Auto racing: The rise of the wheeler dealer

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The transition from stockbroker to race car owner would be a jolt for most people but for Bob Balachowski it seemed inevitable from the start.

Balachowski grew up in the aptly named town of Speedway, Indiana, about a block from the main gate of the Indy 500. “It was the biggest sporting spectacular on the planet and it was right down the street,” he remembers. “The neighbourhood kids used to go there after school and for hours and hours we’d just watch the cars go around the track.”

Fast-forward to decades later, after a career spent at financial giants such as Merrill Lynch, E.F. Hutton and Prudential. After dealing in currency and commodity trading, which were adrenal and fast-paced but stodgy by comparison, Balachowski aimed to complete his childhood fantasy of becoming a race car owner. It was not easy – he cites the Marquis de Sade as the patron saint of car racing – but after years of effort, including an aborted attempt to create a new Formula One team, he is now part-owner of BMI Motorsports.

Along with partner Mike Henderson, formerly a top aeronautical engineer at Boeing, he is soon to launch his car in Nascar’s Busch series. “It is total insanity,” he admits. “But I love it and I have always loved it. You haven’t lived until you have been to a track with 165,000 fans. It’s the ultimate rush.”

Balachowski isn’t alone in harbouring dreams of racetrack glory. As the sport mushrooms in popularity – 75m fans for Nascar, 30m for the rival Indy series – more and more marquee names have been drawn into its orbit: actor Paul Newman; late night television’s David Letterman; television actor Patrick Dempsey; and basketball player Carmelo Anthony.

“It’s up and coming, and hopefully it will become even bigger,” says Anthony, the Denver Nuggets forward who leads Indy’s Carmelo-Hemelgarn team (and whose car recently tasted defeat when it was taken out by a teammate on the second lap of the Indy 500). “We’re going to take this sport to another level.”

Just as ownership of a National Basketball Assoc­iation or Major League Baseball team has ranked as the ultimate plaything for wealthy individuals, having your own race car has now acquired the same status. It may not appeal to those summering on Martha’s Vineyard but for red-state America, owning a race car is a symbol that you have truly made it.

“Everyone deep down has an allure for speed,” says Indy Racing League vice-president John Lewis. “When you combine racers going 220mph with 400,000 fans on Memorial Day weekend, people definitely get the feeling of ‘I want to be a part of that.’”

The sport’s image seems to have undergone a makeover in recent years. The car racing stereotype is one of good ol’ boys in Carolina body shops, drenched in motor oil and guzzling beer. “Auto racing used to be about bootleggers and racing on dirt tracks,” says Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now runs Pilson Communications and does television consulting work for Nascar. “Now, not only has the image changed but the demographics of the audience have changed as well.”

When political strategists salivate about winning the votes of “Nascar Dads”, and celebrity chef Mario Batali writes a cookbook specif­ically for car racing tailgaters, its presence in the culture seems secure. Along with a fiercely loyal audience, auto racing has attracted not only blue-chip sponsors but an array of owners from corporate America.

Among those who have made the leap from the white-collar world into car ownership: Jay Frye, a former marketing executive with Anheuser-Busch, who now owns MB2 Motorsports in Mooresville, North Carolina, and operates two full-time Nascar entries; and Ed Rensi, a former chief executive of McDonald’s, who has passed up an easy retirement to spend 250 days a year travelling with his team.

But would-be owners should brace themselves for the messy realities that come with the dream of race car ownership. To compete successfully takes incredible technical sophistication and an unholy amount of financial resources.

“Depending on the series and the level of competition, it requires millions of dollars to run a team,” says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “Sometimes upwards of $15m-$20m a year.”

Not to mention soul-crushing hours, the slammed doors of potential sponsors, and the prospect of racing against the sport’s well-funded titans, such as Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick. Or even the tragedy of losing a driver, a brutal reality that the Rahal-Letterman Indy team faced with Paul Dana’s death earlier this season.

Nonetheless, race car owners cannot seem to resist the allure of the track. “It’s addictive, no question,” says Frye. “Once you come to an event, you become a passionate fan for life. You smell it, you touch it, you feel it. It’s basically a big travelling
family circus – and I’m a part of it.”

