"I'm a car guy"

Racing driver, team owner, car collector, historic series promoter… Zak Brown loves his motor sport. But it’s as a sponsor gatherer for Formula 1 where his real influence lies. We track him down after his dream test day, and ask the big question: is this man the next Bernie?

Zak Brown just loves talking about racing cars. But not as much as he loves buying and driving them. He’s just returned from a trip to Paul Ricard where he drove four Grand Prix cars from four decades, and is itching to tell us about it. He’s also talking us through his growing collection, from his first purchase – ex-Mark Donohue Can-Am Lola Sunoco Special – to the Rick Mears Penske, the Matt Kenseth Cup car, the Mario Andretti Formula 5000, the Dyson IMSA Porsche 962, the Formula 1 cars you see here… and on to the ones he wants next: a Räikkönen or Alonso Ferrari, a Le Mans racer with genuine history (a Porsche 935, perhaps) and something suitable for the Goodwood Revival.

“What can I say? I’m a car guy,” he grins. We don’t doubt it. But in the future he could be much more than that. The question we’re asking ourselves is just how high this American might rise in the motor racing world. Brown has the means to enjoy himself, but he’s earned it the hard way from the ground up and continues to do so as the workaholic founder and CEO of Just Marketing International (now simply JMI), an advertising agency that is dedicated solely to motor sport.

If you haven’t heard of it, you’ll recognise the brands it represents and where: in Formula 1 it has placed Johnnie Walker, LG, UBS, Unilever, UPS and more; In rallying there’s Castrol on the factory Fords; in NASCAR there’s Subway, Crown Royal and others; and in Indycar Roger Penske has Verizon on the side of his cars where Marlboro used to be. All of them deals sealed by Zak Brown’s company.

The dazzling success of JMI has allowed this anglophile (who looks like Ray Winstone’s younger brother) to create his own GT and historics team, United Autosports, run by his old friend Richard Dean. This summer, Zak’s raced a GT3 McLaren around Europe, and has competed in the Le Mans Group C support and in the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique, while attending GPs in his ‘day job’ capacity. He also remains a partner in Bobby Rahal’s Legends of Motorsport ‘vintage’ race meetings in the States. Impressive for a guy who came to Britain in the early 1990s as a penniless wannabe, found himself sleeping on Dean’s sister’s loor and scraped a drive in the relative backwater of Formula 3 Class B. When the racing career stalled, Brown pointblank refused to go home and instead went into the sponsor business. Since then, he’s done quite well.

Money is power, and within the past decade the dollars that Zak has brought into racing have made him a man of considerable influence. He counts the likes of Ron Dennis and Roger Penske as friends, and crucially he has the ear of Bernie Ecclestone – to the extent where some suggest he could become F1’s new chief when they carry out the current 81-year-old incumbent from his last day in the office – whenever that may be.

Really? The new Bernie? Unsurprisingly, it’s a prospect this arch salesman isn’t exactly coy about discussing. But Ecclestone can’t live forever and someone will have to be the frontman when the inevitable day comes. A guy with a big business reputation who knows how to strike a deal, and understands the sport from the perspective of a fan (he is, genuinely), as a driver and a team owner would it the bill. But Brown admits to some reservations.

“I would strongly consider it,” he says. “I’ve thought a lot about it. Who wouldn’t love to do it? Where I would struggle is that it would require me giving up everything else. My racing, my independence. So even though it’s the dream job, I’m not sure I’m prepared to give up my life for a single job. That being said, if I was presented with the chance it would really force me to think.

“Right now, a lot of people have made comments and assumptions, you hear a lot of stuff – and someone’s got to do it. It’s extremely flattering to be considered in a group of potential [candidates]. But who knows whether I’ll ever be presented with the opportunity?”

His relationship with Ecclestone suggests he has moved within the inner circle of F1’s powerbrokers. “Bernie and I get on really well,” he says. “I probably talk to him five times a week, and have lunch or dinner with him once or twice a month. I like watching him operate. He is unbelievable. He has no time for fools and he does like the blue-collar workers, so to speak. I’ve never asked him of course, but I assume he wouldn’t be going to dinner with me if he didn’t have a certain degree of respect for what I’ve done. And he knows I work hard because I bug him a lot.”

