As one of the most vital cogs of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitching rotation, CJ Wilson knows a thing or two about the importance of being stacked from numbers one through five to ensure his team has a best chance to win. That, of course, is his day job. The passion on the side for CJ is racing – and he is poised to scratch that itch in company with a similar deep, quality rotation of individuals in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill on Dec. 8-9, for which Wilson has assembled an all-star cast of young driving talent to share one Mazda MX-5 Cup car, except with a roof instead of an open top.
The “Young Guns” car that Wilson and CJ Wilson Racing partner/co-driver Jason Saini has in line for the longest endurance race in North America features two of their Playboy MX-5 full-time drivers, series champion Stevan McAleer and standout rookie Elliott Skeer, along with a pair of Team USA Scholarship winners in Tristan Nunez and Spencer Pigot, each of whom has starred in other series this year.
Without placing too much pressure on this single quartet, if their trajectories continue to ascend to the same stratospheric heights as achieved given their age, this could be the 2012 equivalent of say, an early-'90s lineup featuring Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in one car, before they were stars.
“I came up with the concept a couple months ago to put these future stars together in one car,” Wilson explains. “They're all such good, real, talented guys. I raced against Tristan and Spencer in Skip Barber four years ago when they were 14 or 15. Now they're winning championships. I'm not driving so helping them grow is the big thing.”
The race is run at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows, Calif., and is open to both pro and amateur drivers.
“Thunderhill is a ton of fun,” he adds. “It's like the 4x100 for Jamaica. They don't have to race each other, so everyone can finish first.”
Nunez, 17, is both the youngest and tallest of the quartet. Fresh off an IMSA Prototype Lites championship (LEFT, photo by the author) as his main series in 2012, he's also just captured the prestigious Walter Hayes Trophy Formula Ford race in Silverstone, as one of three Team USA Scholarship winners this year.
“I'm so in shock I can't believe it,” he said in the immediate aftermath at Silverstone, when the two leaders in front of him collided. “I didn't want to slow down because I wasn't sure it was the checkered flag, but then I saw everyone clapping and I thought, ‘OK, it's over!' I thought I could win it when I started to catch the first two, and when they crashed I thought, ‘OK, this was meant to be, this was definitely meant to be.' I still don't have the words to explain it!”
That was his last major single-seater effort but the goal in this case is getting acclimated to both a multi-driver and multi-class environment with more than two of each for the first time.
“It's going to be great practice for next year, and the whole team atmosphere will be so exciting to me in racing with Spencer and the two Playboy Cup drivers,” he surmises. “We should have an actual chance. We're going for it.”
“The way I sold it to him, if he can finish a 25-hour race, he can do anything,” adds Wilson. “The mental endurance required for this is very high. To have to do a three-hour stint is good training for racing at Le Mans or Daytona.”
Pigot's been on a whirlwind post-season tour where he's gotten seat time in a Star Mazda car, Porsche GT3 Cup car (for that manufacturer's Young Driver Academy at Barber Motorsports Park in October) and now an MX-5 after his main season in the USF2000 championship. The 19-year-old Floridian and two-time Team USA Scholarship winner won eight races, but finished second to teammate Matthew Brabham in the points standings.
“It's amazing what the connections can do,” says Pigot (LEFT, photo by the author). “I'd met CJ about three years ago in Skip Barber regional, and we've kept in touch ever since. Now there's opportunities to drive for him and asked if I was interested. It's been a while since I drove an MX-5 sports car but I was with him the first time he ever did a race with one of these cars.”
The guys Wilson knows best, of course, are two of his full-season MX-5 drivers. The team discovered McAleer (RIGHT, photo by the author) at this race one year ago, and Skeer's rise began at this time last year when he claimed the MAZDASPEED Shootout at Buttonwillow. Their efforts paid dividends for the team; McAleer claimed the title with three wins, and Skeer came sixth with one win, although the latter standing was not indicative of his pace and performance throughout the year.
“Steven had had a lot of experience in the UK, but I saw him at Thunderhill last year and he was phenomenal,” Wilson says. McAleer then expanded on his 2011 Thunderhill outing.
“It was so exciting, especially as it was my first time in a sports car,” he admits. “I had always been in open-wheel. I was in the Playboy car, and discovered it's such a cool race. It's 25 hours and so much stuff happens in one of those. It was the turnaround for me to think this was the way to go. I like the lifestyle of ‘pull a driver out, someone else go right and jump in' kind of thing. And we won our E1 class, so that made it better.”
The Scotsman added simply of this year's outing, “Now, this year we have four super-fast drivers. And it's going to be competitive between us for the fastest lap.”
Skeer (RIGHT, CJ Wilson photo), the Vista, Calif. native who just turned 18 (and, as a birthday present, was finally able to view the partner material from Playboy) agreed the competitive “play off each other” nature should help them in this setting.
“This will be the first time doing this race with a proper team,” Skeer says. “It was tough last year not having what we wanted in terms of cars and drivers. Now we can go for it.
“With Stevan, we've been working on setup, try each other's cars, and see how different they are. They're usually close. But we'd be such good teammates in Grand-Am or ALMS. This is the first taste of what it would be like as car-mates.”
That leaves it to Wilson, who can't actively participate given his new baseball contract that has stipulations on what he can and can't do outside of pitching, to set the order and watch them gel.
“Now we have to figure out the lineup,” he says. “Everyone's a different size. Tristan is tall and skinny, and Elliott is … small. Stevan and Spencer are normal size. We could go tallest to shortest, or shortest to tallest, or coin flip, or qualifying times. But I'm excited to see how they do at night.”
For the race, the two CJ Wilson Racing MX-5 Cup cars will get new gearboxes, hubs and suspension as well as having hard tops fitted to help with aerodynamics. The cars will also be fitted with "Baja lights." The cars will need oil every few hours and the team expect to do a brake pad change at the half way mark of the event.
Beyond the on-track commitment, the other major goal of this project is to use Wilson's clout to create a broader racing awareness and introduce the quartet of drivers to some of his partners to help improve their stock going forward.
“For me, if it's not baseball, I'm not a national story,” Wilson admits. “With racing, we need to get to a point, as our team continues to improve, to where it has its own merit. I want to promote these guys because they're so talented.
“Baseball is a meritocracy in a lot of ways; if you're good enough, you make it. But racing is different and you have to hit the perfect combination and the right people on your side. I'd like to get the larger businesses interested in those kids specifically. I've talked to New Balance and other sponsors in getting them on board.
“You have to teach them all the angles beyond driving, and the business angle is very important. Maybe down the road, they can do some charity events, where you get them to come out, work with kids in a park, or cross country run with New Balance shoes. Something like that.”
Wilson's own diversification beyond baseball and the race team has stretched to photography (he was at Petit Le Mans wearing both a team owner and credentialed photographer hat (LEFT, photo courtesy CJ Wilson Racing), and recorded his thoughts and images there for RACER
) and a car dealership in Chicago.
Now with these four, he's in the promotion business of putting together four of this year's top junior series drivers, before they go off to bigger and better things. That will make the lessons learned and experience gained for all parties all the more valuable for years to come.