Just when it seemed all hope was lost and the state of Texas would have a partially-graded dirt lot with some half-built concrete foundations on its hands, the Circuit of the Americas coughed up the $25-$30 million sanctioning fee to F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone at the last second and put the F1 race back on the 2012 calendar. In a press release today, COTA founding partner Robert Epstein reportedly signed the contract and check that was a major stumbling block to the possibility of the circuit and its grandiose plans ever seeing fruition. “Our investors have believed all along that this project has tremendous benefit for our region, and provides a strong economic engine for the future,” stated Epstein in the press release. “We remain committed to reaching our goal of being valuable community partners as we establish a platform for sports and entertainment. We’re glad that Tavo's vision of bringing F1 to the people of Texas will become a reality.”
With the F1 race now apparently going to happen, everyone seems to be assuming that the MotoGP races that are scheduled for 2013 are back on line. But that may not necessarily be the case.
Interestingly enough, it appears that Tavo Hellmund is no longer associated with the COTA or the F1 race that is scheduled for November 18, 2012. It was Hellmund who orchestrated the whole affair in the first place via his long-time friendship with Ecclestone, and also gathered up the financial backing—that being Epstein through his investment firm Prophet Capital Management, Ltd., and billionaire Red McCombs (auto dealer tycoon and professional sports team owner), as well as the Texas state government via $25 million of METF (Major Event Trust Funds) money provided annually by state comptroller Susan Combs—to make the whole event happen. An apparent disagreement between Hellmund and the COTA partnership resulted in him being forced out, but not without the whole Austin F1 vision nearly imploding on itself when COTA found out just how integral Hellmund was to the deal.
Last month COTA announced that it was halting construction on the racetrack “until a contract assuring the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix will be held at the Circuit of the Americas is complete.” The problem was that the initial contract was with Hellmund and his Full Throttle Productions promotional company—not COTA—and that contract was nullified when Ecclestone failed to get his $25 million startup payment back in September, right after Combs did an about-face (at about the same time that Hellmund was apparently being forced out of the picture) and yanked away the $25 million in METF funds. When Ecclestone finally did produce a contract to COTA, it apparently was far more than the friendly deal he had negotiated with Hellmund. Epstein reportedly rejected that contract, stating that it “contained unrealistic and unfeasible demands,” and turned in a different one to Ecclestone, who—after making some public statements expressing doubt that the Austin race would happen—promptly ignored it. Then a standoff ensued, with Ecclestone setting a deadline that was extended to today, when the FIA World Motor Sport Council ratified the 2012 F1 calendar.
COTA evidently blinked. “Mr. Ecclestone received his check today,” said McCombs in the press release. “We want to thank the fans supporting us, the local officials and businesses that have encouraged us, the State of Texas, Circuit of The Americas’ staff and Bernie himself. I want to thank and commend Bobby Epstein for getting us across the finish line. Bobby's perseverance and leadership kept the project on track despite unfair and unfounded criticism.”
But here’s the kicker: The 10-year MotoGP contract that was signed back in April was also negotiated with Hellmund, not COTA—basically the same situation as the F1 deal. It’s doubtful that Hellmund has the finances to foot the Dorna sanctioning bill (certainly far less than the fee paid to Ecclestone, but substantial nonetheless, and he’d need the circuit regardless), so with the former race car driver apparently on the outs with COTA, will the circuit owners be willing to work with him and pay the Dorna bill? Or will another standoff ensue between Hellmund and the COTA owners? Or will Hellmund wipe his hands of the deal, and leave COTA to sort out a new contract with Dorna? It's possible that COTA management doesn't even know what MotoGP is. One thing is certain: the saga is far from over.