Within the year when “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” premieres, it’s kind of fitting that one of racing’s biggest names is invoking the Dark Side to nickname its new car.
CJ Wilson Racing is, like a young Jedi, continuing to grow into an incredible force in the galaxy – in this case the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
And, to improve to the next level, it’s nicknamed its new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport “Darth Cayman.”
The premise? The stealthy dark grey car looks sinister, badass, and might kill the competition if the rest of the Continental Tire Challenge GS class isn’t careful.
This all becomes funnier when you realize most of the CJWR crew are down-to-earth, fun people who purely love the sport, are good at their jobs and have fun with it too.
“We like the camaraderie on a very high level,” says the eponymous team owner, Wilson, during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.
“This is where you can have a lot of fun. Andris (Laivins, team manager) is serious. But we can joke around. We’re a very tight knit team. We have a very cool team environment.
“Which is why people are always kind of sniffing around our space, because they’re like, ‘How are they doing this where they’re laughing and having fun? Wait, their boss isn’t a huge jerk?’ Maybe we can have fun.”
They’re having fun going into the season even though the challenge – no pun intended – is serious for CJ Wilson Racing to win a second consecutive championship, now in a second different class, in as many seasons.
There’s big changes here for 2016. Gone is the team’s tried-and-true Mazda MX-5 – Wilson has parlayed the team’s trajectory at a methodical pace and only switched cars, classes or series when the time is right.
A case in point: CJWR began as a Mazda MX-5 Cup series team. It won races, then the 2012 series championship with Stevan McAleer. By 2013, the team was in the Continental Tire Challenge as well and McAleer’s eventual co-driver Chad McCumbee was winning poles as a NASCAR convert to road racing. Then McAleer and Marc Miller started winning races.
Once the MX-5 Cup program went away, the design was to build and mold the team into an ST class title contender, which McAleer and McCumbee did last year. All the while Wilson and Laivins had the foresight to know Porsche had big ambitions, and a new car coming for GS.
A two-race trial run in 2015 with Miller and Tyler McQuarrie – note the volume of “Ms” in the driving lineup – has now led to this year’s full-on GS effort with “Darth Cayman” and a new lineup of Miller and open-wheel convert Daniel Burkett, who impressed during the Roar test, in the team’s No. 33 ONE Capital Management/Motor Oil Matters Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
Meanwhile, in his first official test, Burkett was working to ensure his posterior was intact.
“The first time on the banking I was like, ‘What the hell’s going on man?'” said Burkett, who transfers to sports cars after a pair of Prototype Challenge starts and a prior run through the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 and Pro Mazda.
“I couldn’t see what was in front of me. I was like ‘Guys, can we take the banner off?’ It’s been a huge transition. And my butt was pretty sore after the first session, just from all the clenching. But I’ve gotten used to it now.”
Jokes aside, it’s been a big but rapid transition for Burkett into the world of sports cars.
“It’s been a massive learning curve,” he said. “I had a few days at a local track in Austin before we came to this event. The first time I got in the car, I was perplexed at the differences. I was almost like, I don’t want to race this car, how am I ever going to learn, it’s so completely different. That was in the 997.
“So in the Cayman, having the mid-engine, it was a little more like a formula car type feel to it. The Cayman is very easy to point and shoot. It has a very pointy steering to it. It felt like a formula car. I felt right at home immediately.
“I feel like ready to race the car at the end of the Rolex 24 weekend at the end of January. So far I’m loving it, loving the paddock, and loving my new team boss, CJ.”
Wilson noted Burkett’s intense, innate competitiveness as he sought to match Miller first time out in official sessions.
“For Danny to come off and be right near where Marc is out of the gate … his talent is apparent,” Wilson says. “He’s a funny guy. He likes to make jokes. We all do. We keep it loose. Although he tries to keep his bowels tight, we like the car loose.”
For Wilson, who’s now transferred cars from the ST class Mazda MX-5 to the new Cayman GT4, having a readymade car off the shelf is paying dividends already.
“There’s always a thrash to get something ready,” said Wilson, who noted the team only took delivery of the two new Caymans from Porsche on December 23.
“It wasn’t because we had the struggle to build the car to a certain spec like previously with the MX-5s. We’d always have to fix something or improve something before. That’s the nature of building something in your own shop.
“But with the Porsche being a turnkey car, they’ve done such a good job doing a car that can go out and flat out race. We’re not having apparent issues. There’s some little things like teething, checking the oil, it’s all digital – there’s no dipstick, for example – but that’s a bit of a thing. If that’s the biggest problem you’re having in the weekend, you’re good.”
Wilson wants competition as right now the GS class is heavily Porsche dominated, with the new Cayman GT4 and a handful of older Porsche 997s.
“It’s a really good car. I hope some of the other manufacturers take this as a positive indication it’s good for them to be in the series. Porsche comes out with a new car and sells four, five, six or seven, whatever it is, right away.
“If another manufacturer does that it’ll make the racing better. That’s why ST is so cool, and GT is cool. Here’s five, six, seven brands, and body styles, and we need that. Variety is the best thing for racing overall.”
Variety is good. “Darth Cayman,” though is also good within the GS field and arguably one of the key cars to watch this year as it seeks another championship with its new puzzle pieces.
Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.
In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”
To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.
On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.
“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.
“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.
“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”
McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”
His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.
“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.
“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”
HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER
With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.
But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.
“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.
“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.
“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.
“He chose to move forward with us.”
Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.
Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.
Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.
It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.
McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.
Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.
Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.
Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.
He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.
Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.
That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.
All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.
“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.
“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.
“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”
THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI
Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.
“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.
“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”
Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.
“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.
“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”
ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN
In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.
“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”
Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.
Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.
“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.
“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR
The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.
“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.
“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”
KEEP THE MILK COLD
Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.
“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.
“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”
And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.