There's only one United

…but it is active in many domains, from karting to historic Formula 1 via LMP3. And it has all happened in a relatively short space of time – Writer Simon Arron | Photographer Brian Cleary

"Every time we pushed it from the garage, it felt like we were Daytona royalty. People kept asking whether or not it was the real thing. They seemed to absolutely love it…” United Autosports’ managing director Richard Dean is talking about Porsche 935 JLP-3, photographic pivot of our adjacent feature and part of a growing historic collection belonging to American businessman Zak Brown, United’s co-owner. The car ran only briefly – and relatively gently, following a very recent rebuild – in November’s Classic 24 at Daytona, but that mattered not. Even standing still, it was a headline attraction.

“There are several things I love about this car,” Brown says. “It was absolutely dominant in its day, the most successful 935 of all time, and won Daytona and Sebring in the same year. I’ve always loved 935s, but I’m very particular about the cars I now collect. Just look at the names on it. Rolf Stommelen was one of the finest sports car drivers of all time, John Paul Jr was an unbelievable racer and this was at the height of the IMSA championship’s success in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It ticked all the boxes.

“I’d been looking for a good 935 for about three years. In a short space of time I missed two over not that much money. They came on the market and both times I wanted to haggle, but they were selling really quickly and by the time I was ready to throw in the white flag, and pay the asking price, they’d gone. They were that hot. When the chance arose to buy this one, given its pedigree, I committed within about 10 minutes. It needed quite a bit of engine work, though, probably because it was too original!”

This first weekend, then, was very much a test session, but in 2016 Brown hopes to run the car at major events, including Silverstone Classic, Laguna Seca and, obviously, Daytona. It’s not quite the kind of programme he and Dean envisaged when they formed United late in 2009, setting up a base near Leeds to run Audi R8s in the following season’s FIA GT3 championship.

“Richard and I met through racing, have been good mates for a long time and wanted to do something together,” Brown says. “He had experience of running teams, but I knew nothing about it other than the fact it involved cool cars and would be expensive. That’s where my knowledge as an entrant falls down. The GT3 series was at the time the best of its kind in the world, very popular, and having stopped racing in 2000 I wanted to get back into it. There are plenty of great teams out there, but everybody has their particular style so Richard and I decided to do our own thing.”

Since then United has recorded podium finishes in FIA GT3 events, won both the European Supercar Challenge and UK GT Cup, come within a whisker of lifting the 2013 British GT title (drivers Matt Bell and Mark Patterson finished 1.5 points behind Aston Martin rival Andrew Howard), secured top-three finishes in the Gulf 12 Hours and Macau GT Cup, a class podium in the Spa 24 Hours and won the championship for teams in the 2014 Ginetta GT4 Supercup. Not to mention a season in the British Touring Car Championship, or its historic commitments, or karting…

“That started with Zak’s son, Max,” Dean says. “He’d been going to some indoor tracks and there was a natural progression.”

Brown: “I didn’t encourage it. We have car stuff all over the house, but…”

Dean: “We should have seen it coming. Max had done the indoor thing, then suddenly he gets a Honda Cadet. Zak and I were watching him at Buckmore Park, thinking, ‘This is great but it’s absolutely freezing.’ So we decided to buy a kart each to keep warm. The theory was that Max could follow our lines, but then we started to test more frequently and now we’ve got a kart truck and are doing about 50 days a year – Rotax Seniors for us, while Max recently competed in his first MiniMax race at Rye House.

***

“It all expanded a bit by accident, really. I certainly never envisaged it turning out the way it has – I’m not sure we ever had a plan of any kind. Initially we were just going to run a couple of cars in the FIA GT3 series, but in five short years we’ve got involved in a whole load of contemporary racing as well as some historic stuff.”

Aforementioned 935 apart, Brown’s portfolio includes a selection of recent F1 cars, an ex-Alan Jones Williams FW07B, a 1977 NASCAR Chevy Monza, karts formerly raced by Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen, a sprinkling of Indycars, a 1985 Roush Protofab IMSA Ford Mustang, an ex-Dyson Racing Porsche 962, a Senna Lotus 98T and an ex-Mario Andretti Lola T332 F5000 car from 1974.

