Austin F1 promoter has globe guessing
Who is Tavo Hellmund? How did he strike deal? can he hit 2012 target?
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.
Austin Formula One promoter Tavo Hellmund, 44, attended the University of Texas for two years before graduating from St. Edward’s University in 989.