Austin at Very High Speed

The who, what, where, when, and why of Formula One racing

Austin at Very High Speed

The sound of a Formula One car is like hornets – if the hornets were flying at 225 miles per hour. Yet the May 25 announcement that Austin will become the new U.S. home to the world's top motor sport was more like the sound of a juggernaut bearing down at full speed. To hit the proposed June 2012 deadline requires the project team, the city of Austin, the state, and the community to rapidly engage one of the most complicated engineering projects Travis County has ever seen. The completed Formula One project would also define Austin as a major international sporting center. As Tavo Hellmund, the man behind the successful bid, puts it: "There are four global sporting events: the World Cup, Olympics, the World Games, and Formula One. It doesn't matter whether you like those sports or not; that's a fact."

It's Hellmund's design and desire to bring F1 to Austin that got the plan this far. Raised in Austin by his mother, he spent most of his childhood summers around his father's sports promotion business in Mexico, which included work on the Mexican Grand Prix. Hellmund's time around the racetrack parlayed into an international career in racing, and it's also how he first met F1's owner and CEO Bernie Ecclestone. "As a little boy, I just knew him as a guy who ran a [race] series. As I started getting older, I realized he was a pretty significant figure in the racing world."

When Hellmund quit the track, he began to put the pieces together to create a proposal that would pass the rigorous safety standards and design demands required for Austin to become the latest host city.

The scale of the proposal has amazed local attorney Richard Suttle, who came on board in late March as the project's lawyer and consultant: Prior to that, his sole exposure had been through a trip to the Monaco Grand Prix, held on the streets of Monte Carlo. "If I hadn't have attended it," Suttle said, "I wouldn't have understood the magnitude."

It hasn't been the smoothest of rollouts, not least because of the way the announcement was made. Rather than via a major local press conference, Austinites found out about the deal through a press release on the Formula One website. That wrong-footed even the Austin group, which was trying to get as complete a proposal as possible together before going public. Instead, the occasion turned into Suttle's first experience with the sometimes mercurial ways of Eccle­stone. Suttle recalled, "We start walking this thing around, working out what are we going to do, and I told Tavo, 'Eventually it's gotta be someone other than old Tavo and Richard telling people this is going to be a deal.' He said, 'Well, eventually Bernie will announce it, that we're going to have a United States Grand Prix, so we ought to prepare for that.'" Hellmund wasn't exaggerating: A week before the May 30 Turkish Grand Prix, the Austin group was preparing for a considered and rounded press release when the Ecclestone announcement made headlines. "We had no idea it was coming, and it started a firestorm," said Suttle. "Ever since, it's been the old term, 'drinking water from the fire hose.'"

Red Light, Green Light, Go?

Tavo Hellmund
Tavo Hellmund (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Here's what is known so far. About four years ago, Hellmund started talking to Eccle­stone about such a project in broad terms, then he formed Full Throttle Productions LP to put together a proposal to build an F1 race facility in Austin. The planning only became serious in late 2007, when it became clear that F1 would not be returning to Indianapolis for 2008. Since then, Hellmund says, he has acquired the roughly 600 acres required for the track, stands, paddock, and facilities ("The land thing is actually one of the pieces we had in place the longest time ago"), and in doing so, he has what he calls "options" in place.

Throughout the process, Hellmund has remained cagey about discussing the exact location: Citing contract concerns, all he is saying is that it's close to the State Highway 130 corridor and the airport (handy for transporting cars and equipment as well as attendees). At the same time, he says, he secured private funding (the days of Texas municipalities sinking large sums into private sports facilities are long gone) and began the basic ground surveying and planning work. With all the pieces assembled, he made a formal bid to Formula One World Championship Ltd. and Formula One Administration Ltd. to host the U.S. Grand Prix for a decade starting in 2012. Hellmund defends keeping this initial planning secret. He explained, "Had we been talking to any local or national media in an effort to get traction, then you're not really working the deal; you're throwing a red herring out there to get something put together."

This meant a lot of the preparations went on under the radar, or, as Mayor Lee Leffingwell diplomatically put it, "They have been very good about holding their information close to the vest." The mayor only found out about the proposal in April from State Comptroller Susan Combs, who has been the main political driver behind the plans. He explained, "She told me in an excited way that she was fairly sure that Formula One was coming to Austin."

Money and Permits

So, rather than any of the other publicized bids, what tipped the balance in Austin's favor? In a rare interview, the notoriously taciturn Ecclestone told veteran auto-sports journalist Adam Cooper: "It's a nice place. It's got all the features that we want." If that sounds vague, Hellmund said: "I want someone to argue that there's a more logical place than Austin. You're talking about the capital of the 11th or 12th strongest economy in the world. It's undoubtedly the prettiest city in, if not America, then at least the South. Completely perfect geographic location for Canada, Mexico, South America, and both coasts. The second most significant technology sector in the United States. Boy, you're right, that really doesn't make sense."

