Bernie Ecclestone Won’t Mess With Texas

Formula 1 boss talks to The Drive about Austin GP’s hopes for future.

byA.J. Baime| PUBLISHED Jan 25, 2016 7:29 PM
Bernie Ecclestone Won’t Mess With Texas

Since it opened its doors in Nov. 2012, the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has become the church where Stateside Formula 1 fans have come to kneel at the altar of speed. The first purpose-built F1 track ever in the U.S. cost a reported $400 million. When F1 arrived at Austin for its first race in this country in five years in 2012, over 117,000 fans turned out—more than double the capacity of Yankee Stadium. Lewis Hamilton won, and sprayed the crowds with Champagne while wearing a black 10-gallon hat. Finally, it appeared, F1 had a home in America.

Now all that remains unclear.

As Formula 1 gets set to launch its 2016 season, the Circuit of the Americas is getting its funding cut. Circuit chairman Bobby Epstein was quoted saying the U.S. Grand Prix’s future “is not looking good” after the State of Texas cut annual subsidies from $25 million to $19.5 million. “I’m concerned about the future,” Epstein told Autosport. “We did not know they would change how they calculated the funding... To cover the loss of funding we have to sell another 30,000 tickets.” (For any attorneys out there, the original contract between the Circuit and the State of Texas is here.)

Reached by phone today, F1’s hardnose boss, 85-year-old Bernie Ecclestone, was as circumspect and diplomatic as ever. “We have a contract with them, with COTA [the Circuit of the Americas],” he told The Drive. “They do a good job and I hope it will continue.” An earlier report in the Austin American-Statesman quoted Ecclestone saying that change in Texas state funding could make it “difficult to continue the race in Austin.”

The reports are yet more evidence of the colossal gamble F1 is in this country. The promoters in Austin are playing the highest-stakes game of Texas Hold’em ever played, with the State of Texas applying pressure on one side, and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone on the other.

Since Sebring, Florida, first hosted F1 in 1959, F1 has skidded around the country hunting for a permanent home, through Riverside, California (1960); Watkins Glen, N.Y.(1961-80); Long Beach, Calif. (1976-83); a casino parking lot in Las Vegas (1981-82); Detroit (1982-88); a crumbling circuit in Dallas (1984); Phoenix (1989-91); Indianapolis (2000-7); and now a purpose-built track outside of Austin. In every case, the finances and/or logistics didn’t work.

Even before Austin opened in 2012, it faced massive hurdles. The track’s on-again/off-again story leading up to its grand opening had more twists and turns than the circuit itself. But the circuit managed to launch, and each year the F1 race was a success up until last season, when the event was mired by violent rainstorms.

Adam Berry/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At the same time, another promoter, Leo Hindery, pictured above—a founder of the YES Network (which broadcasts New York Yankees games) and an accomplished racing driver who made the podium in class at Le Mans in 2005—was attempting to launch a second F1 race in the U.S., a Grand Prix in New Jersey on the banks of the Hudson River, originally scheduled for June 2013. This event was set to be a major spectacle against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, with 200-mph cars competing on a street circuit. Construction on a pit area began, and then-champ Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull test driver David Coulthard appeared in various promotional videos in anticipation of the grand prix: