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Tough Times Ahead For Texas Rattlesnakes

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 14 2011

Austin, Texas will be home to one of the most modern racing facilities in the world when the Circuit of the Americas is completed. (Artist renderings courtesy of the Circuit of the Americas)

Austin, Texas – From a wooden viewing platform overlooking what eventually will become Turn 1 of Circuit of the Americas, Buddy Reed has an hour-by-hour view of what passes as a Texas-sized sandbox.

“It’s a claybox right now, because that’s what’s here,” said Reed, site superintendent for Austin Commercial, the local construction company moving dirt for the new home of Formula One and MotoGP in the United States. “We’ve been out here five-and-a-half weeks. Most of this was all thick trees, scrub brush, mesquite. And 14 rattlesnakes…so far.”

To the relief of a media contingent visiting the site on Tuesday afternoon, uninvited critter activity was limited to a herd of cows that Reed said insist on wandering over from a neighboring property. COTA is located on an approximately 970-acre site in Southeast Austin along the State Highway 130 corridor near Farm & Market Road 812, just two miles from Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

The racetrack will occupy over 350 acres of a facility that will include executive meeting suites, conference center, a medical building/trauma center and live music performance area.

In the distance, a convoy of yellow scrapers, dozers and graders looking like Tonka Toys bounced over the uneven landscape that is being shaped into a 3.4-mile, 20-turn permanent road-course. COTA is billed as the first purpose-built grand prix facility in this country and designed for “any and all classes of racing,” from motor power to human power.

“We’re working 10-hour days, six days a week…for now. Weather like this, you can’t beat it,” said Reed, shading his eyes under a hard-hat. “It’s a pretty sight.”

And it’s proof that Formula One really is destined for Austin in 2012, the first of a 10-year commitment through 2021 linking the most technically advanced and most-viewed sport in the world

Tavo Hellmund's friendship with Bernie Ecclestone, the president and CEO of Formula One Management, dates back a long way. (Photo courtesy of Formula One United States)

with the good folks residing in the state capital and Travis County. Similarly, the FIM’s MotoGP World Championship will bring its motorcycle series to COTA for 10 years beginning in 2013.

“I just got to tell ya, it is a big deal and we’re all so excited about it,” said Red McCombs, legendary Texas businessman who has partnered with Austinites Tavo Hellmund and Robert A. “Bobby” Epstein in this $250-million project.

“It’s not exactly your Sunday afternoon goat-roping in Beeville – with all due respect to Beeville,” McCombs joked during a news conference outlining the project Tuesday afternoon. “When we were introduced to you guys about 10 or 11 months ago, we told you at the time we were going to do some really big things. Things we’re talking about, to put it into scope, would be like a Super Bowl every year for 10 years…a total new venture to Austin and Texas.

“We’re meeting the construction milestones. Bobby Epstein and Tavo Hellmund put this thing together. They asked me to come along and play a role in it. I have been delighted that they asked me. I’m glad that I’m here and get to do that.”

COTA is owned and managed by Formula 1 United States, whose business partners include Hellmund’s Full Throttle Productions LP, Epstein’s Prophet Capital Management and McCombs Partners. Hellmund is a former racer-turned-promoter and special events producer who has been trying to bring F1 to this country since 1986. His 40-year friendship with Bernie Ecclestone, president/CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, dates to his stint as a gofer on the Ecclestone-owned Brabham F1 team featuring three-time World Driving Champion Nelson Piquet of Brazil.

On Tuesday, Hellmund explained details of the project in English and Spanish, but the most important language he speaks is Bernie. “It’s been a whirlwind for the last 10 months,” said Hellmund, 40. “A lot of attention has been brought onto Austin with us being awarded the U.S. Grand Prix. It’s a huge honor for us. But at the same time, it’s really about what does that represent?

“Do we know that hundreds of thousands of people will come here? Absolutely. Do we know from statistics from global events around the world, whether it be Formula One or whether it be the

Modern suites and media area will spice up the new road circuit near Austin.

Olympics or FIFA (world soccer), that 60 percent of people will travel from outside the state? We’re positive of that.

“And do we know also that of those people that visit here that the average spend for a major global event for a person visiting a host region is between $1,400 and $1,600 a day? And that’s all for our local businesses and merchants. Not to mention the fact that Austin and Texas will be seen by some 600 million people around the world in over 180 countries. And those are great numbers, but we kind of want to improve on them.”

Epstein founded Prophet Capital Management (PCM), a hedge fund and private investment firm, in 1995. “Our goal is to present events that draw people to Texas, and very significantly, the Austin/San Antonio corridor,” said Epstein, boldly estimating the F1 race will generate between $3 billion to $6 billion for the area over the next decade. “It’s our goal that these grand prix events will constitute the largest single-gathering of global corporate leaders held in the United States each year.”

Hellmund and Epstein are the suit-and-tie/jet-set guys. McCombs’ presence as partner has as much to do with his iconic wallop as his wallet. McCombs is the founder of Red McCombs Automotive Group, a co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, a former owner of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

McCombs is a long-standing member of “Forbes” magazine’s top 400 richest Americans, and has owned nearly 400 businesses during his career. He is recognized as one of the leading automobile dealers in the country, having owned and represented almost every brand of domestic and foreign vehicle since 1950. His list of buddies in the business includes Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick and O. Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns and operates Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

McCombs admitted that he did not get involved in this venture as a Formula One fan. “Not at all. Never followed it in any way,” said McCombs, who is much more interested in raising and marketing Texas Longhorn cattle. “Now, we do have a family member, a grandson, who’s attended about eight races around the world and is into it. But not me. I still haven’t seen one (in person).”

