This week’s Continental Tire IMSA Spotlight is CJ Wilson, team owner of CJ Wilson Racing who enters this year’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge season seeking a GS class title with a new car after winning the 2015 ST title. He also drove during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test. Here’s a snapshot of the car guy who happens to play baseball and take photos in his spare time…
IMSA Spotlight: CJ Wilson
Team Owner, No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport
Drivers: Marc Miller, Daniel Burkett
So you’re coming off a championship season, moving from ST to GS. What sparked that decision and this progression?
“I think this is the third step on our way up the ladder, so to speak. We started with (Mazda) MX-5 Cup, and then with ST last year. Being able to run in the Continental Tire series at consecutive levels is really huge. We know the tire, we understand the competition, we know the length of the race, and we know where all the tracks are. So it’s not like we’re jumping into a completely new series. That’s very welcoming.
“It’s a much faster car, much faster class of cars, and we get to be passing a lot of people now, which is exciting.”
How have you transitioned as a team from the Mazda to a Porsche and prepared given the short offseason?
“The biggest thing about being able to buy the cars directly from Porsche we are up to speed faster, and it’s already obvious. We’re doing what we need to be doing and close to the top end of field. The biggest challenge with building your own cars, say the MX-5s, is you’re not really sure if you’re going in the right direction until you go out there and race the car.
“So the months you spend welding things, designing things, going through the rulebook, how does this coordinate with this, how will it feel or drive? We don’t know. We had experienced with the MX-5 platform in the MX-5 Cup, but ST car with better tires on it, a better engine, changes a lot of components around.
“We’re up to speed faster. It’s a different car. It’s mid-engine. The drivers are getting used to that. It’s a paddle shift car, which is a really cool technology. There’s a glow – the new baby glow – on the car. We’re very happy.
“It’s hard, because we had so much success with Mazda. We won two championships with them, and that’s how a lot of people associated us in the paddock. Continuing to work our way forward, Mazda didn’t have a GS product for us to race. It was difficult. We felt like we were better to move into GS and challenge ourselves, use the momentum, and continuing the development of the team. The pit crew, the engineering side, everyone’s really excited to move into GS.”
How connected are you with the race team once baseball season starts in February?
“I’m hands off by default, but not necessarily by choice. You have to allow the process to work itself out. The only thing I can do at the baseball field… I’m at the field from 1:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day for games. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., I can be the businessperson at that point. I can have meetings, phone calls, or conference calls, be involved in strategic side of things. I talk extensively to everyone involved in the dealership and the race team on a regular basis. That just allows us to keep continuity. Nothing surprises us anyone.
“The dealership sends out a blast every month, of ‘Hey, here’s how many cars we sold.’ The race team sends out an update, here’s how we’re doing, next race. It’s all one big company. And the enthusiasm that our partners or our mechanics have at dealerships for the race team translates directly as well. I try to be a continuity bridge in that regard.”
How did your new driver lineup come together, and what are your expectations?
“Unfortunately we weren’t able to move forward with Stevan (McAleer) and Chad (McCumbee) and put them in a car this year, because they had existing contracts that prevented that.
“But Marc (Miller) obviously has driven for us before and has a lot of experience with high horsepower cars, with GS cars. The coolest thing is that Marc is getting extra development time, as he gets to drive the Riley Viper, so he can translate some of the process for how they install laps on the car. He brings a lot of extra knowledge and ‘secret sauce’ to us.
“Danny (Burkett) is really young and very talented, and is super hungry. It’s funny because Marc is an established driver and Danny is trying to prove himself. In a session we looked at data between the two drivers. The gap was pretty small. But Danny is so competitive; he was like, ‘I can’t believe the gap’s that big. I’m gonna get it down!’ He was really adamant.
“But he’s coming from the open-wheel world, formula cars, he’s driven fast wicked cars before. We’re teaching him how to be an endurance driver.
“He’s fun and as you know we try to have a lot of fun. We take the processes seriously, but in terms of personality, we believe in having one as opposed to a bunch of robots. Danny’s a bit edgy, and we like that. We’ve got to know each other the last couple months. Just spending time with him this weekend was really rewarding.”
You’ve got the race team and the baseball career, but where did your enormous passion for cars come from?
“I think I’ve always associated having cool cars, and cool street cars with being a successful person. It sort of drove me to be successful, because I wanted cool cars.
“I’m one of those people I look at cars as a piece of art. Some cars are really, really beautiful and others are terrible. There’s a lot in between.
“The biggest thing is, once you get involved in any level of racing, and sit in a car, or stand at a corner, it’s impossible not to be enthusiastic. I’ve been around racing 30 years now off and on, as a driver, as a spectator, as a fan. It’s really cool as my baseball career starts to wind down in next couple years, knowing we’ve built this race team, and we’ve built this business and dealerships as something to do.
“I don’t like golf! I’m not a golfer. I can’t get behind the tee box and get excited the way I can for racing. It’s a cool industry and connects so many people. When you see people from all walks of life, different personalities and tastes – Viper guys, Porsche guys, Mazda guys, Honda guys – everyone respects the winner of the race, the cool cars, nice liveries and effort.
“Guys go and crash and get it in the garage and get it back out. This is a 24-hour race. That type of stuff and enthusiasm is infectious. You get that ‘Disney movie sense’ a lot. There’s that prideful, wistful tear in the eye for what you’ve done.
“It’s funny. Racing for me, I’ve always connected with. It’s an ultimate level pursuit like an ultra marathon. It’s an extreme commitment to make, and I sold out to it a long time ago. And I don’t think it’s gonna go away.”