in Houston, Texas
Formula One or Formula None? Public has right to know about the Austin F1 deal.
Wednesday, Jun 16, 2010, 07:52PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Formula1

Stuff is expensive in this crazy world today, but $25 million is still a lot of money.

Now, imagine a $25 million public subsidy going to some dude you've never heard of, to aid a business that neither you nor anyone you probably know have ever patronized or even considered patronizing.

Now, imagine that $25 million might be coming out of taxpayers' pockets. Including yours. And the government officials making the arrangements don't think you have much of a right to know the details.

Welcome to the reality that is Formula One racing in Austin. 

A few weeks ago, it was announced that a $250 million race track will be built in Austin to host Formula One races -- the first such track ever built in the U.S. Austin would become the new home of the on-again, off-again U.S. Grand Prix. And yes, it appears that state and local government are involved in the deal.

Take a gander at Eric Dexheimer's excellent post on Statesman.com's investigative reporting blog. Here's an excerpt:

To review: Three weeks ago, the Statesman submitted a series of open records requests to the various parties that participated in luring Formula One racing to Austin: Comptroller Susan Combs, Gov. Rick Perry, state Sen. Kirk Watson and Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, through the city of Austin. Over the past several days the results have trickled in.

The operative word is “trickle.” That’s because most of the information is being withheld. Each party has invoked one or more exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act as a way to delay or prevent the release of some documents. The Office of the Attorney General will decide whether the protests have merit in about a month.

As a result, nearly a month after the announcement that F1 racing was coming to Austin — thanks in part to a $25 million per year government incentive plan to be handed to a heretofore little-known race promoter named Tavo Hellmund — the public still knows little. Big questions remain about everything from the identity and financial and organizational capability of the local parties involved, to the location of the proposed track and what might be expected of local governments.

Among the few details Dexheimer could shake loose via records requests are that Combs (whom Perry credited with some sort of undisclosed role in cutting the deal) grew up as a big racing fan. 

With all due respect to the comptroller, who has said numerous times that she's big on government transparency, I'd bet I'm as big a racing fan as she is. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have occasionally awoken early on weekend mornings to watch BBC-narrated Formula One broadcasts. So let me add my two cents on both government transparency and motorsports to Eric's blog post, particularly targeting the folks out there who don't know much about racing, and why the TV images of packed stands at Texas Motor Speedway, home to two NASCAR Sprint Cup races per year, may not translate to Austin's proposed Formula One track.

To borrow Mayor Leffingwell's word, bringing F1 to Austin could be “exciting” – but it is also fraught with peril for anyone wanting to peg their economic hopes on it.

Formula One is like soccer: It’s huge everywhere in the world but here. (And when I say "soccer," I don't mean the World Cup, the brief period every four years during which we Americans actually clue into it, until our team is eliminated in the early rounds, after which, we go back to baseball and the NBA Finals.) There are passionate F1 fans in the UK and Asia and Africa and South America and maybe even some in Antarctica – but dang few in America, outside David Letterman.

To be in F1 is playing on the world’s largest stage for auto racing. The best drivers. The most powerful engines and the fastest cars, up to 220 mph. (By comparison, the record for NASCAR was Bill Elliott’s 212 mph at Talledega, but that was before NASCAR took steps to limit car speeds out of safety concerns.)

Auto racing is something of a universal language of the sports world: Not every country has cricket bats or basketball hoops for its kids, but every country in the world has cars, and somebody, somewhere, will try to drive that car fast. But Formula One is largely perceived here as a European thing.

There was a U.S. Grand Prix previously –- it was held in Indianapolis, the unofficial U.S. capital of auto racing – and as I recall, even there, turnout was pretty dismal. I remember seeing photos the Indianapolis Star took of the sparsely populated grandstands the weekend of the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix, which turned out to be a huge bust. You’d have never have guessed you were looking at the audience for a major international sporting event. It looked like the stands for a junior varsity basketball game between middle schools in two very small towns.

