Keeping Austin on Track

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GORDON KIRBY – THE US SCENE

THE THRIVING CITY OF AUSTIN IN TEXAS’S southern ‘Hill Country’ Tavo Hellmund’s dream of the Circuit of the Americas is fast taking shape. Hellmund plans to revive Formula 1 in America at his new track next year and amiably refutes any scepticism for his bold new venture. When you meet Hellmund you can’t help being drawn in by his energy and enthusiasm for what he is convinced will be a permanent and attractive new home for the United States Grand Prix. He also believes the circuit will prove a challenging track.

“Kevin Schwantz and I designed the track with Hermann Tilke,” he says. “We’re building a track that’s as close to an old throwback as you can do by today’s FIA standards. I think it will be one of the nicest road courses in the American hemisphere.

“I’m old school. I wish we didn’t have to have all the necessary FIA run-off areas and stuff. I’m not a martyr. I’m into safety. I raced cars for 20 years and I don’t want anyone to get hurt. But I also think there’s very little penalty today with the run-off areas. You’re not giving a driver the incentive of when it’s right or wrong to put his foot down and that’s a mistake for the sport.”

Hellmund admits that many of the circuit’s details will be unfinished by next year’s race. “There are a lot of things we’re not going to have finished by the first Grand Prix. I’d be misleading people by saying that we’re going to have everything perfect.

“I think and hope the fans understand that there will be some components that aren’t exactly ironed out. There are some things that will have to wait until 2013. It’ll probably be 2014 or ’15 before we have everything exactly the way we want. But we feel that by next year we’ll still have one heck of a place to come and watch a sporting event. It will be good value for money.”

Hellmund also says concerns about circuit access have been overblown. “I’ve been to most Grands Prix and I would say that, other than a street circuit, our access is probably better than anyone’s. We’ve got a $17 million toll road one mile away and we have access from all directions north, east, west and south.”

Recent disputes about funding were finally resolved in July, securing state finance for an F1 race for 10 years, though there’s a good chance that the US GP may be moved back from its June 17 date next year to November. That would not only help the hectic construction schedule but also bring more pleasant weather than the 35-degree heat that envelopes most of Texas in June and July.

Hellmund has a multi-year deal to run a MotoGP round and perhaps more surprisingly the Australian V8 Supercar series. “From our standpoint this isn’t about an F1 facility,” he says. “It just happens to be one of the crown jewels that we have. We want to attract touring car fans and sports car fans. We plan to have four or five big events and use the facility year-round. We say internally that we’re not building a race track, we’re building a destination. We want people to come to enjoy it.”

He plans to stage a wide range of events, particularly music related. “We’re obviously going to have a significant musical component. I’ve been involved in promoting events in the music industry, and obviously Austin and the music industry go together. So we’ll have a lot of live outdoor music through the year.”

Hellmund is sure Austin will have plenty of appeal for race fans. “Austin used to be a cool, sleepy college town but today it’s leading the recovery of the United States,” he declares. “There’s just six per cent unemployment in Austin and more money per capita than any city in the United States.

“Geographically, it’s really pretty. We’re in the Hill Country with rivers and lakes, and Austin has one of the coolest nightlife and music scenes in the US. I’ve been around F1 racing a long time and Austin is absolutely what the teams and fans will eat up.”

It will be a great thing for American racing if Hellmund’s optimism proves well-founded.

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