Ethos

Why is Tavo Hellmund North America’s F1 Hero?

A determined, highly skilled, and under-the-radar operator

Tavo Hellmund, the lean, dimpled, gimlet-eyed Texan who deftly negotiates the uptight, ultra-sophisticated, almost sinister world of Formula 1 on a daily basis, recently quit chewing tobacco.

One, it isn’t good for him. Two, his wife and kids didn’t much care for it. Three, it frees him from the need to, multiple times a day, search for an empty can in which to spit tobacco juice. Four, giving up a habit he had since college might make him look less like a typical Texas goober, all hat and no cattle, to the globetrotting zillionaires who play high-stakes hands in the game of F1.

But there is no Four; Hellmund doesn’t give a rat’s ass about appearance. He doesn’t wear a hat, has no cattle. What he does have is a nice touch for finding money, locating facilities, creating cooperation among those who seldom do, and delivering not one but two F1 races to North America—first, the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas, a track he first sketched out on a napkin and named over the phone as he spoke with a friend.

Second, there would be no Mexican Grand Prix, staged with enormous success at the old, historic Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, had Hellmund not engineered the deal and overseen reconstruction of the track.

In 2015, for the first time since 1992, F1 returned to Mexico City. The crowd, 335,850 over the three-day weekend, was “like being at a football game,” said world champion Lewis Hamilton after the inaugural race. “The fans have been amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

So that’s what Hellmund, 52, did to rate a Forbes.com profile headlined “Formula One’s Billion Dollar Man,” which is roughly the value of the two F1 contracts he secured. And he did it while operating well under the radar.

Hellmund was born in Mexico City on February 24, 1966, seven weeks early, in a hurry even then. After his parents split, he lived with his mother in Austin but often visited his father, who remained in Mexico City. That would be Gustavo Hellmund-Rosas, who Hellmund inherited his motorsports passion from. Hellmund-Rosas raced; he bought one of those red, white, and blue American Motors Javelins Roger Penske campaigned in the Trans-Am series, took it to Mexico, and ran it in a similar series there. The younger Hellmund also inherited his knack for motorsports promotion.

The Mexican GP’s mega revival

His father assembled a credible but unsuccessful effort to bring F1 back to Mexico City in 1980, so he moved to Plan B: a pair of CART IndyCar races (CART promoter of the year in 1980) and some IMSA sports car races. Bernie Ecclestone, then the F1 czar,  negotiated the rights to the Mexican Grand Prix with Hellmund’s father, and F1 returned to Mexico City in 1986. Air pollution regulations helped kill the race after 1992, and it didn’t return until Hellmund helped bring it back.

The younger Hellmund spent summers in Mexico City and helped with every aspect of the IndyCar and IMSA races and also the 1986 World Cup. Inevitably he began driving, first in karts. “Never at the top level, but I probably should have,” he says. He contested the Skip Barber series, “which was the first place I could really measure my ability against others and see if I had what it took to seriously go for it.” He won in SCCA racing, as well as in late models on short ovals, and he was good enough to take the next step. Also during summers, Hellmund worked for Ecclestone, a longtime family friend, at the Brabham F1 team, which Ecclestone owned. He moved to Europe in order to become the next Dan Gurney or Mario Andretti. He did not.

Tavo Hellmund in F3 and working on the Brabham team.

“I knew if you were serious about getting a shot at F1, you had to go there,” he says. He settled in Cambridge, England, which is where a lot of young racers ended up because it was located roughly in the center of several important tracks. Neighbors and friends included future stars Hélio Castroneves, Cristiano da Matta, Rubens Barrichello, and Mário Haberfeld. “They called it the ‘University of Auto Racing,’ and it was,” Hellmund recalls. “A lot of F1 champions went through there.”

Hellmund early on showed flashes of talent, but budget constraints prevented continuity. He scored poles and wins in Formula Ford and had solid runs in Formula Vauxhall Jr. (quicker than Dario Franchitti in some) and in British Formula 3. But the competition was insane.

“In the U.S., it seemed like there were two types of young drivers: fast and poor, or rich and slow,” he says. “I expected the same in Europe. I was wrong. There were rich guys who were very, very fast, groomed from birth to be a race car driver.” Eventually, Hellmund got tired of trying to do more with less. “I went back to Austin, licking my wounds.”