Like Hellmund, Leffingwell understands F1's logic for picking not just Texas but Austin in particular. He said: "What they see is the best city in America for the next decade. We're doing better than anyone else in regards to small business and employment, and even semi-dormant things like commercial real estate are better here than other places." In return, the city could see an enormous business boost: The Office of Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services is working on its own economic impact study, but informal figures from the comptroller estimate the facility could bring $300 million a year to the state. "To put that in perspective," Leffingwell said, "the economic impact of South by Southwest and [Austin City Limits Music Festival] combined is about $150 million."

The hope is that much of that new cash will stay near the track, particularly in East and Southeast Austin. The facility construction alone will create a large number of blue-collar jobs, but Hellmund argued for thinking long-term. "You look at what a grand prix track does for an area. With the last six that were built, it brought in technology companies, aerospace companies, R&D, retail. We're not shortsighted. We want it to build an entire area."

Bill Dollahite, veteran driver and owner of Driveway Austin
Bill Dollahite, veteran driver and owner of Driveway Austin (Photo by John Anderson)

Leffingwell insists that no city cash will go into the facility. There have been limited discussions about some financial support, but, he added, "We don't know if that's in-kind fee waivers or something else." He also says that he won't rush headlong into a too-good-to-be-true deal just because there's a ticking clock imposed by the applicant. In 2008, he voted against allowing the abortive Villa Muse studio proposal, also planned for eastern Travis County, when the developers demanded that the city exempt the land from the tax and planning requirements of the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. As in that deal, Leffingwell said: "We need to know exactly where it's going to be. We need to know what services are needed, what the traffic impact is going to be, what the impact will be for surrounding neighborhoods, if there are any."

More Than Just a Racetrack

One potential fear is that any facility, if it's not successful, could become a white elephant, a 600-acre folly abandoned by F1 after a year. Hellmund's response is that, whatever else Ecclestone is, he isn't stupid or a liar, and he wouldn't have made a 10-year public commitment if the bid wasn't sufficient to his exacting standards. "I've known him for 35 years, and he's the hardest to satisfy ... more than banks, more than partners, more than officials," said Hellmund.

However, even though the track would be designed for F1, Hellmund doesn't expect one long weekend of F1 racing a year to pay the bills. MotoGP and the American Le Mans series have been looking for a stop in the region for years, and a good site could lure the Indy Racing League away from the Texas Motor Speedway just north of Dallas-Fort Worth.

And the most successful tracks aren't just about cars. The Yas Island complex in Abu Dhabi includes a water park, while the new Jaypee Group Circuit outside of New Delhi in India will be part of a 2,500-acre sports complex. Canada's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, which has hosted the Canadian Grand Prix 30 times in the last 32 years, is at the heart of Montreal's Parc Jean Drapeau: For the rest of the year the track is used for jogging, skating, and bikers. It's also the city's biggest music venue, while Hockenheim in Germany and Donington in England both host major music festivals.

It was the potential for human-powered activity that caught the interest of RunTex founder Paul Carrozza. "In my mind," he said, "when I look at a racetrack, I see somewhere to run." Carrozza has spent the last two years as what he called "a sounding board" for Hell­mund, and in 2009 they co-hosted a foot race as part of a NASCAR event in Kyle. That race involved eight elite sprinters trying to run four-minute miles – but what he plans for the new track is something on a much bigger scale: relocating many of the large-scale charitable races out of the Downtown corridor and onto the track. That's becoming a matter of necessity, Carrozza said. When he first started organizing Downtown races, "it was like a bowling alley. We could run a race and no one would know." Now, he added, "Austin's Downtown is becoming a neighborhood, and the frequency of races had gotten to a peak, [so] we had to sit down and sort out access." As the planning and construction begins, Carrozza said his role will be community outreach. "If it's not meaningful to the community, it doesn't interest me. I love people being involved; even if it's not on an F1 weekend, it can be on another weekend." If the facility is done right, he added, "it will probably be as unique to F1 as Austin is to the rest of the world."

Simmering Opposition?

Not everyone in town is as upbeat as Hell­mund and Carrozza. Thus far, beyond a Concerned About Formula One (F1) Racing Coming to Austin Facebook page, there is little visibly organized opposition, but that doesn't mean it's not brewing. Stefan Wray, who established the page, said that he and fellow local activist David Kobierowski have been "reaching out to other groups to see where people's heads are at." The concerns are scattershot, varying from environmental to a personal distaste for Ecclestone. Wray said he's concerned that the facility is being "thrust upon us by the comptroller's office," while accusing "local Democrats of not thinking critically because they think it's something that Kirk Watson pushed through." Major questions, such as infrastructure costs and the environmental impact, still have to be answered, as well as broader issues of raising and altering the city's already elevated international profile. He asked: "If Austin becomes the center for Formula One, how much does that raise the costs for police and security? Does Austin come higher up on the list as a site for potential terrorism?"

