Op-Ed: Things sound bad for F1 race in Austin

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I don’t want to be alarmist, and I certainly don’t want to get painted as being somehow against the proposed Austin U.S. GP.

Right up front: I can’t wait for the race. Can’t. Wait. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be realistic, and the realistic part of me is starting to get that familiar feeling of dread.

The signs are starting to mount that things are seriously awry deep in the heart of Texas.

The Austin Business Journal has a solid round-up of how plans seem to be moving sideways:

Tavo Hellmund, promoter of the Austin Formula One race proposed for 2012, has ignored or sidestepped pointed questions and repeated inquiries from the F1 governing body about funding an Austin grand prix, leading top international racing officials to question whether the race is a legitimate venture.

Despite race organizers and some Texas government officials saying that a U.S. Formula One event in Austin has been in the works since 2008 and is a sure thing, top officials at the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, better known as FIA, are leery.

They were left in the dark and had to read about the May 25 Austin announcement online like everyone else, said a top Formula One official, who asked not be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Neither FIA President Jean Todt nor FIA Senate President Nick Craw, who also represents the U.S. in the FIA, were aware of the Austin race before the announcement by Hellmund and Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone, the official said.

[snip]

“Full Throttle Productions and Formula One Management have worked diligently for two and a half years to bring Formula 1 racing back to the United States,” spokesman Trey Salinas said in an email. “Formula One Management is satisfied with our plans to fund and build an Austin track.”

This month, Ecclestone told ESPN he is confident Hellmund’s project will succeed and only worries about how quickly the track can be built.

While F1 Management — meaning Ecclestone — is satisfied, the FIA president said differently during the July 4 weekend at a NASCAR race in Daytona, Fla. Todt called an Austin race merely “a project” during an interview with Fox Sports.

In another interview that weekend, aired on the Speed Channel’s “Wind Tunnel” show, Todt characterized the Austin race as a “discussion” and said it is “by far too early to conclude anything” when asked whether he is confident the race will happen.

[snip]

Further diminishing the chances of pulling off the Austin grand prix in two years is the requirement that it be approved by the FIA World Motor Sport Council no later than its December 2011 meeting, the official said.

To be approved, a finished track must be inspected, yet Hellmund has not announced a track location or design yet, sources said.

Full Throttle’s spokesman said the first requirement will be to submit a detailed track layout and master plan for the FIA Circuit Commission’s September meeting.

“Our track designer, Tilke GmbH, is finalizing track layout and design for this meeting,” the spokesman said.

“Later this summer, we will be releasing additional information, including site location, master plan, facility renderings and track layout.”

[snip]

Meanwhile, billionaire Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, wants one in Las Vegas and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert wants one in Chicago, according to the F1 official.

Speaking on background, multiple sources said the vague May 25 announcement could be a ploy to placate high-performance car makers complaining that Formula One is missing out on the highly attractive U.S. market.

Sources familiar with the industry have said Ecclestone is under a lot of pressure to return F1 to the U.S., after a three-year absence following the deterioration of the Indianapolis F1 grand prix in 2007.

The story also notes that rumors have picked up about Bernie Ecclestone wanting a second race in New Jersey.

I think the Business Journal hits on a number of the issues that exist now: timing and financing being the two big ones. Plus there’s the fact that organizers have yet to produce anything substantive enough to assuage concerns. It just has the feeling of the cart being way before the F1 car.

I do think we have one solid deadline we can focus on — that September meeting. Sure, the spokesman talks about details coming out “later this summer,” but that’s fungible for sure. Heck, “later this summer” still could be late September, up until about the 21st or so when the calendar officially says it is Fall.

So if September comes and goes without anything solid, I think we can turn our attention away from the Lone Star State.

Is that a bad thing? Depends. Will I be happy to have F1 back in the U.S., be it in New York or New Jersey or even near that big oval in Indianapolis? Sure. But something about the Austin location really caught my attention. Maybe it’s the bar and music scene. Maybe it’s the food. Heck, maybe it’s because my wife graduated from UT-Austin. Something about it just sounded like it might be right.

Which is why I’m so bummed that it’s now sounding so wrong.

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