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The Globe and Mail

Texas moving from football to Formula One

The Circuit of the Americas racetrack under construction outside of Austin, Texas, May 31, 2012. In November, the track will host the first Formula One race in the U.S. since 2007. (Ben Sklar/The New York Times)


Less than 24 kilometres from the state capital, and just down the road from Wild Bubba's Wild Game Grill, Austin's next big thing is rising from a sprawling patch of rock, clay and shrubs.

The Circuit of the Americas will not only put Austin, the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world, in the company of Monte Carlo, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai and other international cities in the glamorous world of Formula One racing.

The track will also give Formula One a permanent presence as it once again tries to raise its profile in the United States, which last hosted a Formula One race in 2007. More than 120,000 spectators are expected for the inaugural race in November, for which three-day passes went on sale last Sunday. The next day, two-time champion Sebastian Vettel went for a test drive on the 3.2-mile road course in West New York and Weehawken, N.J., that will host a Formula One race in 2013. And this weekend in Austin, where the biggest sport is University of Texas football, the Formula Expo at the convention centre aims to introduce fans to the basics of Formula One through interactive exhibits, race-car simulators, meetings with former drivers and show cars.

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To some in Austin, though, screaming race cars and hordes of international glitterati seem out of character in the home of outlaw country music, impassioned environmentalists and a counterculture rooted in the hippie heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.

Keep Austin Weird adorns T-shirts, bumper stickers and barrooms. The popular mantra is observed so devoutly that after a homeless, cross-dressing peace activist named Leslie died in March, the city council paid tribute with a moment of silence.

"I don't think this is a good fit for Austin to have an event that has supermodels dripping off the arms of playboy millionaires hanging out all over town," said former city council member and environmental leader Brigid Shea, who made Formula One subsidies an issue in her recent unsuccessful campaign against Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a supporter of the project. "Most people in Austin don't think that's who we are. That's more Dallas or Houston."

Austin long ago outgrew its image as a tranquil college town to become a fast-growing high-tech hub. More than 1.7-million people live in the metropolitan region that includes Austin, Round Rock and San Marcos.

The track is being built in southeast Travis County near Elroy, a ranching community of several hundred people on lots ranging up to 50 acres. Elroy has largely been bypassed by the growth that has developed other parts of the Austin metropolitan area, and its residents complain of inadequate services and the lack of basic conveniences like a supermarket or bus service.

But at Wild Bubba's Wild Game Grill, a half-mile from the track's main construction entrance, the proprietor Wyman Gilliam, a.k.a .Wild Bubba, has decorated the restaurant with Formula One posters. He refers to Elroy as Speed City.

"It'll be the economic engine that gets southeast Travis County going," said Gilliam, who came close to moving his restaurant into Austin because of slumping business before plans for the track were announced in 2010.

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Now he enjoys a brisk trade from construction crews and Formula One personnel while he awaits an influx of spectators. Gilliam and his father, Wyman Sr., plan to rent two renovated cabanas on their nearby farm to spectators for $400 per night.

Cathy Olive, a goat rancher who leads the Elroy Neighborhood Association, said the track was a far superior option to widely opposed earlier plans to use the once-vacant site for tract housing. But she acknowledged that some residents had contemplated moving because of the potential traffic and noise.

"We're very fractured out here about how we feel about it," she said. "I'm just not sure one or two races a year will get us a Wal-Mart."

The $350-million Circuit of the Americas project has encountered its share of controversy, including a lawsuit between its principals, an earlier construction delay, and disputes about state and local subsidies. Circuit officials nevertheless say that work at the 1,100-acre site is on pace for completion this fall.

Veteran race fans will notice design elements reminiscent of other Formula One tracks as the course winds through 20 turns on hilly terrain with a view of downtown Austin. One signature feature is a 133-foot rise in elevation from the starting line to Turn 1. Speeds are expected to reach up to 200 miles an hour on the straightaway between Turns 11 and 12.

The man who brought Formula One to Texas is the Austin racing promoter Tavo Hellmund, a longtime friend of the Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone. Hellmund, a former race car driver, once competed on European Formula 3 tracks with "Visit Texas" emblazoned on the side of his Dallara.

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Hellmund, 46, said he spent years trying to convince Ecclestone that Austin would be an ideal stop for Formula One.

"At the time, Bernie just had this picture of Austin as being what all of us who have grown up in Austin have – the sleepy, hippie college town," Hellmund said. "I probably made over 20 trips to pitch him."

After Ecclestone embraced the concept, Hellmund formed a partnership with Red McCombs, a San Antonio businessman and former professional sports franchise owner (San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Vikings); and Bobby Epstein, an Austin developer who owned the land for the track site.

"I was asked by Tavo and Bobby if they could get an audience with me and I set aside an hour on a Saturday morning," McCombs said. "And that hour turned out to be about two and a half and I realized from that conference there was a chance that we might be able to do something that would really be an international event. There wouldn't be anything similar to it."

McCombs said that international and out-of-state visitors would find a "very cosmopolitan atmosphere with a Western flavor" in Austin and that such a world-class facility would bolster the state and regional economy by hosting events throughout the year. In addition to Formula One racing, the track is scheduled to host three days of Australian V-8 Supercar racing next year.

But lofty visions were clouded by hard feelings. Hellmund, who was pushed out of the project, sued Epstein and McCombs. The case was settled this month, clearing another hurdle as the circuit gets ready for race day in less than six months.

Kevin Granger, a 41-year-old realtor, was in the Circuit of the Americas downtown sales offices recently to consider a block of seats to use to entertain clients and family members.

"I think it's going to be a very exciting sporting venue that Austin's never seen before," he said.

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