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"We're on schedule": Austin's Formula 1 boss talks construction, reveals plans for a year-round facility

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Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_incline
The view from the grandstand straight away looking up the hill to a hairpin turn 1. Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_flag
Construction cranes working on the pit buildings and media center. A flag marks each turn on the race track. Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_wall
Walls go up on the 15,000 square foot media center. Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_worker
Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_inside
Inside the construction office. Bobby Epstein is on the left with his back to the camera. Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_seats
Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_Bobby Epstein
Kevin Benz and Bobby Epstein Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_sign
Photo by Kevin Benz
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_incline
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_flag
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_wall
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_worker
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_inside
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_seats
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_Bobby Epstein
Austin Photo Set: News_COTA track_formula 1_feb 2012_sign

Bobby Epstein is a quiet, unassuming man. He has little interest in publicity as evidenced by his reticence in returning phone calls, texts and emails from the media. But if the co-founder and lead player of Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is not the big personality one might associate with power and money, there is one thing no one will ever do — and that is underestimate what Epstein can make happen.

When COTA lost their race license with Formula 1, no one thought Epstein would be able to get it back. He did.

When construction on the track was halted due to that contract dispute, everyone believed it would fall too far behind schedule to ever be ready in time to race next Nov. 18. The jury is still out on that one, but after an exclusive half-day, one-on-one tour of the facility with Epstein last month, I can say there is a pretty strong argument that he will have it ready.

 But there was trouble in paradise. No one but those in the room know exactly what happened, but as they say on the fashion design runway: One day Tavo Hellmund was in, the next he was out.  

More on that in a moment — first, a word about a certain lawsuit.

The lawsuit

No one with even a passing interest in Austin's Formula 1 race should be surprised to see a lawsuit filed in this crazy mess of a Formula 1 circuit. In fact Tavo Hellmund all but announced he was filing a lawsuit way back on Nov. 17 when he held a press conference — with his lawyer.

As quick historical background, Tavo Hellmund is the guy who brought Formula 1 to Austin. His personal relationship with F1 boss and friend Bernie Ecclestone garnered a contract to bring the United States Grand Prix to Central Texas. But Hellmund had a problem — he had no money. So he put together a finance group led by Bobby Epstein, a bond dealer, and Red McCombs, an auto dealer. With that financing in place, the Circuit of the America's (COTA) race track broke ground early last year.

But there was trouble in paradise. No one but those in the room know exactly what happened, but as they say on the fashion design runway: One day Tavo Hellmund was in, the next he was out. 

Hellmund's lawsuit asks for unspecified damages from the Circuit of the America's partners and suggests he wants to take over management of the enterprise. He reminds everyone that he is the one who brought Formula 1 here and he wants his due, claiming there was a deal for an $18 million buy-out. He also says the track is badly behind schedule and is being mismanaged.

This is where things get messy. Tavo Hellmund may be a good guy with great intentions, but has no contract with Formula 1 any longer. His friend Bernie Ecclestone canceled it.

Epstein, McCombs and company had to reload, going directly to Ecclestone and managing to get his signature on a new deal. It's a deal presumably without Hellmund and a deal some say is not nearly as sweet as the one Hellmund originally signed, but it is a contract and Formula 1 is still coming.

"Only the people who signed the contract know what's in the contract," Epstein told CultureMap. "And I doubt any of them have revealed any information about it." And that was all he had to say about that.

So while a lawsuit is certainly a pain in the ass, it is unlikely to derail this project. "This is just a latest step in a pattern of behavior. Mr. Hellmund uses negative press to try and create an advantage for himself at every turn," said Circuit of the Americas in a written statement. "The fact is, he has been found to be in breach of contract by Formula 1 and he has not fulfilled his agreements with Circuit of The Americas. Our focus remains positive. We are creating the most incredible entertainment and racing venue in the world, construction is on schedule and seat license and suite sales are very strong."

 The race track itself is an sight to behold. A beautiful work of engineering art.

The Circuit under construction

As we drove around the COTA facility, Epstein took his best shot at convincing me that the facility is "on schedule," or at least close and will be ready by race day. He also politely refused to answer any of the hard questions about the breakup with Hellmund. "I'm not going to do that," he said. 

The drought is a terrible thing and there are few who would publicly ask that it continue. Epstein does. Rain is a construction killer, slowing the earth moving equipment for days as they wait for the land to dry out. So far Epstein's construction consultant, Max Chapman, says things are no more than a couple weeks behind the new schedule developed once construction restarted last December.

The concrete skeletons of the pit buildings and inside grandstands are almost fully poured. The 15,000 square foot media center walls are up. The track, according to Chapman needs just 60 days more work.

"It's not so much a question of whether the construction will be complete. It's really a matter of deciding whether to add another shift of workers and get onto a 24-hour schedule. We'll need to do that if we get a lot of rain. If it stays dry, we'll be fine," said Epstein.

The race track itself is an sight to behold. A beautiful work of engineering art. Workers removed nine feet of soil and filled it with a mixture of crushed concrete smoothed to a ridiculous degree of precision. Once ready, the racing surface will be topped with 11 inches of asphalt. That topcoat's chemical composition is laid out by the Formula 1 engineers and is manufactured in only a handful of plants around the world.

The asphalt will be laid down over the course of a 48-hour period during which there will be no stopping in order to avoid any seams in the racing surface. Seams may not mean much to a Toyota Corolla, but they are the difference between life and death in a Formula 1 car screaming toward a hairpin turn at 200 mph.

A year-round facility

Epstein points out that while Formula 1, MotoGP and V-8 Supercars will be the main events at the track, they will not be the only events. "Formula 1 will represent maybe thirty percent of our total revenue, but that's only one race," he explains. "I want the circuit facilities busy every day of the year."

There are convention and conference facilities here with catering, and an amphitheater capable of holding 15,000 people. There are in fact nine different venues that will be rented out. There will be a driving school and races of every sort — the track can be subdivided in order to serve a 5K run, or a bicycle race.

Epstein would like to lure major conventions to COTA. That will be a problem without hotels, but Epstein says there will be plenty of rooms coming and a hotel on site at some point is not out of the question.

Getting people in and out of the Circuit will be a problem. The answers to questions about ingress and egress are not easy to come by. Circuit of the Americas Boulevard will be six lanes wide and take people in and out. FM 812 is being widened, but outside of that one has to wonder how easy it will be to move over one hundred thousand people.

The image

On the day I visited, Epstein was looking at the chairs for the grandstands and suites and doing his usual drive around the track. While the facility is impressive from FM 812, it is unbelievable from down on the track.

The iconic symbol of the facility, and the USGP will be a 180 foot tall glass floored viewing platform in the middle of the circuit. You can see downtown Austin, 20 miles away, easily from here.

The view from the straightaway through the grandstands heading uphill to turn 1 will take your breath away, even at a lowly 30 mph... 200 mph is unimaginable.

There are obvious good reasons why race fans are so excited about Formula 1. But there are also good reasons for casual Austinites to be interested. Formula is the elite of elite world sports. A global playground for the ultra-wealthy. Austin will be in the very center of that conversation. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent over the course of one week here. You know this will be special when the Super 8 motel near downtown can get $400 / night for its rooms.

Austin once again gets put on the map, and with the penultimate race of the season, the USGP can also choose the Formula 1 World Champion each year.

Epstein's vision is grand. Whether he can finally pull it off is still open for debate. If he can't, Austin loses some pride while he loses a lot of money. If he can, Austin becomes much more than a football and music city — it becomes a global sports focal point for at least a couple weeks every year.

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