Youth is wasted on the young, claim mostly bitter older folks who wish they'd made more use of theirs. But sometimes the successes and aspirations of one's younger days can be rekindled into new ventures. Such is the case with United Autosports, the British-based GT team founded this year by American Zak Brown and Briton Richard Dean. Starting out quietly in the FIA European GT3 championship with a pair of customer Audi R8 LMS entries, the team upped the ante for the series' most prestigious event – the 24 Hours of Spa – by adding a trio of racing legends to its driving strength for the event. Mark Blundell, Eddie Cheever and Stefan Johansson had varying degrees of rust to shake off, but their enthusiasm for the program and its principals – and the challenge of a 24-hour race at one of the world's greatest driving venues – got them through the door.
“I've raced there [Spa] almost 10 times but never at night,” noted Cheever who, before his 1998 Indy 500 triumph, earned fame in Formula 1 and sports prototypes. “There is also a history of rain at Spa, and I've always liked racing in the wet.”
For F1, CART and sports car veteran Blundell, who hadn't raced competitively since finishing second at the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours with Bentley, it was a chance to test the waters.
“It is an attraction for me to drive a modern-day GT sports car and try to be competitive,” he said. “I'm not looking to set the world alight but just come back and enjoy it. This opportunity, the whole combination, just seems to be the right thing to do – and to be racing at Spa, in a 24-hour race, just tops it all off.”
Spa, indeed, makes for a transcendental event. While not an international fixture like Le Mans, the Spa 24 attracts a robust crowd of hardcore fans, many of whom camp out and watch through the night. The level of regional interest prompts serious efforts by manufacturers – this year BMW Motorsports fielded a works M3 while Porsche outfitted a number of teams with its factory drivers. Audi, by contrast, maintains a technical support approach for three customer teams fielding the R8 LMS.
Having recently restarted his own racing career after driving competitively in the U.S. and Europe in the 1990s [see page 61], putting together the Spa superteam was a personal coup for Brown.
“I've known those three guys for a long time as friends,” related the team's co-founder, who shared driving duties in one R8 with Blundell, Cheever and Dean, while Johansson teamed with Grand-Am racers Mark Patterson and Emil Assentato, and Hong Kong driver Alain Li. “Stefan's never stopped driving, Mark's had the itch for a while, and Eddie only stopped a couple of years ago. They all liked the car, they liked the team and obviously, everyone loves the circuit! I grew up watching these guys race, and now to share a car with them is really cool.”
Understandably, the team started slowly at Spa as its drivers got acquainted with the machinery, but gradually rose to prominence in the race. The team's pair of customer Audis qualified a modest 16th and 21st in the 50-car field, which included GT2 and national class cars in addition to the GT3 machines.
“We got caught out a little bit by the conditions,” shrugged Brown, after a qualifying session run in classic Spa weather of showers alternating with brief dry periods. “I don't think the 50 yards we're giving up will make much difference over 24 hours,” he added.
Sure enough, the team quickly settled into a steady pace after the 4 p.m. start, while BMW's works M3 squabbled over the overall lead with GT2 Ferraris and Porsches. By one-quarter distance, United Autosports' No. 68 was closing on a top-three class position, with Cheever in particular reveling in the slick conditions as rain set in.
“With a track as long as this, you get half good and half bad in terms of track conditions, so you may as well suck it up and stay out [on slicks] which is what I did,” related Cheever. “That stint allowed us to put a dent into the others and put us in the game.”
Johansson, who led the team's No. 67 squad, briefly moved ahead of the sister No. 68, before spinning off at Blanchimont on debris.
“It's a bit of an adjustment, because I'm used to more high-downforce cars,” admitted the Swede. “You can't be as aggressive with these cars.”
The 67 lost more time overnight with a pair of off-course excursions for Assentato and a run-in with a backmarker for Patterson that required a long stop for bodywork repairs. Even so, it was back into the top 10 by daybreak – while the 68 was scaling its ambitions upward. Running second with four hours to go, Cheever had carved the class-leading Porsche's advantage from 20sec down to seven. Just when victory seemed in sight, though, a lurid slide into the runoff through Eau Rouge for Cheever signaled the onset of a power steering failure that would require a 43-minute pit stop to effect repairs.