Given that background, McCombs was not overly enthused when Hellmund and Epstein

Red McCombs, a moving force behind Circuit of the Americas.

approached him about partnering with them to bring F1 back to the USA.

“I will tell you quite frankly, I was surprised that they were able to get the ticket,” said McCombs, whose McCombs Foundation has made charitable contributions approaching $100 million. “So I agreed to give them three hours on a Saturday morning. I intended to be nice and wish ‘em well and pat ‘em on the back.

“But when I saw how just intense they were into it and willing to put everything that they had into it; let me say this _ I put a lot into it, but I wasn’t going to put everything I got into it. So I told my family when I went home, ‘We’re doing something that any adviser would tell you not to do. Because there’s too many strikes against you. But I’m going to take a shot at it and we’re going to try to make it happen.’ But there’s no question it’s a risky venture.

“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve done other things that didn’t work elsewhere. People forget that the Dallas people gave us the Spurs because they were so sick of them, they lost so much money. Now it’s one of the ideal franchises in the NBA, although in a small market. So we’ve been fortunate. We’ve done some things that worked. I think this was common sense, and not any stroke of brilliance.”

McCombs also is aware that F1 and Ecclestone have forged a cut-and-run history in the United States since exiting its first permanent home at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International after the 1980 grand prix. Subsequent stops at Long Beach, Calif., Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix and Indianapolis Motor Speedway failed to “grow the sport” to Ecclestone’s satisfaction.

As chief operating officer of IMS, Tony George spent multi-millions building an F1-mandated paddock, hospitality suites, media center and racetrack linking an infield road-course with sections of the 2.5-mile oval beginning in 2000. But the initial rush of that event quickly faded in a series of escalating complaints by drivers over the course’s “Mickey Mouse” layout, IMS’ purported failure to sufficiently promote the event and the perception that Indianapolis wasn’t culturally stimulating enough for the F1 community.

While all that is open to debate, the race effectively was killed on June 19, 2005, when concerns over

The folks at Wild Bubba's near Austin are gearing up for the arrival of Formula One in Texas. (RacinToday photo by Jonathan Ingram)

the safety of the tire compound provided by Michelin prompted 14 of 20 drivers to pull off-track after the parade lap leading to the traditional standing start. The six-car farce that ensued was won by multiple World Driving Champion Michael Schumacher, whose Ferrari was shod with Bridgestone tires.

Given that background, McCombs and his partners are aware that even the scope of the Austin project will not make it impossible for F1 to exit Texas. “No, it doesn’t,” McCombs said. “One of the things we realize in this, although they have an association and it’s supposed to be democratic, this really is a program that is run by one man (Ecclestone), and you please him. We’ll please him with anything within reason. If it’s not within reason, then we’ll tell the public why it isn’t and we’ll move on.

“But we’re not expecting any problems. They need us, really, as much as we need them. They need strong representation in the U.S. They’ve not been able to do anything that really people want to stay with and go through the aggravation for the reward. So hopefully we’ll overcome that, but we’re not magicians. We may not. If we don’t, we think we’ll have enough programs in place that we’ll still continue moving forward. That’s why we’re not putting all of it in one basket.

“Right now, there is no market like the North American market. It is the greatest market in the world for everything. They want to be in that market. The auto manufacturers and their big sponsors want them to be in this market. They want the viability of this market. So there’s a lot of reasons for people that make the decisions and the rules, there’s a lot of reasons for them to see this done. But I’d be less-than-honest if I said that are we guaranteed that iron-clad that nothing could go wrong? Well, we’re not.”

Culturally, Austin is touted as the “Live Music Capital of the World” as well as one of the top-three “Hippest Cities” in the United States (“Forbes”) and “Best City for 2010 and the Next Decade” (Kiplinger).

“As I tell people that ask me, I wouldn’t say I’m so culturally aligned with Formula One,” McCombs said. “Because when you’re a red-headed, tobacco-chewing Bubba, that doesn’t exactly put you in the front row. So I’ll take my chances, and we believe we can do things they’ll be proud of and keep it operating.”

Still, Formula 1 United States gladly will sell tickets to any tobacco-chewing Bubba out there in order to fill a seating capacity of 120,000. “Absolutely. They’ll be welcomed, as a matter of fact,” McCombs said.

“We’re blessed to have the two world championships,” Hellmund said. “We do have two others (series) that are in the works that we will announce probably by July. The idea is for us to have three or four big international events and then supplement them and support them with some regional races. We don’t want to over-saturate the calendar because there’s so much else going on at the facility, with the things we have booked business-wise and entertainment-wise, that  frankly, we don’t have a ton of dates to be able to dedicate just to motorsports.”

Confirmation of the inaugural F1 race at COTA is expected this fall. Hellmund said the governing FIA has told him to be “ready to go” in the middle of next year. If the 2012 Canadian Grand Prix remains in its current mid-June slot, it would make sense that F1’s Flying Circus would piggyback in North America to race in Texas the following weekend. That was the pattern during the latter portion of IMS’ contract.

Fans interested in ticket information can go on the Circuit of the Americas website _ circuitoftheamericas.com _ and register now to receive updates.

“We’re going to try to have a program that covers a lot of ground and a lot of different issues,” McCombs said. “We’ve got to have a little luck but I think the reward is worth the effort of the whole thing. We’ve got to make it work fairly fast, because I’m 83, so I don’t think they’re going to wait around on me.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 14 2011
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