So how exactly do owners get started in transforming a dream into a race track reality? The good news is that in car racing there are not many institutionalised barriers to new entrants. There is no fixed number of franchises, for example. Nor does your bid have to run the gauntlet of being approved by a board of existing owners, so it is easier to enter than the other big team sports.

Job one, essentially, is to decide which racing series is best suited to your temperament. Nascar is a southern-fried stock car series with a wider fan base and a more distinctly American flavour, and which offers more leeway to tinker with a car’s engineering. Then there are Indy and Champ Car, both so-called “open wheel” series with greater speed and more international drivers, where precision is king. The latter two have resulted from a 1995 split of the Cart series, although talks to reunite the two are continuing.

With Nascar, the starting point amounts to little more than filling out a licence and getting assigned a team number. “And that’s it, you’re a car owner,” says Nascar president Mike Helton, whose father used to pull up his car near the racetrack in Bristol, Tennessee, where they would spy on the race from a local hillside.

Similarly with Indy racing, there are only a few manufacturers designated to provide essentials such as the chassis, the engine and the tyres. Show the league your proof of purchase and “you’re on the road”, says Indy Racing League’s Lewis.

But do not be deceived. While the initial steps to ownership are simple, what comes next is supremely challenging. You have to assemble an expensive team of engineers, mechanics and crew chiefs, and rent a shop where you can perfect your machines. You have to find the right driver who meets league requirements. They are going to be speeding along inches away from other cars, sometimes at speeds of more than 200mph, and any wrong move can be fatal.

Perhaps most daunting, you have to pursue sponsors to help foot the bill. That might not be a difficult task for the team of Indy driving superstar du jour Danica Patrick, or for sports celebrities such as Staubach and Aikman, whose names can secure them access to the boardrooms of America. But for a new owner without such recognition, it can be an almost insurmountable climb to get a corporation to hand over millions to an unknown quantity.

“When I started as a stockbroker, I had to make cold call after cold call,” remembers BMI’s Balachowski, who says his team is close to inking a big sponsorship deal, “and this was very much the same.” To wit: Many times he had to woo the heads of Fortune 50 companies, without as much as a car or garage to show them, or even tickets to the local race. “How can you impress a CEO if you can’t even get into the grandstands?”

The answer is the long, slow forging of relationships with people already in the business. In Balachowski’s case many owners proved willing to provide counsel – whether in telling him the kind of price tag he could expect or welcoming his potential sponsors into the pits. One popular strategy for gaining entry to the owner’s club is to make a formal alliance with existing teams. Staubach and Aikman, for instance, allied with Joe Gibbs, the Hall of Fame NFL coach and current racing kingpin, to midwife their own team into existence.

By taking advantage of a current team’s connections, personnel and know-how, you might be able to turnkey an entire operation for the right price.

That doesn’t, however, lighten your potential workload. Be prepared to hand over your life to car racing, because far from being a spare time hobby, the sport can quickly become all-consuming. “I don’t take any days off during the year – none,” says MB2’s Frye. “It’s almost a sickness. But I still can’t wait to get up and come to work every morning, because it doesn’t feel like a job.”

That is the emotional payoff, in a sport that everyone refers to as a kind of bizarre extended family. But is there a financial payoff? The answer is a qualified yes, if you can assemble the right team and manage to place well in the standings.

Indy alone boasts a total purse of $25m for its races this year. And success on the track can be leveraged in other fields – as with racing driver Roger Penske, whose basket of ventures benefits from his gold-plated name.

“It can be very financially rewarding,” says Balachowski, whose car will soon have its debut at the Michigan International Speedway. “All you have to do is go down to Charlotte and see how some of these owners live.”

But do not lay out a downpayment on that villa on St. Barts quite yet. Because here’s the rub: the profits you make, if there are any, tend to be funnelled back into your race car’s performance. “Any money that comes in, you just spend to go even faster,” says Frye. “That’s part of the addiction.”

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