Michael Schumacher could walk down the busiest street in New York City at 12 noon and probably not be recognized, despite the fact that with seven F1 championships, the German racer is arguably the Michael Jordan of world motorsports and is one of the most famous athletes in the world. Again, famous everywhere but here.

On top of the fact that Americans have little familiarity with it, F1 doesn’t do itself many favors in trying to build an American fan base. Where NASCAR stars like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson diligently sign autographs and work to be perceived by the public as everyday guys despite the fact that they’re millionaire businessmen many times over, F1 drivers don’t give a rip. They are huge stars, they know they are huge stars, and they expect to be treated like huge stars. I remember that was a recurring theme in the Indianapolis Star’s coverage of the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix, held at the same track as the Indianapolis 500 – what the fans and press perceived as the arrogance of F1 and the people involved with it.

That '05 Grand Prix was a bust, with all but a few drivers backing out of the race before it even started, saying they had too many concerns that Michelin had provided faulty tires. They did hold two other Grand Prix at Indy in '06 and '07, but those were the last ones. Did any of our readers in Texas go to either of those? Did you even bother to watch on TV? Did you even know that a Formula One race was held in the U.S.? Have you ever watched a Formula One race on TV? (And no, the Indianapolis 500 is NOT a Formula One race.) So here's something you might not pick up on in the rah-rah-rah spin government officials are putting on this deal: They're putting it in Austin partly because Indianapolis doesn't want it back. And as much as Texans love their cars (and trucks), if you can't make a go of a huge racing event in the racing capital of the nation, you might have a hard time making a go of it in Austin, Texas.

Now, NASCAR has many problems -- safety issues, huge carbon footprint, NASCAR's owners changing rules seemingly on a whim -- but it does try to level the playing field between the racing teams and manufacturers by imposing strict rules about engine size, testing and car aerodynamics -- so that the driver who owns his own car and is living hand-to-mouth without a big-time sponsor is generally racing the same car as a star like Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Some F1 critics have said that American fans are more inclined to a system where it's not about how much money you have, it's about how well you can drive the car.)

I don't totally know all the specifics of Formula One, but I've always understood that there's less of the playing-field-leveling in F1 and more of a sky's-the-limit policy on how much teams can spend on new engines, equipment, research and testing, and the big teams, like Ferrari and Mercedes McLaren, spend megabucks. FIA, Formula One's governing body, proposed a budget cap of 40 million pounds for the 2010 season -- if you adhered to the cap, your team was to be allowed more freedom in how you designed and tested your race car this year, but you didn't have to adhere to it. While we average folks may dream that the Chevy Monte Carlo we're stuck in on the Northwest Freeway is the same model that Jeff Gordon will race at Daytona (in reality, they're probably not that similar to each other), there's no way in Hades you or I are ever going to imagine that our Honda Civic is the same as the open-wheeled winged behemoth looping around the streets of Monaco.

F1 is also a culture where the owners of those racing teams get to dictate who wins the race, a practice known as "team orders" that isn't practiced in NASCAR -- technically, it was banned by in Formula One a few years ago, but critics say it still happens there. Say it's the last lap of a race, and Driver A is leading, with Driver B in second place. A and B both drive for the Ferrari team, but Driver B is the bigger star of the two and is ahead in the yearly championship points standings. The head of the Ferrari team could order Driver A to slow down and let Driver B pass him and win the race. Geez. In NASCAR, members of the same team routinely race each other to the finish line. Heck, sometimes members of the NASCAR same team have been accused of trying to wreck each other (see the recent dustup between teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Ditto for some recent interactions between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- not only are they teammates, but I believe Gordon is a part-owner of Johnson's car.)

Do I hate Formula One? No. Do I hate the idea that it could come to Austin? No. Do I want it to fail? No. Perhaps it will be a huge, raving success and will become an economic engine that will produce tons of jobs here in Texas. Maybe Michael Schumacher, who like Air Jordan has retired and then come out of retirement, will race some day in Austin.

