AUSTIN (KXAN) - Austin Formula 1 promoter Tavo Hellmund is apologizing for a comment he made at the beginning of a television interview Wednesday, September 1.
"While I was preparing for an interview yesterday, I said something I shouldn't have during a microphone check. Anyone who knows me knows this is not who I am. I'd like to extend a sincere apology to anyone who may have been offended."
Hellmund, 40, provided the response in reference to an interview with several Austin television news stations; KXAN reporter Josh Hinkle started the interview by asking Hellmund to confirm his name:
KXAN Reporter: "Just for the record, go ahead and say your name."
Tavo Hellmund: "Uh, Kunta Kinte."
KXAN Reporter: "Just for a mic check."
News 8 Reporter: "Did you just say that?"
Full Throttle Spokesperson: "No, he didn't."
Unknown Reporter or Photographer: "Yes, he did Mr. PR man. We heard it."
KXAN Reporter: Alright, so what's this new track like? Can you explain to us the design"
Although the beginning of a recorded television interview is usually not broadcast, it is common practice for journalists to confirm the name of interview subjects on camera at the onset of the interview.
Tavo Hellmund is the primary organizer of the Austin F1 project - which is eligible for $25 million dollars per year in taxpayer-funded incentives.
The Texas State Comptroller's office said the money is not guaranteed, no checks have been written and an application for funding won't come until a year out from the first race. As promoter, however, Hellmund would be responsible for how those tax dollars would be spent if Formula 1 does receive the incentives.
State Comptroller Susan Combs' Office released the following statement in response to Hellmund's statement:
"Our dealings with him have been very professional. Sounds like an inappropriate attempt at a sense of humor."
Kunta Kinte is the name of the main character of the novel Roots, which was made into a popular TV miniseries in 1977.
"The show revolves around an African name Kunta Kinte who is captured and brought to the United States to be enslaved," said UT Media historian and Communications assistant professor Jennifer Fuller.
Fuller said the most memorable scene from the series is when Kunta Kinte is whipped repeatedly after being asked his name, and refusing to give the slave name his overseer gave him.
"It is the moment where we can see his spirit. He doesn't want to be broken. This is his African-ness, right, that's trying to be torn from him. And it's a very violent scene as well, of course," said Fuller.
Fuller says the scene is recognized as a serious moment in television history. She doesn't know why it came up before an interview about the Formula 1 racetrack.
"It could simply mean, 'I'm going to refer to this other moment when someone was asked what their name was,' right? It could mean something defiant, right? It's really hard to say what it means if someone says that," she said.
Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, who has worked with Tavo Hellmund on the Formula 1 track, released the following statement:
"That kind of comment is offensive and inappropriate, and there is no excuse for it."
Mike Manor is a self-described community bridge builder who moderates race conversation sessions at St. James Episcopal Church in East Austin.
"I don't know what that person's intent was in his heart or in his mind doing that. He seemed to be somewhat even uncomfortable as he said it, in my perspective," said Manor.
Still, Manor understands how the reference could be misconstrued.
"Sometimes people are products of misinformation, miseducation, no matter how much we'd like to think that some things are common sense," said Manor.
He adds this is a reminder for all to be mindful of words they use and references they make -- especially those appointed, elected or serving the community -- even in a business sense.
"Anyone who's in a leadership role or in a visible role has somewhat responsibility to be a student all the time and learning," said Manor.
Manor says his Building Bridges conversations take place the first Saturday of each month and everyone is invited.
The next one is this Saturday from nine to eleven thirty a-m at St James Episcopal Church at 19-41 Webberville Road.
According to his Formula 1 online bio, Hellmund grew up and spent most of his life in Austin.
Officials expect to begin construction on the track in December and be finished in early 2012. It will be the site of Formula 1 racing from 2012 through 2021. The track will also be used for off-season events, as well as for research into alternative fuels.
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