The Austin Chronicle

F1 Bets on Red (Updated)

By Richard Whittaker, July 27, 2010, 5:07pm, Newsdesk

A lot of people have been wondering who the money man behind Austin's Formula One project is. At a press conference at the AT&T Conference Center, promoters Full Throttle Productions announced that their lead investor is auto-dealing and oil-investing multi-millionaire Billy Joe "Red" McCombs and the McCombs Group.

This morning's press event was the big local roll-out and an attempt by the project group to regain control of the message (in between F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone making the initial announcement on his own schedule, and some pretty wild speculation both in and out of the media, they've often been chasing the story rather than leading it.) After a highly dramatic video emphasizing the speed, glamor and star power of F1, there was a lot more new information to chew on. Here's what came out of the event:

The who: The big name backer is McCombs and his investment group. Turns out that, like Ecclestone, he and Hellmund go way, way back. According to Hellmund, it's not just that McCombs has deep pockets (they don't put your name on Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium just because you have a nice smile) or that, as the former owner of three pro-sports teams (Minnesota Vikings, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs), he knows big money sports. Calling him "arguably one of the most respected business people, entertainment and sports legends," Hellmund explained, "Twenty-one years ago, one of mister McCombs car dealerships was my very first sponsor."

The who else: An interesting panoply of names cropped up. Aside from Comptroller Susan Combs and developer Richard Suttle, who were both present, Hellmund namechecked McComb's director of business develoment (and former Longhorn Baseball player) Rad Weaver, ex-MotoGP World Champion Kevin Schwantz (raising the possibility of motorbike racing following F1), and Robert Epstein of the Austin-based Prophet Capital Management. McCombs also said that he'll be working with the state's universities to bring them in to the tech park aspect of the facility. He noted the presence of several UT officials, including Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds, who has no little experience in big-scale sporting events. Present and not mentioned was Hellmund's "sounding board," Paul Carrozza of RunTex, again no rookie in this field.

The where: The new site is in Elroy: South-east of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, between SH-130, Elroy Road and FM812 (see the full map here.) Hellmund re-confirmed that there had been two other sites up for consideration, which McCombs off-handedly referred to as fall-backs.

It's an interesting combination of people and place. Placing a scheduled development (not a some time, eventually development) out in the Del Valle School District may appeal to groups that say that area of town is overlooked for investment (counter-balance that with potential environmental concerns, of course). As Hellmund noted, there's been a lot of speculation about his backers being out-of-state or even out-of-country, and while he confirmed that there was no lack of financial interest, McCombs was his dream partner. Truth is, there are few brand names quite as powerful in Texas as Red McCombs, so that attachment alone is an undoubted and immediate plus in the hearts and minds operation that will continue right through to the green light.

As for the environmental impact, while the big problem may turn out to be the traffic emissions, Hellmund politely noted that the track construction firm Tilke GmbH is used to working under German building and environmental standards. He was polite enough to not point out they are a little bit more rigorous than what you can get away with in Texas.

There was some grumbling that the Q&A was shorter than promised (mainly because the opening talks by Hellmund and McCombs went on for a lot longer than scheduled.) However, now it seems that Hellmund et al are much more prepared to both deliver and deal with a full-fledged media blitz. With these two big components of the puzzle released, a fully revamped website, and the plan coming up before council pretty soon if the project is to break ground before the end of the year, they better be.

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