Austin F1 pro­moter has globe guess­ing

Who is Tavo Hell­mund? How did he strike deal? can he hit 2012 tar­get?

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By John Ma­her AMER­I­CAN-STATE­MENT STAFF

An ec­cen­tric bil­lion­aire calls him a fam­ily friend. Mil­lion­aires want to throw money at him. He al­ways flies coach but now at­tracts jet-set­ters. He can bring a dead cell phone back to life. With­out us­ing a charger.

No dis­re­spect to the star of the Dos Equis beer com­mer­cials, but he is, for the moment, the most in­ter­est­ing man in the world.

Ever since late May, when it was an­nounced that Aus t in would be­come the U.S. stop for a For­mula One Grand Prix race, fans from Singapore to Is­tan­bul have been ask­ing the $250 mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion: Who in the world is Tavo Hell­mund?

“That’s what is so cool about this, the mys­tery,” said Bill Dol­lahite, a for­mer race car driver.

Even in Austin, where the driver/ pro­moter has spent most of his life, Hell­mund re­mains an enigma. Not too long ago he was driv­ing in or pro­mot­ing mi­nor league races at a three-eighth mile track in Kyle. Now, he has landed one of the most pres­ti­gious events in all of sports, lined up a po­ten­tial $250 mil­lion in back­ing from the State of Texas over the next 10 years and man­aged to keep word of the deal from leak­ing out un­til F1 boss Bernie Ec­cle­stone un­ex­pect­edly dropped the bomb­shell.

“I talked to him that morn­ing,” Hell­mund re­called. “We said we’d talk next week af­ter the long hol­i­day … Then, holy cow!”

Though Hell­mund has said his in­vest­ment group is com­plete, he said

he’s still be­ing ap­proached by wealthy car en­thu­si­asts who are in­ter­ested in get­ting in on his deal, which up un­til the an­nounce­ment ap­peared headed for the Mon­ti­cello Mo­tor Club in New York. As the au­dac­ity of Hell­mund’s coup set­tles in, dis­be­liev­ers are be­com­ing be­liev­ers.

Dol­lahite said: “At first I gave this about a 10 per­cent shot. I fig­ured it was a power play on New York. Right now I’m giv­ing it about a 75 per­cent chance. For 2012, 50-50.”

Ru­mors in the motorsport world say Hell­mund is be­ing backed by for­eign in­vestors; in an in­ter­view with the Amer­i­can-States­man this week, Ec­cle­stone said the back­ers are from the U.S. but de­clined to name them. Ec­cle­stone also said he ex­pects the race to hap­pen in 2012 — or else.

“That’s what the con­tract says,” Ec­cle­stone said. “It might turn out to be ex­pen­sive for Tavo. We’ve got some penalty clauses, al­though I wouldn’t want to use them.”

Like fa­ther, like son

Hell­mund bris­tles at skep­tics who say this will be his first rodeo. In a way, he’s just car­ry­ing on a fam­ily tra­di­tion.

His fa­ther, Gus­tavo, once pro­moted races in Mex­ico City, and the par­ties Gus­tavo threw for the Cham­pi­onship Auto Rac­ing Team se­ries three decades ago are still the stuff of leg­end, ac­cord­ing to motorsport blog­ger Michael Knight.

In ad­di­tion to rac­ing, Tavo Hell­mund is pas­sion­ate about Austin and Uni­ver­sity of Texas foot­ball. Wear­ing a burnt orange shirt for his in­ter­view, Hell­mund said one of his fond­est mem­o­ries was sit­ting in Me­mo­rial Sta­dium when it still had cheap seats and watch­ing Rus­sell Erxleben kick a record 67-yard field goal in a 1977 game against Rice Uni­ver­sity. Hell­mund later at­tended UT for two years and grad­u­ated from St. Ed­ward’s Uni­ver­sity in 1989 with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in psy­chol­ogy.

Now 44, Hell­mund still has an al­most-boy­ish look and spon­ta­neous man­ner. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he says things straight out of left field. When he was ex­plain­ing how he pitched the F1 project to state Comptroller Su­san Combs, he blurted out, “The pre­vi­ous comptroller is the only lady who ever spanked me, be­sides my mom.”

