|Champion Racing: A Little Bit of Magic, by David Tremayne|
|© 2014 David Bull Publishing, ISBN 978 1935007 265|
“I didn’t think they’d win a raffle. It was a disaster in every way.”
This is how Allan McNish, who is widely regarded as the best sports car driver of the modern era summed up his first experiences with Champion Racing. It was this scything rhetoric that cut Champion’s quiet but charismatic owner to the quick and gave some of the impetus to the changes that would come quickly over the next few seasons.
“Mister Maraj” is how everyone addressed the owner of Champion. It was a measure of the respect that he had earned along the way to building what became the quintessential sports racing car team of the early 21st century. Not just in America, but the world at large.
In his latest book, David Tremayne takes the reader on a journey from the humble beginnings of the team where one car was raced at local events; to the heartbreaks of Le Mans losses; to the swansong years of an outright Le Mans victory and ultimately for three years as a ‘works’ Audi team in the USA. The book also details the final throes of the team and the political wrangling that saw its demise along with the gut wrenching times that Mr. M. had to endure while trying to save ‘his boys’ from the unemployment line.
As one who has known Dave Maraj for 13 years, I found special interest in this huge and weighty book and learned many things along the way. For any fan of sports car racing, Le Mans, racing history, Porsche and Audi or particularly the human story of triumph over adversity, this book fascinates as you learn of the way that Hans Stuck coached the team along in its infancy and made such a huge difference to the way they approached the sport.
There are tales from all the drivers – and Champion Racing had all the big names – as well as the key management from rival outfits, Porsche and Audi, who help shape the story. As you read on you find out why every one of them – to a man and a woman – will testify that this team was the best that they ever worked at and that Dave Maraj was the best team owner that one could ever hope to have, such is the respect and admiration they all still have for him. Car chief and ex-F1 mechanic Tim Munday expresses this feeling when he says, “[It’s the] best team I ever worked for by far. By far.”
It doesn’t take long to realize that the book is as much a tribute as it is a chronological narration for the future generations. Words that crop up time and again such as family; respect; calm; friendly; teamwork; leadership; empowerment and welcoming all make you wish you had been there to witness at least just one of their many victories. The respect that is shown for Dave Maraj jumps from the pages and is almost astonishing as former associates say “thank you” in their comments. It comes from every person who was associated with the team. Modern teams and even Fortune 500 companies could learn lessons in employee relations by reading this book.
When legendary Audi Sport team boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich says, “Our premises in Ingolstadt were an ex-supermarket…when I saw Champion I said I wanted a building like that” you know what kind of ship was being run there. The race shop was as immaculate as any Formula One team’s and the Porsche dealer in Pompano to this day looks like it was just built yesterday. Even the shiny and beautiful tractor trailers that transported the cars and equipment were not only favorites with the fans but also the pro photographers! This immaculate presentation was all a part of Mr. M’s grand plan and other teams were awe struck at the pit and paddock facilities that followed the team wherever they went. They were the envy and admiration of all who beheld them. Even in the early days it was thus, and one of the chief reasons that all the team members had so much pride in their jobs and why Audi decided to make Champion Racing a ‘works’ team.
The success of Champion Racing had a huge impact on Audi sales in America as current and prospective owners flocked to the tracks to witness the glamour that was the trademark of the ALMS. This was not lost on the Audi brass as sales skyrocketed from the meager numbers that were being produced in the ‘80s to the huge numbers that came along with the success of what would become the most popular brand in endurance racing.
Key players such as Audi of America president and racer Len Hunt – who was to become great friends with Mr. M. – explain how the Audi connection all started with the SCCA World Challenge RS4 saloon cars and the reader will also learn why the first RS6s were not liveried in the famous Champion day-glo colors that would become their most iconic and memorable visual cues.
The book is filled with witty and entertaining yarns that you won’t find in a book of statistics…these only come out when the stories are being recounted by those who were there in the trenches. You will learn such nuggets as how the Porsche-Lola came to be and why it became submerged in the lake adjacent to the race shop premises; who were the “two guys with crayons”; how RS4/RS6 driver Michael Galati found himself at the wheel of the R8; why JJ Lehto was ready to quit the sport before his victorious drive at Road Atlanta; how Frank Biela found himself out of gas at Le Mans when driving for the opposition and why Champion Racing had a mobile ‘dance floor’. It’s all in there and makes for an emotional ride as you immerse yourself in the engrossing pages.
The ingenuity of the team and its owner’s quest to constantly find ways to stay ahead is another thread that weaves its way through the book. When the team’s longest serving mechanic Keith Bransford repaired a Porsche gearshift in a non-factory approved manner, it prompted a disagreement with Porsche chief engineer Norbert Singer who in the end conceded that, “What you just did with $200 we couldn’t have done in six months with $200,000!” The tales are endless as you follow the team’s struggles with balance-of-performance issues as they ebb and flow through the seasons, but always find a way to win. If the words don’t keep your attention, the hundreds of glorious photos will.
The pages are filled with full sized color images from some of the best photographers in the business as well as many candids from team members. If your only goal is to relive the years through pictures, the book is worth its price tag for those alone. For the train-spotters, there is a full index at the conclusion of the book detailing every race, date, venue, drivers and results from the first to the last along with notes from the events.
You will rejoice in their successes and despair with them at their low points and it is especially poignant as you learn of the cold hard economics of racing that led to the doors finally closing on their garage. Engineer Graham Taylor summed it up nicely as he said, “Le Mans and the American sports-car scene are not the same without this outstanding gentleman involved.”
You will recall the cold statement from Allan McNish that opened this review, so I think it is fitting to end with his comments also:
“For me, in their last year, Champion was a team that could without a doubt challenge anyone in the world in sports-car racing.”
If you don’t add this sublime piece of work to your library, your collection will be forever incomplete.
Champion Racing: A Little Bit of Magic is available at the Champion Motorsport website. A portion of all sales proceeds will go to the Special Olympics Florida organization to benefit their own ‘champions’.