Despite New York possessing the demographics, infrastructure, history and desire to support a stateside return, Formula 1 announced this week the next U.S. Grand Prix is headed to Texas. Here's how — and why — New York get screwed.
The last American Formula One race was the 2007 F1 U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the location where the series had a turbulent and unsuccessful seven-year stay. Prior to that, the race was held on a number of street courses in cities like Las Vegas and Detroit. The historic home of stateside F1 is Watkins Glen International in upstate New York, where the race was run from 1961 to 1980.
As recently as May 5th, it seemed like F1 was set to return to the New York area. Formula One Management, Ltd. — the company that manages and licenses the sport — announced a track layout for the U.S. Grand Prix in Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City's mayor quickly put the kibosh on those plans after local community groups objected.
But that wasn't the only bright hope for New York. A letter from Ari Straus, president of the Monticello Motor Club, located a couple hours North of the city, was leaked to the press three weeks later. In it, Straus revealed that F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone and chief track designer Hermann Tilke visited Monticello in hopes of using the facility for an upcoming event.
In the letter, Straus detailed how close he was to sealing the deal:
Since receiving a letter of understanding from [Formula One Management] confirming their hope to bring the U.S. Grand Prix to Monticello, Bill and I have continued to secure the backing and support of local, state, and federal politicians and organizations.
Jalopnik had arranged to speak with MMC about their plans for Formula 1 well ahead of Tuesday's Austin announcement.
Straus told us he was as shocked as everyone else about the Austin selection, especially given how much New York had to offer in terms of demographics (large, diverse population center), the infrastructure needed for international travelers (more than one mid-sized airport, trains, public transit) and an existing (or somewhat, in the case of Jersey City) course.
"Formula One, in my opinion, still belongs in New York," he said, adding that he was still happy to see F1 in the United States and honored to have MMC seriously considered for the location.
A source close to the negotiations was also stunned by the announcement, saying that "Bernie has said to everyone who would listen, anytime there was an open mic, that he wanted to be in New York... It's wild. Who in a million years would guess it? [Out of] all the cities in North America, Austin would be 197th on the list."
Meet Tavo Hellmund
The mystery man behind the deal to bring the Grand Prix to Austin is Tavo Hellmund, a race-car driver and managing partner of a mostly unknown marketing company called Full Throttle Productions. The Austinite raced in Europe as part of the British Vauxhall and Formula 3 series, including nabbing a third place at Snetterton, England in 1995. He's also old friends of Ecclestone.
A 1995 article in the Austin American Statesman says Hellmund ran out of money in his pursuit to be the first American to win a Formula 3 championship. ''It's frustrating,'' he said. ''You work your rear off putting things together on and off the track, but you still fall short financially.'' He eventually moved to the NASCAR Grand National series and co-founded Full Throttle.
People we spoke with said Tavo was the main driving force behind the move, somehow jumping from producing NASCAR Grand National short-track event to producing an event for the biggest car-racing series in the world, one that involves a purpose-built racing facility that will cost upwards of $250 million. The key to Hellmund's victory over New York appears to be a mixture of yet-unnamed private backers and total acquiescence from all levels of government, something F1 couldn't get in New Jersey. Texas's governor, the state comptroller, and the mayor of Austin were all enthusiastically on board.
"This was driven entirely by Full Throttle Productions and their CEO," says Matt Curtis, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. "Tavo had a longstanding relationship with the State of Texas and with the comptroller's office, and then brought the city of Austin into the conversation about six weeks ago."
Both Hellmund and his company declined to comment, citing the overwhelming amount of media inquiries, but the former did tell the Statesman that his company spent $1 million just to bid for the U.S. Grand Prix, and that they'd make it happen without state or local funding — although Austin's Matt Curtis says local governments can apply to the Texas Major Events Fund to offset their own costs related to preparing Austin for the race and reports suggest they've been promised up to $25 million a year in support.
He also responded in advance to critics who might say Austin lacks the proper infrastructure or fanbase for the sport. "Austin is more of an F1 crowd than a NASCAR crowd," Hellmund told the Statesman. "The geography, the tech money, the nightlife, the music. It all just fits with what Formula One is all about."
Monticello's Straus still isn't convinced that Formula One made the right choice. "I'll get to see Bernie [this weekend] and I'll congratulate him," he said. "But I'll let him know that he made a mistake, and that Formula One still belongs in New York."
Still, it sounds as though Bernie's likely got 25 million reasons for his decision.
Photo Credit: Brian K. Diggs/AMERICAN-STATESMAN, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images