By David Undercoffler
8:00 AM EDT, September 7, 2013
This weekend is a big one for Major League Baseball pitcher C.J. Wilson’s team.
It will start with 18 to 20 guys gathering in a crowded space for final equipment adjustments and strategy sessions. Then a select few will don their helmets and gloves and head out to compete in front of an eager audience. There, they’ll face a crowded field of rivals gunning to see who can run the fastest.
And not a baseball will be in sight.
Turns out that Wilson, a left-handed pitcher for the Angels, has a bit of motor oil running through his veins. The two-time All Star owns CJ Wilson Racing, a team that sponsors race cars in two separate series of competition. He’s also an aspiring racer himself.
“Some people like to golf,” Wilson said in an interview. “I like to drive.”
This weekend finds Wilson’s team running a pair of race-prepped Mazda Miatas in one of those series. The Continental Sports Car Festival runs Saturday and Sunday at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas, Calif. The event is part of the Grand-Am Continental Sports Car Challenge, a 12-race competition that runs January through September.
The other side of CJ Wilson Racing is a four-to-five-car team that competes in the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup, a spec series that features only Miatas.
Not only is Wilson an avid driver, but he sees cars and motorsports as a career beyond the baseball field. In addition to his racing outfit, Wilson owns a Mazda dealership just outside of Chicago.
He cites as inspiration the career arc of Roger Penske, a former racer who then went on to become one of the most successful racing team owners in motorsports history, as well as a businessman with well over 100 car dealerships across the U.S.
“If I can, I’d like to take a little slice out of his book,” Wilson said of Penske. “He’s done everything in a straightforward manner and executed it well.”
As a driver, Wilson said he’s followed with interest actor Patrick Dempsey’s progression through the ranks of professional racing. Dempsey owns a racing team competing in the more elite Rolex level of Grand-Am competition.
As a driver Dempsey has progressed through the ranks of racing to level that enables him to compete in races such as the prestigious 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he finished fourth in his class.
Wilson sees parallels between drivers moving up through the ranks of racing and the minor league system of baseball.
“Just like the minors, there’s a reason you need to work your way up,” Wilson said. “Look at what Dempsey’s done. If he can do it, I can do it.”
As a team owner, Wilson also has designs for Le Mans. “The goal is to get to Le Mans, go over there and win,” Wilson said. “That’d be awesome.”
He sees plenty of talent in some of the young professional drivers on his two racing teams, and he hopes to cultivate their careers to the point that when CJ Wilson Racing has the financial wherewithal to finance such an endeavor, the drivers are ready too.
“By the time our team is ready to go LeMans, they’re ready to drive at LeMans,” Wilson said.
But that point is several years away. For now, the team has found rapid success in the Playboy series and the Grand Am races since Wilson's teams entered the series in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Driver Stevan McAleer won the Playboy cup in 2012, and is one of four team drivers racing this weekend in the more elite Grand Am series. He's also a virtual shoe-in for rookie of the year honors for the 2013 season.
Wilson’s team competes in the ST class, which features cars such as the Porsche Boxster, BMW 1 and 3 Series, Honda Civic Si and Mazda 3.
Given that the twisty, undulating track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca favors cars like the Miata, the team is feeling confident it will pull off a strong finish this weekend. Despite grabbing first-place finishes in March and July, the team currently sits in eighth place.
Wilson attributed part of the team’s ranking to racetracks in the middle of the season with long stretches of tarmac that favor higher horsepower cars. This weekend’s race, and the final race of the season later in September, have Wilson and his team confident they can move up in the rankings.
“We have been looking forward to this race all season,” said team manager Andris Laivins. “We think we can score big in these closing races.”
Wilson’s interest in car racing was piqued by his dad, who raced in dirt track midget cars when Wilson was a kid. His attention grew into IndyCar and F1 racing, and finally spilled over into track days once he started making money from baseball and could afford it.
With a five-year, $77.5-million contract beginning in the 2012 season, Wilson’s personal time on the racetrack has had to take a back seat to his involvement as a team owner. Yet he’s used his one-two punch of pro athlete and racing team owner to pull in sponsorships from companies, including Head & Shoulders shampoo, that might not otherwise have been possible.
“As a baseball player, I’m a good player, but not the best in the game,” Wilson said. “As a race car owner, we have a good team, but we’re not the best team. That’s a unique marketing angle for a lot of companies; being able to have signage on a car that travels all around the country and have me travel all around the country. That’s a cool thing.”
Wilson said he didn’t have an exact figure of how much he’s spent on his racing teams. Because some of the support is channeled through his dealership, it’s not an easy number to calculate, he said, but pegged it in the seven figures.
That’s more of an upfront investment on big-ticket items including a pair of racing trailers that run around $250,000 each, as well as the seven race-prepped cars, tools and other assets. The teams’ annual operating costs are much lower, thanks in part to the many sponsorship deals.
“It’s not like I’m stroking huge checks so other people can race,” Wilson said.
It’s also hard to say no when a victory could be at stake, even if it means going over budget. “You’re always going to do everything you can to make the cars as fast as possible,” Wilson said.
That’s how you get to the big leagues.
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