Amer­i­can For­mula

Automobile - - Contents - By Steven Cole Smith

How in the world did For­mula 1’s only U.S. race end up at a pur­pose-built track out­side of Austin, Texas, of all places? Largely through the ef­forts of one Tavo Hell­mund, a de­ter­mined, highly skilled, and un­der-the-radar op­er­a­tor who also played a role in F1’s tri­umphant re­turn to Mex­ico City.

TAVO HELL­MUND, the lean, dim­pled, gim­let-eyed Texan who deftly ne­go­ti­ates the up­tight, ul­tra-so­phis­ti­cated, al­most sin­is­ter world of For­mula 1 on a daily ba­sis, re­cently quit chew­ing to­bacco.

One, it isn’t good for him. Two, his wife and kids didn’t much care for it. Three, it frees him from the need to, mul­ti­ple times a day, search for an empty can in which to spit to­bacco juice. Four, giv­ing up a habit he had since col­lege might make him look less like a typ­i­cal Texas goober, all hat and no cat­tle, to the glo­be­trot­ting zil­lion­aires who play high-stakes hands in the game of F1.

But there is no Four; Hell­mund doesn’t give a rat’s ass about ap­pear­ance. He doesn’t wear a hat, has no cat­tle. What he does have is a nice touch for find­ing money, lo­cat­ing fa­cil­i­ties, cre­at­ing co­op­er­a­tion among those who sel­dom do, and de­liv­er­ing not one but two F1 races to North Amer­ica—first, the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Amer­i­cas near Austin, Texas, a track he first sketched out on a nap­kin and named over the phone as he spoke with a friend.

Sec­ond, there would be no Mex­i­can Grand Prix, staged with enor­mous suc­cess at the old, his­toric Autó­dromo Her­manos Rodriguez in Mex­ico City, had Hell­mund not en­gi­neered the deal and over­seen re­con­struc­tion of the track.

In 2015, for the first time since 1992, F1 re­turned to Mex­ico City. The crowd, 335,850 over the three-day week­end, was “like be­ing at a foot­ball game,” said world cham­pion Lewis Hamil­ton af­ter the in­au­gu­ral race. “The fans have been amaz­ing. I’ve never seen any­thing like this.”

So that’s what Hell­mund, 52, did to rate a pro­file head­lined “For­mula One’s Bil­lion Dol­lar Man,” which is roughly the value of the two F1 con­tracts he se­cured. And he did it while op­er­at­ing well un­der the radar.

Hell­mund was born in Mex­ico City on Fe­bru­ary 24, 1966, seven weeks early, in a hurry even then. Af­ter his par­ents split, he lived with his mother in Austin but of­ten vis­ited his fa­ther, who re­mained in Mex­ico City. That would be Gustavo Hell­mund-Rosas, who Hell­mund in­her­ited his mo­tor­sports pas­sion from. Hell­mund-Rosas raced; he bought one of those red, white, and blue Amer­i­can Mo­tors Javelins Roger Penske cam­paigned in the Trans-Am se­ries, took it to Mex­ico, and ran it in a sim­i­lar se­ries there. The younger Hell­mund also in­her­ited his knack for mo­tor­sports pro­mo­tion.

His fa­ther as­sem­bled a cred­i­ble but un­suc­cess­ful ef­fort to bring F1 back to Mex­ico City in 1980, so he moved to Plan B: a pair of CART IndyCar races (CART pro­moter of the year in 1980) and some IMSA sports car races. Bernie Ec­cle­stone, then the F1 czar, ne­go­ti­ated the rights to the Mex­i­can Grand Prix with Hell­mund’s fa­ther, and F1 re­turned to Mex­ico City in 1986. Air pol­lu­tion reg­u­la­tions helped kill the race af­ter 1992, and it didn’t re­turn un­til Hell­mund helped bring it back.

The younger Hell­mund spent sum­mers in Mex­ico City and helped with ev­ery as­pect of the IndyCar and IMSA races and also the 1986 World Cup. In­evitably he be­gan driv­ing, first in karts. “Never at the top level, but I prob­a­bly should have,” he says. He con­tested the Skip Bar­ber se­ries, “which was the first place I could re­ally mea­sure my abil­ity against oth­ers and see if I had what it took to se­ri­ously go for it.” He won in SCCA rac­ing, as well as in late mod­els on short ovals, and he was good enough to take the next step. Also dur­ing sum­mers, Hell­mund worked for Ec­cle­stone, a long­time fam­ily friend, at the Brabham F1 team, which Ec­cle­stone owned. He moved to Europe in or­der to be­come the next Dan Gur­ney or Mario An­dretti. He did not.

“I knew if you were se­ri­ous about get­ting a shot at F1, you had to go there,” he says. He set­tled in Cam­bridge, Eng­land, which is where a lot of young rac­ers ended up be­cause it was lo­cated roughly in the cen­ter of sev­eral im­por­tant tracks. Neigh­bors and friends in­cluded fu­ture stars Hélio Castroneves, Cris­tiano da Matta, Rubens Bar­richello, and Mário

Haber­feld. “They called it the ‘ Uni­ver­sity of Auto Rac­ing,’ and it was,” Hell­mund recalls. “A lot of F1 cham­pi­ons went through there.”

Hell­mund early on showed flashes of tal­ent, but bud­get con­straints pre­vented con­ti­nu­ity. He scored poles and wins in For­mula Ford and had solid runs in For­mula Vaux­hall Jr. (quicker than Dario Fran­chitti in some) and in Bri­tish For­mula 3. But the competition was in­sane.

