On the road with Ed Foster

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Meeting Zak Brown

Marketing boss on racing with boyhood heroes and doing deals with Bernie

Many of you may not have heard of Zak Brown. He competed in British Formula 3 back in the early 1990s and came second overall in the 2006 Britcar 24 Hours, but it’s what he has achieved off the track that has put him firmly on the motor sport map.

Brown founded Just Marketing International (JMI) in the ’90s, the world’s largest motor sport marketing agency; along with Motor Sport columnist Bobby Rahal he is co-owner of HMP, an historic motor sports production company; and he has started up a GT racing team with Richard Dean called United Autosports. As an indicator of how seriously this team is taken, Zak has signed Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever and fellow ex-Formula 1 drivers Mark Blundell and Stefan Johansson to race in the Spa 24 Hours on July 31-August 1, something he is particularly excited about. But more on this later…

He’s still racing as well, and has done a full season at the wheel of United Autosports’ Audi R8 in the GT3 championship as well as competing in this year’s Daytona 24 Hours. With all this going on, it’s no surprise that he spends 280 days a year travelling.

Brown rushes in a few minutes late to our meeting. “I’m very sorry, my last meeting ran on a bit,” he apologises. It turns out the last meeting was with a certain Bernie Ecclestone…

I ask why he took the step from driving into marketing. “It happened by accident, like all good things,” he says. “I was racing here in British F3 from 1991 to ’94 [which is when he met Dean, whose sister let Zak sleep on her living room floor] and TWA was my sponsor. I got a deal to race back in the States and I was ready to go home.

“I did the original sponsorship deal myself – out of necessity rather than anything else, as I never had any family money to go racing with – and I just spent all my time figuring out, ‘what can I do for TWA off the track to make them happy’. So I brought in partners like Avis rental cars and I just made sure that TWA was getting much more than the obvious sticker on the car. It was all going so well that when I said I wanted to go back to the States, they said ‘can you place our sponsorship with someone else? We like all this stuff now and it really works!’

“So I placed them with Nigel Mansell’s Formula 3000 team and all of a sudden I thought hang on, there’s a business here, and that’s really how it started.”

As Just Marketing evolved, doors began to open in Formula 1, and in 2003 he completed his first deal in the Big Time. “John Hogan [known for being ‘Marlboro’s man in racing’ and who continues to be a key marketing figure] is probably primarily responsible for my relationship with Bernie and getting established in F1,” says Brown. “With Bernie, if you deliver then he likes you. You’ve just got to keep delivering, and we have.”

Eighty per cent of JMI’s work comes from securing sponsorship deals in F1 and NASCAR, with the rest made up of deals in other series such as FIA GT1, Indycars and the Le Mans Series. Juggling all this would be plenty of work for most people. But Brown has also recently started up HMP, which organises the historic race meetings that you may have read about in Bobby Rahal’s column. Zak admits the first couple of meetings have been difficult, but maintains there is a place for a “Goodwood Revival in the USA”.

“There aren’t enough spectators yet, but that takes time,” he says. “The main problem with vintage racing in America is that it’s never been properly promoted, as it’s never really been done before. Over here you’ve got Classic Le Mans, the Silverstone Classic and Monaco Historique, so it’s a much more mature industry.

“We’re only two events into it, but we want to make sure that each event is better than the last. We’re not satisfied with where we are today, in fact I don’t think we’ll ever be satisfied with ‘where we are today’, so what we’re focusing on is whether this one is better than the last in terms of cars, the number of entrants, the number of spectators and the sponsorship.”

One of the great things about the Goodwood Revival is the fact that all the cars are driven flat out, whereas American historic racing is a more ‘sedate’ affair. Brown is keen to encourage proper racing: “In other forms of American vintage racing there are rules like ‘two wheels off, and you’re done for the day’, or there’s the 13/13 rule where you can’t come back for 13 months if you crash. OK, if you’re an idiot then we won’t ask you back, but we don’t have very strict rules like other vintage racing series.”

Not long after our meeting Brown was heading off to test the R8 at Spa ahead of the 24 Hours, and he was clearly thrilled that he’d be sharing the car with Cheever and Blundell: “I’m really excited. Eddie was one of my heroes when I was growing up and the fact that I’m now going to be doing driver changes with him and Mark is great. Even the fact that our names are going to be together on the car is pretty cool.”

It’s not all good news though – after winning last year’s GT3 championship fresh out of the blocks, the Audi R8 has been given weight penalties and rev and power restrictions. “Yeah, now we’re getting our arses whipped!” says Zak. “It’s got to be hard to take so many different cars and make them all the same; you’re going to get it wrong. Unfortunately they got it wrong with Audi. It is frustrating, and we’ve certainly been kicking and screaming along with Audi, but at Spa we’re going to have to aim for perfect reliability.”

Ecclestone may be credited with single-handedly making F1 the global business it is today, however without people like Zak Brown bringing in sponsorship and putting it in the right place, his job would be much harder. It is reassuring to find that one of Bernie’s right-hand men is clearly in love with the sport. And that can only bode well for the future.

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