Growing up, C.J. Wilson always knew he wanted to race, but didn't have the necessary financial backing to do so. His dad suggested he get a job where he made enough to support his racing career. So, when Wilson recalls how his dream would one day become reality, he deadpans about a simple, yet powerful mantra that previewed his future.
“I straight up wrote down, ‘I will play baseball and I will drive awesome cars.' And that was it. That was the story,” he says.
Fast forward to this off-season, what is traditionally a down time in both of Wilson's industries. He's a prized free agent, a left-handed starting pitcher testing the market after seven successful seasons with the Texas Rangers, the last two years ending with American League pennants but no World Series titles.
And while most of motorsports shifts into trade shows and fund-gathering for next season, Wilson's preparing for this weekend's 25 Hours of Thunderhill – a race he won in class in 2010 – as his first major race in his other burgeoning career.
“I'm kind of stuck in between two worlds,” he admits. “But racing allows me the luxury in doing what I want to do.”
Wilson doesn't mince any words. He's a racer trapped in a baseball player's body. His Twitter handle is @Str8EdgeRacer. He's actively pursuing this career when the baseball season ends, and looks to make it his full-time line of work once he retires (although left-handed pitchers traditionally have long shelf lives).
Given his ability to garner a substantial paycheck in the big leagues, Wilson could have come into motorsports with guns blazing and ambition to go straight into one of the professional ranks. Not so, he says, because of his respect for the industry.
“I know I'm starting late, and know I have to catch up,” he says. “I have to develop myself in a lot of different ways through the minor leagues of racing. I have to work within the team and as if I was a kid because I know in the car, I'm an inexperienced 18-year-old.”
Wilson's actually 31, but he's been a fan since his youth. He read automotive magazines before children's books and woke up watching Formula 1 and endurance races on the old SpeedVision channel. His family has roots within the sport, as his dad worked on a pit crew for a dirt track midget team. He didn't start playing baseball until age 9, but already inquired at that point about how much he'd need to save to acquire any “really cool car.”
In the interim, he got hooked on racing video games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. He describes his skill level as “gnarly.” But, the countless hours spent playing them is in preparation for one of his ultimate racing goals, making it to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I always looked at that as a science,” he explains. “I did endurance racing over and over. If I ever do Le Mans, I have to be focused for four hours at a time. Driving is very mental and being in the game the whole time.”
For now, he's not overextending himself as he hones his talent level. Wilson runs the C.J. Wilson Racing team with Jason Saini, who's spent his own career in the Mazda sports car ladder system. The team runs in Mazda MX-5 Cup and the Grand-Am Continental Tire Series.
“For me, there's always been a budgetary concern because as a club racer, you don't want to crash out and kill your budget,” Wilson says. “But I don't want to dive in past my talent level. Sure, I could afford to run a (Porsche) Cup car or RX-8 at Daytona, financially, but physically and talent-wise I wasn't there. There's no point in overextending yourself and embarrassing yourself in trying to make it out there.
“I respect the racing institution a lot, and I feel I have to work my way up and make it as a whole. For me, that's OK, because there's no limit on age. Guys like Tom Kristensen are winning Le Mans pushing 50 (he's 44, but who's counting), and I still view myself as having a lot of time.”
It seems obvious to ask whether his baseball contract prohibits any racing, but his prior one with the Rangers had a laundry list of things that they advised he not engage in, but not an outright ban. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Wilson hold out even longer this off-season to run at Daytona, possibly in the 50th anniversary Rolex 24. Longer-term, he's looking at losing 30lbs after retiring and using what he learned as a team player in baseball and integrating it into his racing career.
“If I stay small enough, eventually I'll be able to drive a prototype or an LMPC car or LMP2 car,” he says of his career ambition. “I'm an engineering fan, I understand the concepts and I just have to execute it. It's just like breaking down game tape. That also allows me to focus on the small, minor details. The only thing I lack is seat time. The desire and technical knowledge is there, I just have to work with people who are established.”
It seems likely Wilson will be a player in the sports car and racing world in the years going forward. For now, it's focus on repeating the Thunderhill win with one of two Mazda MX-5s.