“In the U.S., it seemed like there were two types of young driv­ers: fast and poor, or rich and slow,” he says. “I ex­pected the same in Europe. I was wrong. There were rich guys who were very, very fast, groomed from birth to be a race car driver.” Even­tu­ally, Hell­mund got tired of try­ing to do more with less. “I went back to Austin, lick­ing my wounds.”

Maybe Hell­mund had one last shot at the pros: He built a lit­tle shop in the back of an Austin junk­yard, bought a NASCAR Chevro­let race car from Tim Bev­er­ley, bor­rowed an en­gine from NASCAR cham­pion team owner Rick Hen­drick, and went to Cal­i­for­nia to com­pete in the NASCAR Win­ston West race held at Mazda Race­way La­guna Seca in May 2001. “We towed out there with a du­ally pickup truck and had the car on an open trailer,” Hell­mund says. “They didn’t want to let us in. They thought we were there for some vin­tage car race.”

The crew was all-vol­un­teer. “My quick­est pit stop took 51 sec­onds,” Hell­mund says. But he won the Food­sCo NASCAR Chal­lenge, beat­ing driv­ers such as Bren­dan Gaughan, 2002 se­ries cham­pion Eric Nor­ris, and the legendary Her­schel McGriff.

By 2004, where Hell­mund had been and where he was go­ing col­lided. He had started a com­pany, Full Throt­tle Pro­duc­tions. He pro­moted sev­eral NASCAR and USAC Na­tional events with his wife, Aryn, win­ning pro­moter of the year for the Texas

Race­fest event in 2006—the only event that ever com­bined a NASCAR Grand Na­tional race and a USAC Na­tional Midget race on the same week­end. He tried to race in the NASCAR por­tion of the event but was spread too thin. “The race sold out, but I re­al­ized you can’t race and pro­mote at the same time,” he says. “I had to make a choice.”

Mean­while, F1 wasn’t long for the In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way, where it made its de­but in 2000. By 2006, ru­mors flew that F1 was go­ing to pull the plug, and as it turned out, 2007 saw the last F1 race at Indy. Hell­mund’s mind went into top gear. He knew rac­ing in gen­eral, F1 in par­tic­u­lar. He knew pro­mo­tion. He knew Austin. He knew the politi­cians. He knew Texas had a deep-pock­eted fund to help fi­nance sport­ing events. And most of all, he knew Ec­cle­stone.

Hell­mund says he had never asked the F1 dic­ta­tor for a dime, even when he was the quin­tes­sen­tial starv­ing young Amer­i­can racer in Europe. But once he as­sem­bled a solid busi­ness plan, he fi­nally asked him for some­thing: the first meet­ing to dis­cuss F1 in Austin. Ec­cle­stone trusted Hell­mund, a rar­ity in the se­ries.

The mo­tor­sports world was stunned when, in May 2010, F1 an­nounced it would re­turn to the U.S. in 2012, and yes, it would do so in Texas. Hell­mund was the man quoted in the of­fi­cial press re­lease. To all but a hand­ful of F1 in­sid­ers and a mod­er­ately larger hand­ful of short-track race fans, he was an un­known quan­tity, im­me­di­ately le­git­imized on the world’s largest mo­tor­sports stage.

An­other an­nounce­ment said the race would be held at Circuit of the Amer­i­cas, a new 3.427-mile per­ma­nent road course. Hell­mund and Full Throt­tle would sup­ply the F1 con­tract and the path to the state fund­ing; in­vestors, most no­tably Texas car dealer Red McCombs, would sup­ply the money to build the track.

Hell­mund, a no­to­ri­ously com­pre­hen­sive and savvy plan­ner, bud­geted for ev­ery­thing. The track would cost $200 mil­lion to build, he told a friend, “and the F1 race should make us $5 mil­lion. That’s not a lot— the pro­moter and the track get less of the pie than you’d think—but we get a paid-for race­track out of the deal with the state money.”

As hard­core F1 fans know, that’s not how it worked out. Se­ri­ous is­sues arose be­tween Hell­mund and other in­vestors who wanted more of the lime­light, and Hell­mund was essen­tially forced out of his own project. He sued, and part of the res­o­lu­tion in­cluded a pro­vi­sion that nei­ther side would com­ment on the si­t­u­a­tion pub­licly. But a source fa­mil­iar with the case sug­gests Hell­mund, “iron­i­cally, might be the only per­son to make money on Circuit of the Amer­i­cas.” Sud­denly, with him gone, the cost to build the track essen­tially dou­bled, and the fa­cil­ity’s ex­ec­u­tive staff suf­fered from con­sid­er­able turnover. The state’s Ma­jor Events Re­im­burse­ment Pro­gram, which kicks in more than $25 mil­lion an­nu­ally to pay the $20 mil­lion sanc­tion­ing fee and other ex­penses, has drawn fire from crit­ics won­der­ing why tax­pay­ers must so heav­ily sub­si­dize a pri­vately op­er­ated event. In­deed, the Austin event is the only F1 round in the world where a gov­ern­ment con­trib­utes enor­mous amounts of money but doesn’t own any part of the event, track, or land.

All of which, of course, Hell­mund left be­hind, by choice or not, thus free­ing him to or­ga­nize the Mex­i­can Grand Prix, which has hit one home run af­ter an­other since its 2015 de­but.

As for Hell­mund? Well, he’d like to go rac­ing again. There’s a lit­tle unfinished busi­ness. AM

The Mex­i­can GP’s mega re­vival (top); Tavo Hell­mund in F3 and work­ing on the Brabham team (above).

JOB DONEEx-For­mula 1 boss Bernie Ec­cle­stone and ex-Texas Comptroller Su­san Combs are old news, but Circuit of the Amer­i­cas, Tavo Hell­mund, and Mex­ico’s race are thriv­ing.

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