Maybe Hellmund had one last shot at the pros: He built a little shop in the back of an Austin junkyard, bought a NASCAR Chevrolet race car from Tim Beverley, borrowed an engine from NASCAR champion team owner Rick Hendrick, and went to California to compete in the NASCAR Winston West race held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May 2001. “We towed out there with a dually pickup truck and had the car on an open trailer,” Hellmund says. “They didn’t want to let us in. They thought we were there for some vintage car race.”

The crew was all-volunteer. “My quickest pit stop took 51 seconds,” Hellmund says. But he won the FoodsCo NASCAR Challenge, beating drivers such as Brendan Gaughan, 2002 series champion Eric Norris, and the legendary Herschel McGriff.

The next step: Bernie Ecclestone (center) is gone from Formula 1, but Tavo Hellmund, always his own man, embraces the future with new F1 owner, Liberty Media.

By 2004, where Hellmund had been and where he was going collided. He had started a company, Full Throttle Productions. He promoted several NASCAR and USAC National events with his wife, Aryn, winning promoter of the year for the Texas Racefest event in 2006—the only event that ever combined a NASCAR Grand National race and a USAC National Midget race on the same weekend. He tried to race in the NASCAR portion of the event but was spread too thin. “The race sold out, but I realized you can’t race and promote at the same time,” he says. “I had to make a choice.”

Meanwhile, F1 wasn’t long for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where it made its debut in 2000. By 2006, rumors flew that F1 was going to pull the plug, and as it turned out, 2007 saw the last F1 race at Indy. Hellmund’s mind went into top gear. He knew racing in general, F1 in particular. He knew promotion. He knew Austin. He knew the politicians. He knew Texas had a deep-pocketed fund to help finance sporting events. And most of all, he knew Ecclestone.

Hellmund says he had never asked the F1 dictator for a dime, even when he was the quintessential starving young American racer in Europe. But once he assembled a solid business plan, he finally asked him for something: the first meeting to discuss F1 in Austin. Ecclestone trusted Hellmund, a rarity in the series.

Job done: Ex-Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and ex-Texas Comptroller Susan Combs are old news, but Circuit of the Americas, Tavo Hellmund, and Mexico’s race are thriving.

The motorsports world was stunned when, in May 2010, F1 announced it would return to the U.S. in 2012, and yes, it would do so in Texas. Hellmund was the man quoted in the official press release. To all but a handful of F1 insiders and a moderately larger handful of short-track race fans, he was an unknown quantity, immediately legitimized on the world’s largest motorsports stage.

Another announcement said the race would be held at Circuit of the Americas, a new 3.427-mile permanent road course. Hellmund and Full Throttle would supply the F1 contract and the path to the state funding; investors, most notably Texas car dealer Red McCombs, would supply the money to build the track.

Hellmund, a notoriously comprehensive and savvy planner, budgeted for everything. The track would cost $200 million to build, he told a friend, “and the F1 race should make us $5 million. That’s not a lot—the promoter and the track get less of the pie than you’d think—but we get a paid-for racetrack out of the deal with the state money.”

As hardcore F1 fans know, that’s not how it worked out. Serious issues arose between Hellmund and other investors who wanted more of the limelight, and Hellmund was essentially forced out of his own project. He sued, and part of the resolution included a provision that neither side would comment on the situation publicly. But a source familiar with the case suggests Hellmund, “ironically, might be the only person to make money on Circuit of the Americas.” Suddenly, with him gone, the cost to build the track essentially doubled, and the facility’s executive staff suffered from considerable turnover. The state’s Major Events Reimbursement Program, which kicks in more than $25 million annually to pay the $20 million sanctioning fee and other expenses, has drawn fire from critics wondering why taxpayers must so heavily subsidize a privately operated event. Indeed, the Austin event is the only F1 round in the world where a government contributes enormous amounts of money but doesn’t own any part of the event, track, or land.

All of which, of course, Hellmund left behind, by choice or not, thus freeing him to organize the Mexican Grand Prix, which has hit one home run after another since its 2015 debut.

As for Hellmund? Well, we sat down with him to get his thoughts on the current state of F1.

Also, he’d like to go racing again. There’s a little unfinished business.