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Construction of US Grand Prix track halted

By Jim Vertuno
AP Sports Writer / November 15, 2011

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AUSTIN, Texas—Construction of a racetrack to host the U.S. Grand Prix starting next year has been halted in a contract dispute between Formula One, race promoters and developers.

That move, and a separate announcement Tuesday by state Comptroller Susan Combs that $25 million in state money for the race will not be paid in advance, cast doubt about the future of the race.

The project was hailed as a $300 million boon to the Austin economy and a critical breakthrough in the U.S. market for Formula One, which hasn't held the U.S. Grand Prix since 2007 in Indianapolis.

Circuit of the Americas officials, including billionaire Red McCombs, say construction won't resume until they have a contract from Formula One to stage the race in Austin next year. Circuit of the Americas officials, without releasing details, said only that Formula One had not met a previously agreed timetable to send the contract and construction will not resume until that happens. The track is also scheduled to host MotoGP races for 10 years.

Tavo Hellmund, a former race driver with family ties to Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, was granted the right to stage the U.S. Grand Prix. Although he was a founding partner of the Circuit of the Americas, recent statements by Hellmund and Circuit of the Americas officials suggest a serious rift has developed.

Ecclestone said last week the sides have "forgotten to talk to each other."

The Associated Press left a telephone message seeking comment from Hellmund. A statement from Hellmund's Full Throttle Productions said: "It is the responsibility of Circuit of the Americas to bring it across the finish line. For the sake of everyone, we are hopeful that they can reach an agreement with Formula 1."

It was Ecclestone who made the surprise announcement in 2010 that Austin would host the return of the U.S. Grand Prix on the first track built specifically for Formula One. The project had the support of state lawmakers, who voted in 2009 to make the race eligible for $25 million from a special events fund. The project also had strong backing from Combs.

Correspondence between Combs, Ecclestone and Hellmund obtained by the Austin American-Statesman showed the original plan was to pay Formula One a year in advance to cover the cost of the international sanctioning fee.

There have been many signs of problems.

The race's original June 2012 schedule was pushed back to November, and the recent announcement of another Formula One race in New Jersey starting in 2013 raised questions over Formula One's commitment to the Austin race.

Combs noted the New Jersey race "is a concern" because it may reduce the number of fans who would otherwise come to Austin.

That and the dispute between Hellmund and race promotes have prompted questions about "whether the Austin race will even occur," Combs said.

"We have not paid out any money for the Formula One event," Combs said. "Ultimately, I am responsible for protecting the interests of Texas taxpayers, first and foremost. I will not allow taxpayer dollars to be placed at risk."

Bobby Epstein, founding partner of Circuit of the Americas, called the U.S. "vital for the future of Formula One and its teams and sponsors ... We hope that Texas will not be left behind."