Am I personally against the idea of tax money being spent to bring F1 to Austin? No. But do I feel strongly that the public has a right to know what government is doing, and when public funds -- or in this case, a potential "incentive" or public subsidy -- are being employed in any economic development project, the public has the right know where and how that money is spent and what the details are of the deal. And I also have a journalist's inclination to stand up and say, "Hold on just a minute there," and play devil's advocate when public officials start trying to sell me on something.

If Formula One comes to Austin, I'll buy tickets to the U.S. Grand Prix. But I think the public has to go into this with their eyes open. And that starts with government officials being totally transparent about the Formula One deal.

Jennifer Peebles can be reached at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or at 281-656-1681.

Photo by Flickr user marshallpruett.com, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Mike
Wednesday, 06/16/2010 - 09:51PM

Wow, you really know nothing about f1. The united states grands prix were the most attended races in f1. I was at the last race in 2007, and there were thousands who showed up at 6am to see the pits.

Jennifer Peebles
Wednesday, 06/16/2010 - 11:06PM

Mike,

We appreciate hearing from someone who attended and who follows the sport. Thanks for reading us and taking time to comment.

Take care,

Jennifer P

jennifer@texaswatchdog.org

John
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 04:15AM

AA:Quote from Wikipedia: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway also hosted the United States Grand Prix for Formula One from 2000 to 2007. The inaugural race drew an estimated 225,000, which set a Formula One attendance record.

BB: If you really get up early to watch Formula One racing you should know its not on BBC, but on the Speed Channel and the Brit you are hearing is not a BBC announcer, but Peter Hobbs, retired Formula one driver who is a color announcer for the Speed Channel Formula one announcer team.

CC: The Canadian Formula One race held last week in Montreal, Canada sold out.

Karen Terry
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 05:20AM

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motor sport, it also showcases the technology, and technical excellence available within the business and industry.

Countries clamour to hold an F1 race, because it puts the country or region on the world stage, Austin by just expressing an interest in holding an F1 race, has already recouped the sanctioning costs in free publicity alone, talk to the average man on the street, anywhere outside the US, and Austin wasn't even known.

Think about it from a global perspective ... Singapore, Monte Carlo, Shanghai, Rome, Barcelona, Montreal, 'Austin'.

What city wouldn't want to have a global presence?

Jennifer Peebles
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 09:29AM

John, Karen, we appreciate all of your comments. John, yes, it was on the Speed Channel (I never can remember the correct number for that channel on my TV and I have to search for it) but the last time I watched, the voiceover and the on-screen graphics looked like they were coming from a BBC live feed; if that's not the case, thank you for setting me straight on that.

We appreciate the perspective of Formula One fans in response to my post -- good to see that so far, no one has rebutted my argument that the details should be made public. :)

Take care, and we hope you will all keep reading us and commenting,

Jennifer P.

jennifer@texaswatchdog.org

Jake
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 10:14AM

It's obvious the author knows little about Formula One.

Jim B
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 10:23AM

I'm really tired of elected officials abusing the privilege of asking the AG for an opinion, just to delay the release of public information. What part of "Public Information" do they not understand? There should be significant penalties for those who routinely rely on such tactics. Voters where are you?

John S
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 11:41AM

Austin will not be the "the first such track ever built in the U.S." Watkins Glen in New York held F1 races for many years on a purpose built track.

Lad
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 12:12PM

Jennifer,

I don't think anyone IS going to rebutte an arguement that the spending of tax dollars should be disclosed (this side of the DNC anyway), that's just (not - so -) common sense. The flak that you are catching is because the majority of your article is spent in a back-handing of the F-1 sport. [Micheal Schumacher may not get a notice on the streets of New York city at noon,] but neither would Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. Put all three of them on any major track in the U.S. and they would each blow through a sharpie. Your pointing to the owners and the money spent in F-1, as thought the common fan in the stands is privy to the Moet and a private party at the end of the race is some real anti-snobish snobbery. How much money did Mark Cuban spend on the Mavricks?(wayyyy too much). Big money is spent in every sport, not just F-1 and F-1 is not the worst by far(seen how much an America's Cup boat costs these days?). If you want to ask tuff questions about tax bucks beings spent, I'm with you, heck I'll clear a path for you. But when you bang on the sport (any sport really) you going to step on someone tail. Looks like there are more F-1 fans than you thought.

