agreement with the state – there will be a U.S. Grand Prix in Austin for the next 10 years. The Circuit is already selling tickets for its next two race series: MotoGP in April and V8 Supercars in May. Long-term plans include research and tech parks in the surrounding area, plus more housing. Sleepy Elroy, with its scrubland and handful of businesses, is headed toward annexation as part of Austin proper.

But what about F1? COTA has its deal, but those New Jersey rumors keep rumbling. One day it's on, next day it's off, and one source close to COTA said Ecclestone's waffling is taken from the same playbook he used when playing hardball with Austin. More worryingly, there are rumors of a revived Mexican Grand Prix, which could bite into foreign tourist dollars. That creates potential trouble and opportunities for COTA: If the race is successful this year and undermines the idea that F1 is somehow "un-American," it could reshape the entire sport. If COTA fails, on the other hand, it's Indianapolis all over again.

For now, Mayor Leffingwell remains optimistic about the first race and what it means for Austin. He said, "I think that, after the fact, there's going to be a great many more people who think this has been a great thing for the city."

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