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Formula One race may be headed for Texas

A $3.4-mile track being built near Austin is part of a $250-million complex. Red McCombs, former owner of the NFL's Vikings and NBA's Spurs, is one of the project's lead backers.

April 12, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Defending Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel celebrates following his victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday. Formula One is slated to return to the United States next year at a new circuit under construction in Austin, Texas.
Defending Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel celebrates following… (Diego Azubel / EPA )

Race organizers said Tuesday they're progressing with plans to bring Formula One back to the United States in 2012 with a proposed track on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, five years after the international motor racing series left America.

The 3.4-mile track will be called Circuit of the Americas, or COTA, part of a $250-million complex on more than 900 acres that also would include year-round executive meeting spaces, a medical training facility, banquet hall and space for outdoor concerts, among other features.

The complex, with capacity for 120,000 fans, also said it signed a 10-year contract to bring MotoGP motorcycle racing to the facility starting in 2013.

Among the project's lead backers is Texas billionaire Billy Joe "Red" McCombs, who formerly owned the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.

Organizers see Austin as geographically attractive because of its central U.S. location.

The complex has broken ground and "we're meeting the construction milestones," McCombs told a news conference in Austin. "It is a big deal and we're all so excited about it."

With races held on several continents, Formula One has worldwide appeal, with a global television audience estimated at 300 million. Its next race is the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai on Sunday.

Although its U.S. fan base isn't as large as that for NASCAR stock-car racing, Formula One enjoys a strong following in America. But at the moment, Formula One's fans don't have a race to attend in the United States.

The last U.S. Grand Prix was held in 2007 on a 2.6-mile road course built within the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which had hosted the race for eight years. But the series and track then parted ways when they couldn't come to financial terms and other agreements to extend their contract.

At the time, Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone was quoted as saying, "Let's see if we miss America." But many Formula One observers questioned how long the series could stay away when the United States is a major market for many of the sport's corporate supporters, including auto manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz.

Then last May, Formula One said it reached a 10-year deal with the Austin group, whose management is led by Tavo Hellmund of Austin, a race-car driver and promoter who has long known Ecclestone and has been lobbying for a race for several years.

Formula One hasn't yet said when Austin would be placed on its 2012 schedule; the series typically releases its schedule for the following year in September or October.

But there's speculation that if the 2012 schedule mirrors this year's calendar, Austin would be awarded a race either in June, because Formula One also races in Canada that month, or in November, when the series holds its season finale in Brazil.

In addition to the project costs being paid by investors, the state of Texas has committed to spending up to $250 million over 10 years to cover Formula One's annual $25-million sanctioning fee, according to published reports.

That public support has been criticized by some in Texas, but COTA officials said Tuesday that the facility was expected to pump between $3 billion and $6 billion into the local economy over the next decade.

jim.peltz@latimes.com

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