We had a chance to travel from baseball field to Mazda Raceway Leguna Seca with Anaheim Angeles pitcher, CJ Wilson. We also enjoyed his car collection.
Not every professional pitcher is destined to be a million-dollar-arm gone broke. One such player is Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim starting pitcher, Huntington Beach native, C.J. Wilson. Beyond being married to Brazilian model, Lisalla Montenegro, and founder of the C.J. Wilson’s Children’s Charities, he’s also investing a huge amount in racing cars. As the proud owner of an automotive and motorcycle dealership in Illinois, C.J. has turned his hobby of motorsports into a money making endeavor with CJ Wilson Racing (CJWR) located in Austin, Texas. His racing team, founded in 2010, successfully competes in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (CTSC), Street Tuner class (ST).
Wilson has played professional baseball for 10 consecutive seasons, starting with the Texas Rangers in 2005, and then switching to the Angels in 2006. He’s a two-time All-Star, voted sixth for the 2011 Cy Young Award, and has a life-time winning percentage of .588 (he’s pitched in 398 games as of 5/5/2014). His professional goal is to retire from baseball with a Gold Glove Award, Cy Young Award, and Pennant Ring on his finger. However, regardless of his successes as an athlete, it’s his love of cars and motorcycles that truly brings him joy. In fact, he’s the proud collector of many two- and four-wheel rides stowed away in Southern California.
To truly get a better picture of Wilson’s passion for cars, we visited his closest racing companions – the CJWR team. We met-up with them in Monterey, CA, for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix, powered by Mazda. While at the track, we were embedded with CJWR. We watched them work on cars, witnessed them practice driver changes, listened in on the team meeting before the race, and hung out in pit lane during the competition. The weekend of May 2 - 4, the team walked away with two podium finishes (second and third place, respectively) during the third race of the 13-race CTSC season. Most importantly, we saw first-hand the power of C.J.’s comradery – translated from baseball – to his his team on the track.
The CJWR crew looks-up to its founder; they see him as a friend and mentor. They admire his passion for racing and the support he offers. It appears that the CJWR team appreciates that Wilson doesn’t bankroll the entire operation, ensuring they have a part to play: obtaining sponsorships, gaining fans, and promoting IMSA’s CTSC to progress the future of the series. They prefer it this way; they enjoy possessing the autonomy that other teams lack. They look at the responsibility of having an online social presence as “part of the job.” The CJWR team understands what it takes to win, seeing their owner doing it on the field in the MLB; it’s become their goal to translate that same professional, winning mentality to the track.
We wanted to learn more about the racing team, and what better way to do that then to meet the founder himself. DriveApart (DA) met-up with Wilson at the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach, CA in April. When we ran into him, he had a 400mm lens perched on his shoulder as he comfortably strolled through the crowd. When not driving a race car, he’s photographing them. You’d be surprised what else we learned about the young entrepreneur.
Q and A with C.J. Wilson
Racing Team and Dealership
DA: Explain your history with cars, racing, and everything automotive.
C.J.: “I was always into racing, literally, as a toddler I was into cars. The first thing I learned how to read was car magazines. I fell in love with cars before I ever played baseball. I’ve had brown hair my whole life, and it’s the same thing with cars, I don’t remember not liking cars and motorcycles.”
DA: What vehicle do you want to race most? ..and what sort of “high” do you get from racing?
C.J.: “If I could drive anything and be good at it - if I won the ‘lottery’ in that sense - I would want to be driving a prototype. I think those are the coolest cars. Driving a car to the limit, around a track really fast, is very dynamic. Imagine if you had a roller coaster with a steering wheel, that’s what it feels like.”
DA: Why race Mazdas?
C.J.: “The MX-5 series existed when I first started racing, and it seemed like a cool platform because it’s really safe, the engine works really well, the transmission is great, and I’d driven the car and it was a lot of fun. The biggest thing was that it didn’t have high running expenses. The more people I met in the Mazda family, welcoming me in, it felt inclusive. They showed me how to work my way up. It was the same way I had to go through baseball, going through high school and then college.”
DA: How did you get involved in IMSA and owning a team?
C.J.: “I was racing for five years on my own before I got my second race car. Once I had my second race car I started renting it out, and then I started renting both of my race cars out and I would be responsible for the maintenance. It became a headache, a pain in the butt. The only way I could make it work was to take the next step or get rid of everything and say ‘forget it.’ I hired a couple people and told them what I wanted to happen. Our shop is in Austin, we do street car for local customers, we support club racers, and we compete with a Grand Am team, running in the ST class of the Continental Tire SportsCar challenge and also the MX-5 cup series as well.”
DA: What’s it like managing a racing team?
C.J.: “It’s cool, you get to set corporate culture for people and give them a boost in their life. I’ve had a lot of jobs growing up; the defining characteristics were ‘how did I like the people I worked with’ and ‘how did I like the people I worked for?’ Did they teach me, was I learning, was I getting better? If I didn’t like my boss, and nobody was having fun, then I didn’t like going to work. I don’t think anybody likes that sort of work. A lot of people in the racing industry are enthusiastic about their jobs, they’re good people. I love my guys on the team, I’m very proud of them.”
DA: What’s the team’s long-term goal, and why is it located in Texas?
