30 June 2010

Formula None : Is Austin Cruisin' For a Bruisin'?


Formula One racing: coming your way. Photo from Business Week.

Controversy brewing:
Is Formula One the right fit?

By Stefan Wray / The Rag Blog / June 30, 2010

AUSTIN -- If I told you I hated fast cars, I’d be making a liar out of myself. Powerful engines and high speeds give nearly everyone an adrenalin rush. I’m no exception. And yet while I’m not much of a car racing fan, I can see how the sport can grab people’s attention.

But this business of bringing Formula One racing to Austin has left me and an increasing number of Austinites questioning whether this is the right thing for our city. More and more of us are deciding that it is not.

For those with no clue as to what I’m talking about, Formula One is the crème de la crème of automobile racing. Today’s F1 cars race at speeds topping 220 miles per hour. With a 60-year history, the first Formula One World Championship was held in Europe in 1950.

Starting in the 1970s, Formula One’s iconic and controversial president and CEO, Bernie Ecclestone, has turned it in a multi-billion dollar business and now an elite sport for the rich and famous.

For several years, Ecclestone had been looking for a U.S. location for Formula One for the 2012 through 2021 race seasons. After first being rebuked by New Jersey, it was announced on May 25, 2010, that a deal had been struck for Austin to be this site.

Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone / LAT Photographic / Speed TV.

The story received front page news coverage when it broke and the decision has been heralded by F1 racing aficionados on blogs and racing fan web sites all over the Internet. Local and state politicians have given this much fanfare and are enthusiastic about a perceived economic benefit for the city.

I had an immediate, visceral, reaction to the announcement and quickly shot off a letter to the Mayor and City Council that was also published in the Austin Chronicle. In the letter, I argued that the City should conduct a carbon footprint and environmental impact study before situating Formula One here.

To me, it seemed incongruous that a “green” city such as Austin, with such an emphasis on pursuing renewable energy and efforts aimed at energy conservation, would be a location for Formula One. I wrote: “Future generations will laughingly look back at us and ponder why we moved forward with the construction of a car racetrack near the end of the era of the gasoline-powered combustion engine.”

Not long after that, David Kobierowski wrote a piece about Formula One that was published in the Austin Post. David’s line of thinking focused not on anything wrong, per se, with Formula One but that it is a sport better suited for perhaps Dallas or Las Vegas. He wrote: “There are some good reasons for F1 in TX like it'll bring some jobs and international flavor/tourism. But overall, this is not a wise fit for Austin.”

I just came home from the Texas Democratic Party State Convention in Corpus Christi and when I asked a few in the Austin delegation what they thought about Formula One coming to their city, there were similar reactions to David’s sentiment. People say that it just doesn’t feel like Austin.

In mid June, David and I started a Facebook group -- Concerned About Formula One (F1) Racing Coming to Austin -- where we’ve started to post information about Formula One and where we’re starting to gather other people.

At the same time, the Austin American Statesman began to dig into some of the secrecy that surrounds the deal to bring Formula One to Austin.

It turns out that this plan has been in the works for several years. It’s been largely driven by the Republican-led State Comptroller’s office. But legislation introduced by Democratic State Senator Kirk Watson in March 2009 laid the groundwork for using state money for initial funding.

It is the use of $25 million in public monies to help underwrite some of the start up costs, and the slowly revealed information about how this deal has been constructed, that has other constituencies questioning the entire affair.

Interestingly, some of what David and I have easily been able to find by simple Google searches has yet to make it into the Austin American Statesman’s reporting.

One example is the readily available reports regarding Bernie Ecclestone’s praise for Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Amazingly, in a 2009 interview, Ecclestone said that Hitler “could command a lot of people” and was “able to get things done.”

We’ve not seen anything in Austin media about the character and mindset of Ecclestone.

Just this weekend there were a couple more Austin American Statesman articles on Formula One. One dealt with how a sizable amount of generated revenue will actually leave the state and go to a California retirement fund. The Statesman writer concludes: “Time will tell whether Formula One is worth the price to Texas.”

Missing in Austin media, though, was an announcement that came out in an AP story on June 24, that the United States Formula One team had been banned from competition in Formula One. The AP story said: “The USF1 Formula One team has been fined and barred from ever competing in F1 for not taking part in the 2010 world championship.”

Why on earth would Austin want to construct a Formula One racetrack if the U.S. team is not involved?

It appears that the more we know about the effort to bring Formula One racing to Austin, the worse the idea becomes.

But, just because there is nascent public criticism and the daily paper is raising doubts, this doesn’t automatically translate into the plan being tossed out.

If you’re a Rag Blog reader and for whatever reason don’t like the idea of Formula One racing coming to Austin, then join us on our Facebook group -- and add a comment at the end of this article. We may out of necessity move beyond Facebook, but that’s where our effort is at the moment.

[Stefan Wray is a writer, environmental activist, Drupal web project manager, documentary maker, and resident of Austin’s Montopolis neighborhood.]

I submitted this piece for publication several days prior to my appearance on a Austin's 91.7 FM KOOP Radio's program "A Neighborly Conversation" hosted by David Kobierowski. Some people commenting on this piece [see comments below] are assuming I wrote it after the radio program because of what is written about a U.S. team that is now banned from competition. On the radio program this team was discussed.

In reference to what had been reported in an AP story on June 24 I wrote above that "the United States Formula One team had been banned." I should have written "a" instead of "the." This is because at present the U.S. doesn't have a national team. So, technically it is not "the" U.S. team, it is "a" U.S. team.

However, based on the wording of the AP story that appeared in Sports Illustrated, which said "The USF1 Formula One team has been fined and barred from ever competing in F1," I think it may be easy to see how one could make that minor error on first pass. But I stand corrected.

It is important to note, however, that this team -- called U.S. F1 -- was the only team from the United States that was intent on competing in Formula One and that now with its ban, the United States has no team, national or otherwise, in the competition.

In a June 30 article by Berthold Bouman in Motorsport.com, the author writes, "Although American fans still had some hope about the return of U.S. F1 in 2011, the FIA World Motor Sport Council has now made an definitive end to the aspirations of the all-American Formula One team. The U.S. F1 team had now been banned from Formula One and was fined 309,000 Euro for failing to compete in this year's championship."

It is an "all-American Formula One team," but not an officially recognized national team. According to the Motorsport.com story U.S. F1 failed because its sponsors held back their payments.

-- Stefan Wray / July 2, 2009
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