You know the old line about how to make a small fortune in motor racing -- just start with a large one. It's a cliche because it's true, but Zak Brown, co-owner of the United Autosports GT3 team with Britain's Richard Dean, has found a way around that conundrum by building a team that serves his larger business interests while also providing a perfect outlet for his racing passion. Especially this weekend, when he joins some of his idols racing an Audi R8 LMS in a 24-hour race on one of the world's greatest racetracks -- Spa-Francorchamps.
"Racing with the F1 guys is a dream come true for me," Brown says of his United Autosports teammates Eddie Cheever, Stefan Johansson and Mark Blundell. "I grew up watching these guys, and now to share a car with them is really cool."
It's the result of an association that goes back many years, via a variety of contacts.
"I've known those three guys for a long time as friends." notes Brown, who recently restarted his own racing career after driving competitively in the U.S. and Europe in the 1990s. "Stefan's never stopped driving and 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! So it was kind of a combination of all that. I asked them if they wanted to do it and they were all immediately, 'We're in.'"
And the experience could just be whetting their appetites. "They're all really enjoying it -- and now we're talking about during the Nurburgring 24 Hours next year..."
After setting aside his own racing career to build his burgeoning motorsports marketing company, Just Marketing International, literally from a home business into a global powerhouse, Brown eventually found the business of racing leading him back to the track as a team owner and as 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 -- Asia, England, Germany, a few locations in the States, and now we're the world's largest motorsports [promotions] agency by whatever measurement -- we bring about 300 million dollars a year in new motorsports.
"It got started when was I was racing in Europe -- I didn't have any family funds, so I had to do all my own sponsorship deals to go racing. I did a variety of deals over the years but the largest was with TWA airlines. The program was pretty big for them and worked very well, because I'd worked very hard at it not just being a sticker on the car but getting the partners involved -- going to airports and frequent flyer programs and so on. I did all that from just asking, 'What can I do? What's important to you?', because i didn't have any marketing background and it was all a matter of finding out what I could do to make them happy.
"Then in 1994, I had a chance to go back to the States and race, so I went to TWA and said, 'I've gotta leave.' They said, 'Well, we really like this program. Being a driver, you must know all the drivers on pit lane, so could you give our sponsorship to someone else?' And I said, 'OK, I can do that.' Once I did that deal, which went to Nigel Mansell's F3000 team, then all of a sudden everyone became my best friend -- 'Hey, maybe Zak can get us some money.'
"So that's how the business got started. I gave it a silly name while having a Guinness in a pub in England and started it out of my house with no funds, just a second phone line and a business card from Kinkos. The first three or four years I was doing any deal just to get bread on the table, but then I started getting into NASCAR and found, 'Wow, this is an easy sell." Just say the word NASCAR around 1998, and boom. So that's what really got the business momentum going, and by 2000 I realized, 'Right, something's gotta give,' and I realized I wasn't going to make it to the top ranks of motor racing, so I decided to pack it in and focus on the business. I did that for five or six years, it grew really rapidly, and then I started to tinker with racing again."
That "tinkering" grew out a long-term friendship between Brown and Briton Richard Dean, who like Zak had shelved his own racing ambitions to focus on business, but also like him found the racing itch still in need of scratching.
"Richard's my best mate. I've known him for 20 years. I started racing in North America but when I came to Europe, he was my instructor, so that's how we met," Brown explains. "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've got a good staff of about 150 people. I want to be there every day and i am, but 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 which gave some cash -- with which I've been very irresponsible and spent on racing.
"I got the itch to race again in a kind of low-pressure environment where I knew I could put together the finances to get us started in the right way -- which was most important, because when I was racing I was always underfunded, with old cars, not enough tires and so on. I knew I could get us in that position through personal finance for setting it up, and sponsorship, which i was confident I'd be able to get, 'cause that's the business I'm in. I've been able to do both."
Having established United Autosports as a team, Brown is building his ambitions for it going forward.
"Now, the goal is really to have a global sports car team," he explains. "I love the FIA GT series here in Europe, and I'd like to see the team step up to GT1 by 2012 while remaining in GT3. I'd go with all pro drivers in GT1 -- it's fun for me to drive but I also know my limitations -- I think I'm competent but I know I'm not professional, 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, who we have as my teammate in GT3, and a guy like a Stefan or a Blundell -- a big name who helps attract sponsors and also mentor a guy like Matt -- while also being still bloody quick!
"I'd also like to do something in the States, and 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. I'd like to stay at JMI for the forseeable future, but at the same time I want to start growing the racing team so that when that day of transition comes, this thing's already up and running. So really, the goal's to be a first-class outfit, be as competitive as possible and put on a good show for sponsors and our manufacturer partner -- and to have fun. We're under no illusions that it's possible to make money in this line of business I just don't like to lose money."
He's also looking to grow relationships with manufacturer partners as the team expands.
"Looking at the history of sports car racing, being aligned with manufacturers is the way to go," he says. "We're very happy with Audi, so I'd want to see how big i can make that relationship, but they're not playing Grand-Am, so I'd look for another partner there. Jeff Gordon, who we [JMI] now represent, is interested in long-term business opportunities, so if the right opportunity comes along I'd like to get Jeff involved with the team. He has international aspirations -- right now his schedule doesn't allow it, but one day he'd like to go to Le Mans. So that's one of the fun things for me is through JMI, bringing in some of these big names, which then gives us the ability to go and sell some more sponsorship."
So, for Brown, United Autosports is both hobby and business, with both sides feeding the other.
"For me, it's a stress relief," he says of his cockpit time in the squad's Audi R8 LMS. "It's the only time I don't think about business, but I'm also able to tie my business into this."
Indeed, in addition to team co-owner Dean and chassis partner Cheever, Brown is also a business associate with another member of the team's driving lineup, Emil Assentato,
"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."
The mutual benefits just keep coming, and United Autosports hopes to yield some more starting this weekend.