The Driveway Austin track east of Ed Bluestein offers training ground for drivers.
The Driveway Austin track east of Ed Bluestein offers training ground for drivers. (Photo by John Anderson)

The most cogent argument to date has come from Sierra Club – Austin Regional Group Chair Chris Lehman, who wrote to group members at length concerning "the environmentally disastrous glamorization of over-consumption of horsepower, gasoline and oil." Admitting to a teenage fancy for muscle cars, Lehman recounts the environmental drawbacks of racing in general and F1 in particular, finally asking: "So, just as the U.S. begins to redirect domestic automakers toward more efficient and sustainable automobiles, Austin and Texas are throwing their energies and resources into promoting the most inefficient cars on earth at the expense of Texas taxpayers, our domestic auto manufacturers, our jobs, and our health thanks to the air, water, and climate degradation that come with the event and the lifestyle Formula 1 promotes? When the lesson of the day is consume less oil so BP and the rest will take fewer chances with our environment, why are we subsidizing the marketing of excessive oil consumption?"

Of course, the worst race-related emissions would come from traffic attending the race, rather than the race cars themselves. The sport's environmental record has been at best spotty, with BMW announcing in 2009 that it was quitting its involvement and would be sinking its constructor cash into designing a new hybrid production car.

However, on June 30, the Formula One Teams Association announced a new partnership with emissions and energy efficiency auditors Trucost. The current plan is to reduce teams' carbon footprints by 15% by 2012, compared to 2009 emissions, and to mandate new fuel-efficient powertrains by 2013.

Beyond these broad environmental strokes, the most nebulous concern is that "Formula One" is just not sufficiently "Austin." Kobier­ow­ski has written that he's "not against F1 in another U.S. city where it's a better fit ... Las Vegas, L.A., or Phoenix, and probably Dallas"; even Lehman couldn't resist the linguistic jab that it's a European-dominated sport where "tires are spelled tyres." That's an argument that gets little traction with Leffingwell, who said: "There's a lot more to Austin than the old Central Austin that has traditionally defined it. That's an important part of Austin, then and now, and I hope it stays that way, but we're 260 square miles, almost 800,000 people, and a lot of people have moved here that don't have that background, people that have different kinds of interests than sitting by the creek strumming a guitar."

Brainpower and Money

That 2012 deadline, Hellmund said, "is laced in every conversation, from the communications side to the PR side to the engineering side to the legal side. It's definitely an aggressive timeline. We feel like we can hit it, but we can't have any missteps."

From an engineering standpoint, it apparently can be done. The Istanbul Park F1 track was completed in two years. The new Korean track only broke ground in April 2009, but it's scheduled to be open for racing in October this year. However, construction delays at the Jaypee Group Circuit have pushed back the inaugural Indian Grand Prix a whole year, to 2011. Hellmund will have the added incentive that, whether the track is ready or not, Ecclestone will still expect a hosting or cancellation fee for every contracted year.

So can a similar facility be built in Austin, with its lengthy permitting and review process, in less than two years? One of the people best qualified to answer that question is Bill Dollahite, since he's the only person in Austin to build a track in recent years. Dollahite's a 25-year veteran endurance driver, and his Driveway Austin facility, down a dirt track east of Ed Bluestein Boulevard on a former landfill, is a training facility that he describes as "a European-style F1-like circuit." Dollahite is the first person to say that there is no way that his facility could host a real grand prix. "It's strictly a school," he said, intended for beginner race drivers and tactical training. It has none of the stands, parking lots, amenities, or utilities of a full F1 stadium – but still took five years to design and build.

Building a track suitable for the extraordinary speeds and forces generated by racing an F1 car isn't simply laying a stretch of road. Instead, Dollahite said: "It's like building a three-and-a-half-mile-long bridge. ... You're probably going to have to excavate 20-by-50 feet for your entire track. Then come back with select fill soils, then put them in compacted layers and cure them between layers, then you're going to have to pour concrete over the entire thing in layers." The actual driving surface will require an exotic asphalt, imported granite or sandstone aggregates (the local dolomite and limestone are too slippery), combined with polymers and broad-spectrum oil under laboratory conditions so the surface will perform the same at 40 degrees or 105 degrees. "These are all technical issues," Dol­la­hite said, "which can be overcome with brainpower and money."

The first major contract has been signed, with German engineering firm Tilke Engineers & Architects selected to design the track. They've already made multiple trips to the still-mysterious site but, with the 2012 season looming, they have to be able to break ground before the end of the year. That creates a four- to six-month review schedule that Leffingwell described as "superchallenging. ... Normally it's a couple of years in the planning process, a couple of years in the review process, and there's no way that they can live with that." While he said there will be no shortcuts through permitting, he added, "One of the places where the city can be of the greatest assistance is in trying to expedite that permitting and development review process so they can make it."

Suttle described the timeline as the toughest he has faced in his 25-year career. Even so, he added, "I still think it's doable, or I wouldn't be working on it."

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