Huh? Ca­role Kee­ton Stray­horn, who served two terms as state comptroller be­fore run­ning for gover­nor in 2006, was called for an ex­pla­na­tion.

“It must have been a love tap,” laughed Stray­horn. “I love Tavo.”

The back­story: As kids, Tavo and his younger brother Mike lived in Tar­ry­town with their mother, Bob­bie, and their grand­fa­ther, for­mer TCU foot­ball player Vance Wool­wine. Their house was catty-corner from Stray­horn’s, where she was rais­ing her four now-prom­i­nent sons — Mark, Brad, Dud­ley and Scott McClellan. The Hell­mund boys spent so much time at Stray­horn’s house that they were con­sid­ered fam­ily. And Stray­horn had their mother’s per­mis­sion to treat them that way.

At that time, Stray­horn had the scrag­gli­est front yard in Tar­ry­town — it wasn’t a yard so much as a ball field. Rocks, trees, what­ever was handy, served as bases. Drive­ways were end zones. What looked like a side­walk was ac­tu­ally the 50-yard line.

But one day, she de­cided to spruce things up and spent hours on her knees plant­ing bulbs. When the new plant­ings were quickly ripped out of the ground by the pack of kids, Hell­mund got the same treat­ment as Stray­horn’s own sons — a spank­ing.

“He takes dis­ci­pline well,” joked Stray­horn, who said she had for­got­ten about the in­ci­dent. “They were po­lite kids, and Tavo was a good big brother. He would or­ga­nize what was go­ing on. He wasn’t quiet. Some­times he would tell me about his dad and race cars.”

For three years, when his mother was sick, Hell­mund lived in Mex­ico with his fa­ther and at­tended high school at the Amer­i­can School Foun­da­tion. About that same time, Gus­tavo Hell­mund was bring­ing big-time auto rac­ing to Mex­ico, with some in­ter­est­ing re­sults.

“No place in mod­ern his­tory pro­duced more bizarre hap­pen­ings than Mex­ico City when CART vis­ited in 1980 and ’81,” wrote Knight in his pop­u­lar blog — Spin-Doc­tor-500-blog — which cov­ers NASCAR and other mo­tor sports.

Knight should know — in 1980 he was com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for CART, which fea­tured such stars as Bobby and Al Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Ruther­ford, Danny On­gais and Tom Sneva. Gus­tavo Hell­mund lured those driv­ers to Mex­ico City and the Autó­dromo Ri­cardo Ro­dríguez for the Copa Mex­ico 150 in 1980 with a $150,000 purse, then a shock­ingly large sum.

Knight re­mem­bers Gus­tavo Hell­mund as an out­go­ing man, usu­ally dressed in black. The race, won by Mears, was not de­terred by an earth­quake the day be­fore and a pre-race crash by the city’s po­lice mo­tor­cy­cle drill team, which had been putting on a show. After­ward, Gus­tavo Hell­mund bused race driv­ers and of­fi­cials to a lav­ish party in the court­yard of a 17th-cen­tury Je­suit mis­sion, fea­tur­ing plenty of te­quila and a fire­works dis­play.

“Hell­mund’s style of hype and hoopla was the ge­n­e­sis of what (CART’s then-chair­man John) Frasco came to call his “Big Event” con­cept for CART’s fu­ture,” wrote Knight.

A re­peat event in Mex­ico City the fol­low­ing year didn’t fare as well. The dis­or­ga­nized race was stopped a lap short by mis­take. Knight said Gus­tavo Hell­mund threw an­other great party, but CART of­fi­cials were later sum­moned to the ho­tel lobby to pay their bills, which were sup­posed to be picked up by Gus­tavo Hell­mund.