“It's a shame because the car was great,” Cheever lamented. “The more I drove, the more comfortable I was. I'm very disappointed right now.”
All was not lost, though, as the mechanics' determined efforts got the car back out running the same pace as before. The 68 ran off the remaining three hours to claim a place on the podium for third in class, one position ahead of its twin. The drivers came away as enthused with the whole experience as with the result.
“I hadn't realized how much I'd missed driving a racecar on the limit,” declared Cheever. “It's opened a lot of windows in my mind and the competition's been tremendous; it's been lots of fun. It's great that you can have motorsports at such a high level that involves so many people on a circuit like Spa. There are very few circuits in the world that carry the importance that Spa does from a driver's perspective.”
Cheever admitted that the event had been “a little bit confusing for me, as there were so many categories. I didn't know who I was against, so you figured everyone was an enemy – which isn't a very good way to make friends...”
Blundell admitted he'd found the race hard work, but seemed eager for a return engagement.
“Double-stinting [2h20m stints] after seven years out of a racecar has been tough,” he said. “I think I'll put a bit more work in and get back into better shape. The whole thing's been the most enjoyable experience.”
While acknowledging a roller coaster of emotions, Brown was exuberant when it was all over.
“Once you feel that grasp of victory, it's a disappointment,” he conceded. “But, to think that our race was over and then have the crew get it back out and so we still finished third and our other car fourth, both of them top 10 overall...if I could have picked that coming into the weekend, I'd be thrilled. I'm over the taste of victory.”
Well, for now at least. Brown and his legendary cohorts are contemplating a run at Nurburgring's 24 Hours – another step in some big ambitions for United Autosports going forward.
“The goal is really to have a global sports car team,” Brown said. “I'd like to see the team step up to GT1 by 2012. It's fun for me to drive but I also know my limitations, so I'll stay in GT3 and step up to GT1 with four ringers. Maybe a combination of a young up-and-comer like a Matt Bell [Brown's regular teammate in GT3] and a guy like a Stefan or a Blundell – a big name who helps attract sponsors and can also mentor a guy like Matt, while also still being bloody quick!
“I'd also like to do something in the States. Grand-Am would be the logical place for us to race, given my NASCAR relationships and because I own part of the Coyote chassis business with Eddie Cheever. Jeff Gordon, who we [JMI] represent, is interested in long-term business opportunities. One day, he'd like to go to Le Mans. One of the fun things for me is bringing in some of these big names through JMI – which gives us the ability to go and sell some more sponsorship.”
For Brown, then, United Autosports is both business and pleasure.
“For me, it's a stress relief,” he said of his cockpit time. “It's the only time I don't think about business – but I'm also able to tie my business into this.”
Teammate Assentato also is both a business and driving partner for Brown.
“Emil is the chief executive of FXDD, which is an online currency trader, and we did a sponsorship deal with him and Red Bull in Formula 1. So, I'm able to use this racing team as a benefit for JMI.”
While also benefiting himself and his friends. It's a perfect feedback loop.
NOT JUST MARKETING
Zak Brown's commercial savvy has him living two dreams. After setting aside his own racing career to build his motorsports marketing company, Just Marketing International, from “a second phone line out of my house and a business card from Kinkos” into a global powerhouse, Brown has found the business of racing leading him back to the track as a team owner and a driver.
“We represent about 25 brands – LG, Subway, DirecTV, UPS, Verizon, etc.,” he explains. “The majority of our business is NASCAR and Formula 1. We've got six offices around the world and now we're the world's largest motorsports promotions agency.
“I stopped racing in 2000 because my business demands were so high – they still are, but now I'm in the fortunate position where I can probably fall off a boat and the company will do just fine without me. So, I sold 70 percent of the company to Credit Suisse and Spire Capital. That gave me some cash, with which I've been very irresponsible and spent on racing.”
A long-term friendship between Brown and Richard Dean – a former F3000 racer who also had shelved his own racing ambitions to focus on business – helped pave the way for Brown's return in GT racing. Dean manages the operation, while Brown handles the money side.
“When I was racing I was always underfunded, with old cars, not enough tires and so on,” Brown says. “I got the itch to race again in a low-pressure environment where I knew I could put together the finances to get us started in the right way.”