Ubu Roi
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 01:03PM

If you want commentary from a knowledgeable American fan, look no further than Wonderduck's Pond. He has other interests as well, but F1 is his true love, and he knows enough to explain strategies, critique teams, etc.

Oh, the documents....yeah, that was part of the article too. Everyone involved needs to release them. Hey, didn't we used to have a little F1 race around the GRB every year?

Jennifer Peebles
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 03:49PM

Jake, Jim B., John S., Lad,

We appreciate all of you taking time to comment. Lad -- I don't disagree that when you criticize a sport, any sport, you'll get a strong reaction from fans, as I've gotten here. And I appreciate you seconding my interest in government transparency.

I do want to reassure you, and all of our readers, as I said at the end of my piece, I don't hate Formula One. (To be more precise, I don't even *dislike* Formula One.) It's just different from the sport with which most non-racing fans in the U.S. are familiar. It's not Dale Jr., etc., driving in an oval and turning left a lot, in other words, which is what most of my non-racing-fan friends assume "motorsports" is about.

We appreciate very much the time that Formula One fans have taken to comment on our site -- I'm not sure how many of you are Texas residents who read us regularly, or how many of you live elsewhere and found us via Google News or Twitter, but however you found us, we're glad you did, and as you can see from the discussion, we welcome your thoughts on this issue.

If I may pose a question to the group to keep the discussion going, I would ask this one: What do F1 fans (in Texas and elsewhere) make of Austin as the potential location for this project (as opposed to other cities), and what do you think would be needed to build up a stronger interest in F1 in the American public?

Take care,

Jennifer P.

Jennifer Peebles
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 04:28PM

For those of you who are seeing us for the first time, let me interrupt the discussion to tell you a little about who we are. We're Texas Watchdog, and we're a nonprofit news organization in Houston. We produce original journalism on government and politics, with an eye toward watchdog reporting on waste, abuse, fraud, conflicts of interest and ethical issues, and we advocate for government transparency. You can read more about us by going to the "about" tab in the blue navigation bar that runs across the top of this page.

We are a member of the Investigative News Network (http://investigativenewsnetwork.org/), an umbrella group for nonprofit newsrooms around the nation. If you're a Formula One fan from outside Texas and you're reading us for the first time, there's probably an INN member organization in your state or area, and we hope you'll bookmark their Web site and support them as they try to keep watchdog journalism alive despite the hard times that have befallen the newspaper industry. They are doing some incredible work, and we're glad to be affiliated with them.

Dave Monson
Thursday, 06/17/2010 - 08:01PM

Just wait and see Austin. Better yet, get some hotels built. F1 was a great event here that got screwed up by holidays and school. Have the race in September again. Thanks to the public officials in Austin who can have some guts and got the ball rolling. The United States Grand Prix will pay off big time for Austin.

908-3
Friday, 06/18/2010 - 07:14PM

@ John - it's David Hobbs....not Peter. Australian Peter Windsor used to be the pit reporter - which may have led to the confusion - but he left after last season to head up the USF1 debacle.

@ Jennifer - thanks for a different perspective on F1 coming to Austin.

Wisconsin Paul
Tuesday, 06/22/2010 - 10:31AM

I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and am planning to come to Austin every year just because of the F1 race. I will be bringing my wallet. F1 is huge here in the US also.

Beelzebozo
Sunday, 06/27/2010 - 01:54PM

Wow. What a clueless article. That's being kind. Try watching a race first next time.

220 mph -- maybe 5 years ago (or 20 years ago, back in the supercharged days). The telling statistic is 0-100-0 in 7 seconds. Re-geared, trimmed and configured for an oval, F1 cars would be too fast to drive safely (even with them being the safest race cars out there).

Another useful stat is the (never tested) ability to drive an f1 car "on the ceiling" once it creates enough downforce... about 100 mph.