The elder Hell­mund, who now splits his time be­tween Mex­ico and Europe, is cur­rently in­volved in real es­tate, not pro­mot­ing. But in 1986, he helped bring For­mula One back to Mex­ico City af­ter a 16year ab­sence. That race, pro­moted by broth­ers Jose and Ju­lian Abed, lasted un­til 1992 and helped ce­ment Gus­tavo Hell­mund’s re­la­tion­ship with the pow­er­ful Ec­cle­stone.

By then Hell­mund’s son had the rac­ing bug. Tavo Hell­mund had spent six months in 1984 work­ing in Europe as a gofer with Ec­cle­stone’s F1 team, which was headed by 1981 and 1983 world cham­pion Nel­son Pi­quet of Brazil.

Un­like his fa­ther, Tavo Hell­mund didn’t see him­self be­hind the scenes. He wanted to be be­hind the wheel.

Never enough money

For the kind of rac­ing Tavo Hell­mund was aim­ing for, F1, that even­tu­ally meant go­ing to Eng­land and com­pet­ing in the Bri­tish Vaux­hall and For­mula 3 se­ries, both of which use less-pow­er­ful, less-ex­pen­sive cars than F1 but which can be im­por­tant step­ping stones in an open-wheel driver’s ca­reer. “That’s the uni­ver­sity of auto rac­ing,” said T.Q. Jones, who’s been an as­so­ci­ate and busi­ness part­ner of Hell­mund’s.

Hell­mund nabbed a third place at Snet­ter­ton, Eng­land, in 1995, but he had trou­ble find­ing fi­nanc­ing.

“He’s never had enough money to do it right. It’s too bad. He could do things with the car that were just amaz­ing,” Jones said.

In the past decade, Hell­mund has raced in the NASCAR K&N Pro Se­ries. He claimed a $16,600 first prize in a 2001 race at La­guna Seca and had a cou­ple of sec­ond-place fin­ishes in 2003. But in 2005 and 2006 a run of bad luck, in­clud­ing bro­ken oil lines and fuel pumps, kept him from fin­ish­ing any of three races he en­tered.

“He kind of strug­gled, like a lot of peo­ple,” said Dol­lahite, who said he has known Hell­mund for about 15 years. “He used to call me and ask me how to get spon­sors … He drives well enough, but driv­ing is only about 10 per­cent of it. It’s what you do when your hands aren’t on the wheel.”

Hell­mund turned more of this at­ten­tion to pro­mot­ing. Full Throt­tle Pro­duc­tions’ Texas Thun­der & Light­ning Race­fest at Thun­der­hill Race­way, with stock car and mid­get car rac­ing, is head­ing into its sixth year. He also dreamed of stag­ing an F1 event in Austin and turned to Ec­cle­stone to make it hap­pen.

When the big news hit that Austin had landed a cov­eted F1 race, Hell­mund’s e-mail suf­fered a melt­down as 18,000 mes­sages poured in within three min­utes. Hell­mund, who was trav­el­ing, was soon mak­ing fran­tic phone calls and giv­ing in­ter­views when his cell phone ran out of juice, ren­der­ing him in­com­mu­ni­cado.

So Hell­mund tried a trick he heard about from a friend — he pulled the bat­tery, mak­ing sure it stayed bone-dry in his cupped hands as he held them un­der hot run­ning wa­ter un­til he couldn’t stand the heat any­more. Then he buffed the bat­tery on his pants leg, slapped it back in the phone and made more calls, in­clud­ing one to the States­man.

Af­ter decades of rac­ing and pro­mot­ing races, Hell­mund is used to im­pro­vis­ing. He’ll need those skills in the com­ing months to meet the 2012 dead­line for the U.S. Grand Prix.

“Un­til he doesn’t (do it), we won’t know,” Ec­cle­stone said, while ex­press­ing con­fi­dence in Hell­mund. “You might say I couldn’t run the 100 me­ters in seven sec­onds, but un­til I try, you don’t know.”

Tavo Hell­mund Pro­moter has also driven race cars.

Ralph Bar­rera

Austin For­mula One pro­moter Tavo Hell­mund, 44, at­tended the Uni­ver­sity of Texas for two years be­fore grad­u­at­ing from St. Ed­ward’s Uni­ver­sity in 989.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.