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If ever there was a tall order in F1 promoting the US Grand Prix is it. After the 2005 race, which saw only three teams take part, and then the collapse of USF1, it would be no surprise if your average American thought that the F in F1 stood for fiasco. Tavo Hellmund, managing partner of Full Throttle, the company which will run the US GP when it returns in 2012 is a brave man but he is far from stupid. He has got $25m of government backing - a feat which even Silverstone could not even pull off despite its 60 years of F1 history. Now we find out that he has a billionaire for a backer and he isn't any old billionaire.
Earlier today Billy Joe 'Red' McCombs, a Texan entrepreneur worth an estimated $1.3bn, gave Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt the world's first interview about his investment in the US GP. The vast majority of McCombs' fortune comes from a windfall in July 2008 when he cashed out his shares in Clear Channel, the advertising giant which he co-founded in 1972. However, McCombs remained on the company's board and revealed to Sylt that Clear Channel will be throwing its weight behind the US GP.
"Clear Channel will help with promotion," he says adding "this is a natural for us to present because I think the media in America will respond to it, and that is the key to all of it." This is almost certainly the key to F1's success in the US because when it comes to advertising agencies, they don't get much bigger than Clear Channel. "The company is the biggest in the world in its field," says McCombs and this is no exaggeration.
Clear Channel is the largest radio station owner in the United States by revenue and, with 900 stations under its control, also by number of outlets. It also owns outdoor advertising space in 25 countries and this is where you and I are likely to have come across its name. If you look closely the next time you are at a bus station or when you see a billboard, you will probably spot the Clear Channel name and logo below the advert. Very useful when it comes to spreading the word about an F1 race.
As a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin itself, McCombs is backing the GP for personal as well as professional reasons. "We look at it as what it would bring to our state here then we look at what it has brought to other countries," he says adding "the good thing about this is that you are joining the world fraternity rather than being at a state or national level so the international scope is what truly interests me."
McCombs has some experience in the sports arena as he is a former owner of basketball's San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Vikings American football team which he bought for $250m in 1998. "My F1 investment is comparable to the other sports teams I have had ownership in, it reaches right up there," says McCombs. The focus of this is the circuit which will be built on a 900-acre site in southeast Austin formerly designated as a housing development called Wandering Creek.
In addition to McCombs, Hellmund's team includes Bobby Epstein, general partner of Prophet Capital Management, an Austin based private investment company founded in 1995. The third partner who has been disclosed (though Hellmund indicates that he has other backers who wish to remain anonymous) is former MotoGP World Champion Kevin Schwantz. This explains why McCombs says "we will be very much involved in all phases. The capital raising, getting the facilities built, getting the programme, not just for Formula One but for other events."
Clearly, with Schwantz as a backer, MotoGP is also likely to be a target for the circuit and McCombs says that he views the circuit as being "a year-round activity and that is what we are hoping to capture. We would like other top level series to come too."
With his eye on the end-game McCombs says "I think there will be a big financial return but that will come because of the ancillary programmes that will be put in place and not the race itself." He has owned nearly 400 businesses in his career and currently runs the largest car dealership in Texas.
With an average of 162,000 spectators attending F1 races last year McCombs stands to gain a great deal from the additional business brought in by the Grand Prix. He is clearly banking on Austin being a success and although we can't be sure he will be proved right, McCombs has certainly put his money where his mouth is.
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