C.J.: “The goal is to have a ladder of our own so we can graduate drivers, mechanics, and engineers – to have our own little factory. The team will start with the MX-5 cup, then the Continental Tire SportsCar series, and then work our way up one step at a time. As a team, I want us to win Le Mans. We have ten drivers (between the two teams), and around 20 crew members; two big-rigs, a shop… it’s a mess . This is their life, some of my drivers have side gigs - one driver is a drifter (Tyler McQuarrie) – but almost all the crew people work at the shop full-time. The shop is in Austin because I used to live in Dallas when I played for the Rangers, and for tax purposes it’s very favorable.”
DA: How did you acquire a Mazda dealership? ..what’s it like to manage a store?
C.J.: “The dealership is in Illinois and was already established and working when I heard about it. I knew the guy who was selling it through racing. He was a Mazda racer as well. He had a business falling out, he needed to sell, and I told him I was interested in buying. It was very easy. We didn’t move anything, we didn’t fire anybody – we just put my name on the side. It’s about learning how to be a good boss. I’m reading 1 – 2 management books a week, just trying to figure out what I can do. I was never able to pick my team or teammates until I became a business owner. I can pick the type of people I want and don’t want.”
DA: How do you find the time for the dealership, racing team, charity, professional baseball, and personal life?
C.J.: “The way I am, everything is planned. I’m very on-time, meticulous about where things have to be. I can’t be late to something. It’s just time management. Mentally I’m very organized. I visit the dealership every chance I get; I’m on the phone and emailing the store between two and four hours a day, five days a week. I have a racing simulator at home to stay sharp. I’m also an amateur sharp shooter when I’m in Arizona, during spring training. I’m trying to get deputized in a California city so I can carry a badge, go on ride-alongs, help them arrest bad guys, and carry guns. If you take all the time watching TV and accumulate it over the years, that’s the time I’ve saved.”
DA: When did you start playing baseball? ..and why?
C.J.: “I was 8-years-old, and Don Johnson was all ‘swaggy’ on TV with Miami Vice, so I felt like if I had a goal of being a good player and getting a cool car that that would help me – and it really did. I didn’t play little league until I was 9-years-old, and at that point I had decided I was going to be a major league player so I could get what I wanted out of life, financially. I was more serious about baseball as a 10-year-old than a lot of guys are in college.”
DA: Did you have a favorite team growing up?
C.J.: “I got to the point where I just wanted to play in the major leagues. I couldn’t afford to be a fan of a team because you can’t control who you’ll get drafted by. So I would look at the players and say ‘okay, this individual player: I like the way he plays’ and I would try to analyze him and say ‘how can I do what he does? So I could be successful like he is. If he’s on TV, then he must be doing something right.’”
DA: How did you choose baseball over racing?
C.J.: “I had no chance to make it as a race car driver because we couldn’t afford it. There was never the option of being a race car driver. I wanted to do it, but there was never a realistic ability to do it. My dad worked on a guy’s race team, he was in a pit crew. I would always go to the races, I thought it was really neat, but even go-karts cost thousands of dollars a year.”
DA: Why become a pitcher instead of another position?
C.J.: “I always wanted to be a hitter; the pitcher thing kind of evolved later. I had a natural ability to pitch that I didn’t realize at a young age.”
Straight Edge and the Future
DA: Have the steroids in baseball contributed to your Straight Edge lifestyle?
C.J.: “There’s never been an issue with me being tempted or anything like that. I’d already been Straight Edge before I knew what steroids were. Growing up in a big city, I’d been around the block a few times. I knew how to avoid the bad people.”
DA: What made you commit to a Straight Edge lifestyle or did something trigger this behavior?
C.J.: “I’ve always been Straight Edge, I’ve never drank in my entire life – I never saw the point. I saw bad things happen on TV, athletes like Daryl Stawberry and Mike Tyson getting in trouble with drug and criminal problems. I’d say ‘that’s not the move, definitely not the move.’ And I’d see Michael Jordan out there playing baseball after getting tired playing basketball, and I knew if you take good care of yourself you can do whatever you want.”
DA: How do you measure success?
C.J.: “I felt, as an 8-year-old, that success was having a Ferrari Testarossa in the garage. To this day, I reward myself if I achieve my baseball goals. I told myself last year that if I won 16 games I’d get an old NSX, so I got a ’93 NSX with 40k miles on it. There’s a lot of room for dreaming as a professional athlete. Until I win a World Series, it’s going to be hard for me to say I’ve accomplished my goals. That’s the ultimate dream for a baseball player, to win the World Series.”
DA: In three years, how will you choose the next team you play for?
C.J.: “Baseball is rewarding and awesome. I have three years left on this contract and at the end of this contract I’ll be financially fine, so it won’t be a decision based on ‘I have to do this,’ it’ll be more ‘what team does it make the most sense for me to play for.’ My agent and I sat down and talked about this when I was a free agent last time, and it was ‘is there a track nearby,’ ‘what’s the competiveness of the team,’ and ‘is it a National or American League team.’ There are a lot of factors, like, 15 factors to what makes a team good or bad. I’m fine living just about anywhere.
DA: What comes after baseball?
C.J.: “Once I’m done with baseball, I’m going to transition fully into the business side of owning dealerships and a racing team, similar to what Penske does. I’m halfway in right now, owning dealerships and acquiring more motorcycle dealerships. Riding motorcycles and racing cars are what I’d like to do.”
[Photos by: Nikolas Kolinech
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