Questions about future of US Grand Prix as Texas cuts funds

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's office said Wednesday it is cutting nearly $6 million in funding for the United States Grand Prix, raising questions about the race's future just four years after Formula One put what many saw as a permanent footprint on American soil.

Officials at the Circuit of the Americas, a $300 million track built specifically to host the race, have said they already took a major financial hit this year when storms nearly wiped out two days of the race weekend in October.

Track officials said they were promised $25 million per year for 10 years from the state's portion of the Major Events Trust Fund, public money spent largely to pay Formula One's commercial management for the right to hold the race. That deal was worked out with former Gov. Rick Perry and former state Comptroller Susan Combs.

But Perry and Combs are no longer in office and the trust fund was moved this year to Abbott's office.

The race still gets $19.5 million from the state portion of the fund and local tax money will bump it to $22.7 million, according to Abbott's office. But that's still a $6 million cut from 2014 and down about $7 million from the previous two years.

Circuit of the Americas officials said the race has pumped "hundreds of millions" of dollars into the Austin and Texas economies since 2012 and applied for state funding under the same formula as Super Bowls, NCAA basketball tournaments and other events.

"We're hopeful F1 will continue to race here," track officials said.

Abbott did not take questions at a Veterans Day ceremony Wednesday. Spokeswoman Cait Meisenheimer said the reduced figure was calculated under guidelines set by state lawmakers.

A recent state auditor's report criticized the generous formulas previously used to calculate payments, which have been tweaked with the move to Abbott's office.

"It's inappropriate for an applicant to expect the governor to violate the legal standard and an independent auditor's decision," Meisenheimer said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the race "a very important event for our city." Adler said he has "some questions" about previous financing deals, but would not commit to spending local government money to cover the gap.

"The F1 race is the way that a lot of people in the world are introduced to our city," Adler said. "It brings a lot of people here. It helps brand us as an international city."

Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone did not immediately respond to requests from The Associated Press for comment. Ecclestone told the Austin American-Statesman that if funding was changed "it's going to make it difficult to continue the race in Austin."

The prospect of losing the Austin race, "for our sport, would be a disaster," said Mario Andretti, who won the Formula One championship in 1978. "It would discourage any other entity from pursuing another way to making Grand Prix happen. Formula One needs a race in the United States."

The Circuit of the Americas was built with private money and its investors include billionaire Red McCombs. The track hosts other events, notably the MotoGP Grand Prix of the Americas, a World Endurance Championship race, the summer X Games and multiple music concerts.

But the Formula One race is the key to its survival and officials have said they are still paying off construction debt.

The track is unique in that it is the first built specifically for F1 in the U.S. Previous American Formula One races have been held at Watkins Glen, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and on street courses in other cities.

Formula One didn't race in the U.S. from 2008-2011. Its return to a specialized facility was seen as a major move to gain a long-term foothold in a country where NASCAR is the most popular motor series by far. F1 is even poised in 2016 to have an America-led team, Haas F1, for the first time in 30 years. A Haas spokesman declined comment Wednesday.

The race has enjoyed a prominent late-season place on the Formula One calendar, which has made it an important stop in the season championship.

The races in 2012, 2014 and 2015 all played key roles in the title chase. Lewis Hamilton's victory last month wrapped up his third Formula One season championship.

But the race has been plagued by steadily declining attendance, and the storms this year were a severe blow. The U.S. Grand Prix also depended in previous years on fans from neighboring Mexico. But the Mexican Grand Prix, held this year in Mexico City for the first time since 1992, is viewed as likely to further erode attendance in Austin.