The future ownership of F1’s promotional rights will probably dictate who will be offered the big job, when it becomes vacant. Depending on who you speak to, F1 will or will not be floated on the Singapore stock exchange before the end of the year. A couple of months ago, it seemed certain that F1 would go public, only for the estimated $10 billion flotation to be postponed in the face of the sorry state of the markets and the ongoing Eurozone crisis.

Sceptics point out that CVC Capital Partners, the private equity bank that holds a majority stake in F1, has already sold some of its shares and recouped its original investment. Given the money CVC continues to take out of the sport, the lotation might never happen at all. But Brown believes it should.

“The reason is if it got sold to someone we don’t know they could hurt the sport,” he says. “Let’s say for example it got sold to a Murdoch and his goal was to put it on pay-per view only. That wouldn’t be good for the sport. The sponsors would not be impressed if the viewership went down.

“Does it go to a billionaire for whom it’s a toy, a hobby? What I like about it going public is the management team stays the same, except you beef it up. Now you seen Jean-Marc Huët, the CFO of Unilever, a client of ours, join the board this year. What’s happening is you have the same management team but it’s getting built out deeper and wider. The likes of Peter Brabeck from Nestlé [who was appointed chairman of F1 in a meeting in Monaco this year], these are smart people.

“While CVC will retain a good chunk of ownership, they’re a private equity group so they need liquidity on their investment for their partners. A loat is the safest way, the most predictable way, and the best thing the sport could do. I certainly don’t see a downside.”

So how would the sport change if a man such as Zak Brown became the new chief? In some key areas, perhaps not a great deal. On the controversy of whether the Bahrain GP should have happened or not, he is conservative: “I think the sponsors did the right thing which was to let the sport make the decision.”

He agrees with Ecclestone too, on race promotion fees: “As long as governments support F1 because they think it brings enough value in places like Singapore and India, the current model will continue.”

And he wouldn’t want to add too many races to an already packed calendar, either: “If you have the right market, would 21 hurt? No. But I do think the number of races in NASCAR has hurt it. There’s too much of it.

“I certainly don’t think we need two races in Spain, given Spain’s economic condition. While some would say we don’t need the market of Belgium, it’s such a historic track no one wants to see that go. But if you could get the Long Beach GP and that was the 21st race I’d say ‘yeah, let’s do 21’.”

Ah, America. Here, there would be a focus for change. The new race in Austin and another in New York wouldn’t be enough for Brown: “There’s a lot of talk about a third race on the West Coast,” he says. “I’m an advocate of F1 buying the Long Beach GP. I think I can help facilitate that because I know the owner of Long Beach. I’ve had those conversations. F1 has an inflow of cash and needs to igure out where it can make some investments, and you can make a big argument that Long Beach would be a good investment. It’s got so much heritage. One race certainly isn’t enough. The American audience has a short attention span, so I don’t think three is too many, to keep the awareness high on a 12-month basis.”

Further change would come, predictably from a man with Brown’s background, in the commercial arena. Many believe Ecclestone’s conservatism, particularly surrounding new media and digital platforms, is holding the sport back. While Brown would never criticise Bernie publicly, what he says next suggests that he might agree.

“By going public, it’s going to put even more financial pressure on the sport from the shareholders’ standpoint, which will force them to look at new ways to monetise the sport, which is where I come in.

“I think there are opportunities being left off the table. There’s a whole ‘experiential’ marketing side of the sport that can be improved. The digital side, of course, everyone is talking about. Licensed merchandise isn’t where it needs to be. All those things are touching points for the consumers, and the more consumers that spend more money, the better for everyone. It’s a win-win.”

All a case of ‘what if’, of course. Bernie Ecclestone could live and run F1 for another 15 years – and perhaps that would suit Zak Brown down to the ground. He’s enjoying his motor racing right now and is happy with “more of the same” when it comes to his sponsorgathering

“I’ve just turned 40, going on 65…” he smiles. “So when I think about my next years, I’m thinking about driving some sports cars, maybe doing Le Mans. There’s another couple of chapters left in the book, and the chapter that covers the next 10 years will be more of the same. That’ll get me to 50. I should still be alive and kicking then, with a lot of runway still ahead of me.

“Maybe I should aspire to be the Bernie after the ‘next’ Bernie – when I am 60. Bernie’s a workaholic, at 81. He’s stated many times ‘my last day of work, you’re going to carry me out’. That’s me, too.” Yes, it could be. Couldn’t it?

Damien Smith