“You have to follow all the correct procedures,” Brown says, “and some cars don’t get used all that often. The newer cars are pretty good because you can’t really make a driver error with all the electronics, but you can in a 1980s car. The Senna Lotus-Renault is only ever one missed shift away from a catastrophic problem. That weighs on your mind and you don’t push it too hard. There’s nowhere to race some of the more modern stuff, though, so you just do a few demo laps and at that stage your neck falls off. The cars we race properly are easier to maintain. There are enough Porsche 962s around, for instance, that you can usually find what you need pretty quickly. I’m keen to race the cars that are eligible for existing series – and the FW07, 962, Mustang and 935 fall into that. I want everything to be used, not just to sit around looking pretty.”

Dean adds: “The historic thing really started about three years ago, when Zak bought an ex-John Watson McLaren M28, the restoration of which was overseen by Gary Anderson – who worked on the car in period. Zak had always wanted to own an F1 car and a Marlboro McLaren seemed a good place to start. When the rebuild was complete, Zak was in the States so I shook it down at Silverstone and we then shipped the car to Canada for an event at Mont Tremblant. We sent a couple of guys to look after it and that was that – we were running a historic car and had a really good time.”

What are the biggest differences when it comes to preparing ancient and modern?

“A lot of the contemporary stuff is very strictly homologated,” Dean says, “and that dictates how you go about things. With historics it’s completely the opposite. You need a car that is exactly as it was in period, but for which you can’t buy spares. You have to be a bit more resourceful, because you can’t just look in the Audi Sport catalogue and dial up a part number. The rules aren’t as tight, either, so you’ve a little bit more freedom in one aspect but have to be quite creative when it comes to technical hurdles. Fortunately there are still vast numbers of small garages with one guy and a lathe. They’ve been in the industry for decades and there are still people around who worked on some of these cars first time around.

“At Laguna Seca last August we were in the paddock with Zak’s F5000 Lola, which has been prepared as it was in the day, down to every last sticker. Back then it was quite popular for teams to put the chief mechanic’s name on the car. We did that and an elderly guy walked up to us, pointed to the sticker and said, ‘That’s me.’ He’d run the Lola for Mario Andretti.

“The historic business has sort of evolved from Zak’s collection and we’re starting to pick up clients who want us to provide the same service. We’re looking after a McLaren M26, a couple of Porsches, a Chevron B34... It’s keeping us busy and we hope things will grow.”

***

The team has no firm GT plans for 2016 at the time of writing, but will branch out into the new European Le Mans Series for LMP3 cars, with a couple of Ligier chassis. “There’s a new generation of GT3 cars,” Dean says. “They’re fantastic and the racing is great, but as technology ramps up so does the cost. We’ve done some amazing events – Bathurst, Spa and so on – and our Audi has served us well, but it’s now a little long in the tooth and there’s a new model out. I’m not sure we could justify investing in two of those.”

Future plans, then, remain fluid. “I absolutely love what I do and still get the same buzz coming into a paddock as I did when I was racing in Formula Ford,” says Dean, whose own career peaked with some strong drives in the FIA F3000 Championship (he scored points on his series debut, in a Colin Bennett-run Reynard funded by little more than goodwill and fresh air). “Modern and historic events are different, but I don’t think I have a preference. When I was younger I wanted to get to F1, but didn’t expect it to happen. I suppose I really just wanted to make my living from racing and I’m doing that. I’m 51 now – so the F1 dream is probably slipping away! – but Zak and I are constantly at circuits, either for business or because we’re actually competing. We first met about 25 years ago, when I was doing F3000, and I don’t think either of us has changed since. We still love being at racetracks.

“We look after some amazing cars, thanks to Zak, and when people walk through the door the first thing they usually say is, ‘How did this lot end up in Leeds?’ But we have a good workshop and a strong crew – that’s all we need to succeed. Plus the rent’s cheap.”