Tavo Hellmund: The Texan bringing F1 to America

Profile: Dismissed by one critic as "all hat and no cattle", Tavo Hellmund believes he is the right man in the right place to finally persuade the US that Formula One is a sport worth watching.

Christopher Burke for The National
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When he was a teenager Tavo Hellmund spent a summer as a garage rat for Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Brabham racing team, touring Europe's racetracks with the crew backing world champion Nelson Piquet.

Biobox: Tavo Hellmund "My role as a promoter is as frustrated ex-driver"

Favourite car The 1964 Aston Martin DB as used in the Bond movie Goldfinger

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Favourite films Outlaw Josey Wales, Grand Prix, For all Mankind, Senna

Favourite TV shows Modern Family, Sons of Anarchy

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"I did the stuff nobody wanted to do," Mr Hellmund recalls. "I cleaned the tyres, swept the floor, emptied the oil trays."

More than 25 years later Mr Hellmund, 45, is the man bringing Formula One back to the US, the biggest sports market in the world.

The Texas native is leading the effort to convert an isolated shrub-covered plot outside Austin into a racetrack that will host the US Grand Prix, on November 18, 2012, two weeks after the Abu Dhabi race.

More than one local cynic has already suggested Mr Hellmund is "all hat and no cattle", a Texas phrase for hucksters who talk big but can't deliver.

A former minor league driver with limited experience beyond promoting regional events, Mr Hellmund is seen as an unlikely choice to reverse F1's chequered history in the US. Even in Austin, he was little known outside the racing community.

And Austin, which is considered too small to support a major sports franchise, was an unexpected choice to host the race. Texas is Nascar country, far off the radar for F1's globe-trotting fans, critics argue.

"I'm not expecting the champagne and yacht crowd to be from Austin," says Mr Hellmund, with a touch of Texas drawl. "I'm banking on the fact that they are going to come from outside Austin to visit."

Mr Hellmund has several factors working in his favour, including his lifelong relationship with Mr Ecclestone, the impresario of F1. Mr Hellmund's father, Gustavo, a long-time friend of Mr Ecclestone, was a race promoter who staged F1 and Indy car races in Mexico City.

Mr Hellmund also knows racing inside and out after years driving in Formula Three and other international circuits. "I can honestly say my role as a promoter is as frustrated ex-driver," he says.

Growing up he usually spent summers travelling the world with his father, following the F1 circuit. But he was raised by his mother in Austin. "I'm a true Austinite," he says.

After graduating from college, Mr Hellmund embarked on a career as a non-contract driver, travelling junior circuits, always scrapping for a ride and financial backing. When he was racing in Europe he regularly stayed in touch with Mr Ecclestone.

"When I was a starving race car driver needing sponsorship or tyre money, the smartest thing I ever did was I never asked Bernie for a dime," he says. "We would really just talk about life or business."

Mr Ecclestone always discouraged him from pursuing racing. "Basically he was always saying you're a good little racer, but you're never going to make it to Formula One."

Four years ago he quit racing. After many close calls for jobs driving in the top circuits, it was clear he wasn't going to get the big-league ride. "Even though I was successful at the levels I reached at racing, it was kind of like my boat had left the dock," he says.

He professes no regrets. "Everything happens for a reason. I like to look back and say that the reason was that maybe I was going to get killed." Promoting events was a natural next step.

"Bernie had always been egging me on to get back to the family roots," Mr Hellmund says. "I don't know a lot about a lot of things, but I know a lot about racing."

His company staged midget car races, hot-air balloon festivals, football tournaments and stock-car events. But there was nothing close to the scale of F1, one of the world's biggest circuses. For years Mr Hellmund prodded Mr Ecclestone with the idea that Texas was the perfect spot for F1.

"I think for a big portion of the world, Texas is still this mystical cowboys and Indians and JR Ewing type of deal," he says. "I don't think they really understand that it is very cosmopolitan, very forward thinking, with more Fortune 500 companies than any other state."

Mr Hellmund's partners include Red McCombs, a Texas billionaire. A long-time friend Kevin Schwartz, a former motorcycle world champion, is also involved.

Mr Hellmund arranged for US$250 million (Dh918m) over 10 years from the state of Texas, tapping a little-used fund designated for support of major events, to help to build the track, Circuit of the Americas, which has been designed by Hermann Tilke, whose company is the F1 engineering specialist.

"For the first time in the history of Formula One in the United States, a world-class facility will be purpose-built to host the event," said Mr Ecclestone when the race was announced.

F1 has tried several times to re-establish a foothold in the US, including a race in Dallas in 1984, without success. The last attempt at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, mired by controversy and often poor attendances, was cancelled after the 2007 race. A grand prix has been run on and off in the US since 1908, when it was known as the American Grand Prize.

Faced with competition from the homegrown Nascar and Indy car series, F1 receives little coverage in the mainstream US press, rarely generating more than a few paragraphs in daily newspapers.

The Austin race represents an initiative to finally establish the sport in the US. In addition to Austin, F1 is planning a street race in New Jersey, scheduled to launch in 2013.

But America is not an essential location for Mr Ecclestone, Mr Hellmund says.

"I don't think he [Mr Ecclestone] needs America. I think everyone prefers for there to be America, but he doesn't absolutely need it."

Mr Hellmund insists he knows "the American psyche" and how to make F1 more palatable to American fans. The track will be elevated in several portions, giving spectators a chance to see large chunks of the race instead of one corner. And general admission tickets will give fans the opportunity to roam to different parts of the track.

"Drivers and teams need to be more accessible for the American fan," he says.

Today Mr Hellmund is working as a consultant on proposed F1 races in Mexico, South Africa and Argentina. His focus is on the Austin race, but at some point he expects to remove himself from the day-to-day operations of the event, once it is up to speed.

"I don't plan to be a track operator," he says. "My mission has always been to put the whole deal together and get it going and then continue to broaden my horizons."

He has one other goal - to get back in the race car, to again feel the adrenalin rush of speed.

"I miss it terribly," he says. "I don't know if there is anything that can replace that."

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