F1, Take One

Fast cars! Big egos! Billionaires! Painted boobs! How grand prix racing came to Texas—and why it’s probably here to stay.
Photograph by Sarah Wilson

Special precautions were in order. You needed only look skyward one weekend last November to realize it. Helicopters hoisted bigwigs from various spots in Austin to the recently constructed Circuit of the Americas, where the city’s inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix would be held on Sunday, November 18. Rich people filled the skies like a late-season mosquito hatch, and many Austin residents shut themselves in their houses to wait out the infestation. 

Among the people hitching a ride on a charter bird was Mario Andretti, the 72-year-old race car driver who’d been hired as COTA’s “official ambassador.” And so it was that I found myself, at six-thirty in the morning on the Friday before the race, in a meeting room at the downtown Embassy Suites, where a smiling man behind a bar was already offering chilled champagne. Andretti, diminutive but robust, arrived casually dressed and loaded down with entry badges. I trotted after him to the top floor of the parking garage, where the helicopter was waiting. He slipped on his sunglasses, and as we waited for the boarding signal, I shouted over the copter’s noise, “What’s it like to go two hundred miles an hour?” 

He shrugged and answered in an Italian accent, “The speed is, to some degree, irrelevant. Speed will surprise a beginner. But I’ve trained since I was twelve years old. If you never experience it, you notice it.” He added that he has driven people in three-seater demonstration cars to give them a taste of the experience. “The reaction is ‘ Waaaaa!’ ” he said, crying like a baby. “When I go out, I don’t ease into it. There’s a panic button, but I ignore it. They pass out and come to later.”

He turned around and saw that the pilot was ready. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go!”

This weekend was the culmination of years of deal-making and wheel-greasing, in which a handful of businessmen, aided by state comptroller Susan Combs, conjured a multimillion-dollar race operation. The flak had started early and hadn’t subsided in the weeks before the race: dissatisfied residents had already begun grumbling about pollution, helicopter noise, and traffic. But state officials had courted the profitable enterprise with the enthusiasm of an AV club president who stumbles upon a chance to date the prom queen. ( On race weekend, Governor Rick Perry himself rode by shuttle to the race site to size up the extent of the traffic.) By the time the race lovers flooded the city, even the most disgruntled citizens had resigned themselves to the peculiar reality that every year for the next ten years, one of the most prestigious car races in the world, watched on TV by 500 million people, was going to take place in their backyard.

Our helicopter climbed up into the clear, sunny sky. From downtown, we flew over Interstate 35, heading southeast, the clusters of apartment complexes and housing developments giving way to puzzle pieces of brown scrub and stock tanks. After about ten minutes we reached the track—a 3.4-mile course with long straightaways and switchbacks, gradual curves and sharp corners. From the sky, its irregular shape looked something like a giant women’s stacked-heel shoe. The entire COTA installation covered 1,300 acres and included the track, a 14,000-capacity amphitheater, a main grandstand built to accommodate 8,000, and auxiliary stands for another 88,000.

A year and a half earlier, this had all been raw land, and F1 had seemed little more than a whimsical theater of press conferences. But now the track and all its fresh plumage had been installed as if it were just another (unusually loud) subdivision. We landed a short drive from the track, and as we exited the helicopter, we could already hear the buzz in the distance, like a swarm of bees.

THE IDEA THAT A WORLD-CLASS RACE would come to Central Texas had seemed so unlikely, and the high-stakes business negotiations to land F1 had been so fraught, that on the weekend of the race, it was still a little surprising that it was happening at all. The event was the brainchild of 47-year-old Tavo Hellmund, a race promoter, whom I met last October at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin. The son of a local department store employee and a Mexican motor-sports promoter, he has the buttoned-down look of a casual businessman, offset by a Texan drawl, a talent for expressive storytelling, and a penchant for dipping tobacco. He has some difficulty sitting still, a trait that has ultimately worked to his advantage. As a teenager, he said, he worked summers in his dad’s business, taking tickets and picking up trash at Indy racing and F1 events in Mexico, and when he was 22 he moved to Europe to attempt to make it as a driver. After seven years he’d made it only as far as Formula 3—a feeder class to F1—and he decided to try his hand at promotion instead.

What he wanted to promote was his hometown. “Now, Austin doesn’t roll off the tongue like Monaco or Singapore,” he told me. But he believed it had plenty to offer F1, such as thriving nightlife and a large population within a 180-mile radius. There were more than fifty Fortune 500 companies in Texas that could become directly involved with teams or manufacturers. The city also had no professional sports franchise, which would make Formula 1 the main sporting event in town besides the Texas Longhorns. Hellmund speculated that Austin’s assets would set it apart from Indianapolis, the last location for a U.S. Formula 1 Grand Prix, where track sponsors broke ties with F1 in 2007.

But many promoters have plans. What Hellmund had was more valuable: access. For as long as he could remember, his family had been close with Bernie Ecclestone, the president and CEO of Formula 1 Management. Ecclestone, a petite 82-year-old mogul with a white mop-top, regularly made the news, often photographed with statuesque women more than twenty years his junior. He had ruled

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