BioHzrd
Tuesday, 06/29/2010 - 05:51PM

As an F1 fan trolling for information on Austin GP, I can say there is huge interest, at least in NC. I appreciate trying to open up transparency for the Austin public although I have to say I have to disagree with the analysis of F1 itself. It is really up to the FIA and FOTA to learn from their mistakes at Indy (although by comparison to attendance at some current tracks, it was still way more profitable). The secrecy in the constructors makes it difficult to hold "check out the car" events, but more fan involvement (i.e driver's interviews, meet the public, signings), even run some of the old cars across the track. And yes, bring the NASCAR and Indy drivers there to do some promotional switch-ups. Like Gordon and Montoya. Those are the things fans love. And yes, as soon as tickets are available, I'm getting mine and booking a hotel.

BioHzrd
Tuesday, 06/29/2010 - 06:00PM

I would like to clarify the "leveling of the playing field" mentality. Formula 1 is in essence two championships, the drivers and the constructors. Formula 1 is raced on the idea that you build your own car from the ground-up based on a set "formula". Each constructor interprets that formula differently. The fastest, most reliable car as combined with the best driver wins championships. For the cars being as different as they are, they are only 1-2 seconds apart (this year top 10 cars-5 constructors, separated by less than 2 seconds). You cannot make it level racing like NASCAR or Indy, since it simply goes against the spirit of the constructors championship.

J
Saturday, 07/03/2010 - 02:43PM

How someone with no knowledge of the sport could be allowed a venue to pontificate about a subject of such large importance, with such an uninformed level of knowledge, is really frustrating.

Formula 1 is the highest watched continual sporting event in the world averaging over 600 Million viewers for every race, 18 of them this year, and growing to 20 in the next 2 years. It is a sport that entire countries sometimes pay tens of millions of dollars to be granted the right to host, let alone a race promoter with minor state contribution, designated by elected officials to use a fund for exactly this type of event. As such, I find it difficult for someone with such limited knowledge of the sport to be put in a position to question what is obviously one of the most important initiatives for our great State of Texas and its Capitol. You really should get your facts together before you offer your opinion in the future.

It is global sport that has extraordinary potential to grow our great city's image around the world, as well as bringing 200M dollars annually into our economy. The races at Indianapolis which I attended three of, were some of the highest attended races of the entire F1 season each year. Having annually attended the Canada, Phoenix, Watkins Glen, Long Beach and Dallas races for the past 20 years, I would suggest that there is plenty of F1 in the US and it will be attended very well, bringing in people from all over the world. Most importantly it will put the state of Texas and the city of Austin on a world stage which will project positively worldwide our image.

Jeff
Monday, 08/30/2010 - 03:50AM

"Am I personally against the idea of tax money being spent to bring F1 to Austin? No."

What if I told you that we are in an $11 billion shortfall? They are considering cutting $75 million from family services? That Tavo Hellmund lobbied Senator Watson to bring F1, and in the same session, Watson authored the "greenhouse gas emissions reductions strategies" bill? And now the whole story has come out, and the plan is for a racetrack facility that will host F1, moto GP, drag racing, and racing schools? Watson said in the committee hearing "this bill in no way means that Texas will host or even be involved in a bid to host F1", when Tavo had already lobbied Watson to include F1. There is so much to this story that you should do some real watchdog research, to find the real transparency issues. If this is a watchdog article, certainly it is a chihuahua.

F1 Austin
Sunday, 11/21/2010 - 02:50PM

The F1 race at the track not only puts Austin and Texas onto the international map, but also highlights America, Americans, and American culture. As was shared before, this isn't just a local entertainment venue. It's global, and only a few steps below the World Cup and Olympics. America, Texas, and Austin will now have the unique and rare luxury to host it.

The world is watching, and everybody is excited!

The Facebook fan page, "F1 AUSTIN" reflects this strongly with the largest international following at 33,000, and growing. Become a fan today, it's free.

http://www.facebook.com/F1Austin

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