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Life In The Fast Lane

Think you’ve got what it takes to run a successful race team?

Sideline Sports Photography
Dec 30, 2011
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Life often presents interesting opportunities. Sometimes you take them, and sometimes these opportunities turn out much better than you might have initially expected. Take, for example, the Compass360 Racing (or C360R) team. What is now a multiple-championship-winning operation began quite humbly.

Back in 2004, I made the move from regional racing in Ontario, Canada, to a pro series, the Grand-Am Cup. I had done well in my rookie regional season in 2003, winning a GT Sprints championship and taking Rookie of the Year honors in Canadian Touring Car in my trusty 944 Rothmans Cup Porsche. I’d also raced a couple of times in the GAC as well, doing arrive-and-drives with other teams, with decidedly mixed results.

I felt that with the right team of people, I could field a better effort than those I’d rented from, and with that in mind sold my trusty Porsche for a BMW Z3 Coupe that had run for a number of seasons in Grand-Am. My crew chief, Ian McQuillan, was a friend from the Porsche Club who owns a shop north of Toronto, and we ran a lean, even Spartan, program. We took the car to the track on an open trailer, pulled behind a capable but rusty GMC panel van, which held all of our spares, a couple of easy-ups and a bicycle. Our goal for the year was simple: finish every race.

Grand-Am Cup, which started life as the Motorola Cup in the mid-’90s and later became the KONI Challenge and more recently the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, features 2.5-hour races. Each car is driven by two drivers, usually swapping mid-race during a pit stop for fuel and a tire change. The format allowed me to drive one stint and rent out the other seat to another driver, with us splitting the cost of the weekend, making it reasonably affordable for both of us.

This is one of the unspoken truths in racing: the money has to come from somewhere. When I started in the pro series, I put together a program that would allow me to spend the same money I was spending racing regionally and move up to the next level. Having a co-driver made that possible. At the time, other single-driver pro series like the SCCA’s World Challenge were well out of reach. By the end of the first year, we’d accomplished our goal and took the checkered flag at every race. I’d driven with a different co-driver nearly every event, the result of some pretty strong promotion of our effort on my part, with four top-10s (our best result was sixth at Mid-Ohio).

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By the end of the first year, we’d accomplished our goal and took the checkered flag at every race.

Being in the paddock and having visibility is a big part of the success at this level, especially given that in our first year we were knocking on the top 10 every race. This meant that I was able to put together a two-car Z3 program for 2005. We still had a variety of drivers at each and every event, with me as the only season-long shoe. A couple of up-and-coming drivers signed with us, and we notched five top-10s during the year. Billy Johnson put one of our BMWs on outside pole at Mid-Ohio, and we gave the Z3 platform a fabulous send off at Virginia International Raceway during the season finale, when my co-driver Daniel Herrington and I won the race in a rain-soaked deluge. It was a thrill to win our first pro race in the Z3’s final outing, and we finished seventh in the year-end standings.

Our second season wasn’t without its trials and tribulations, though. Dealing with four drivers instead of two proved to be vastly more than twice the effort, especially as the expectations of our performance changed from simply finishing a race to winning it. Doubly challenging was that by season’s end Ian decided the racing schedule wasn’t something he felt he could commit to into the future, and the BMWs were no longer legal to compete in Grand-Am. Selling the cars was easy, but plotting the future of the team was less so.

We talked to a number of manufacturers about our 2006 program, and it was clear that the Acura package was the best all-around offering, and we moved to two RSX Type-S’s. It was an adjustment for me, to be sure, as I’d never raced a FWD car. Thankfully, after a few test days, throwing the car into a corner and matting the gas (which would not work in the old, rear-happy Z3) became second nature.

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More importantly, we had the good fortune to bring on Ray Lee as our technical director, taking over Ian’s role and bringing a bigger focus on engineering to the team. Ray and the other members of our crew are the foundation of our program and are the reason we’ve been so successful.

Once again, we had a collection of different drivers in each car. Aaron Povoledo was the lead in #75 with me as the lead in #76; at the end of the year, I’d have two fourth-place finishes, but the team was well outside of the top 10 in the season standings. It had become clear to me that the ideal situation was to always have consistent driver pairings throughout the season, so for 2007 we became a three-car team, with two new Acura TSXs and an RSX-S. The TSXs would have season-long pairings of Povoledo and Travis Walker in #75, with Billy Johnson joining me in #76. The RSX-S driver lineup consisted of guys who wanted to drive but couldn’t commit to a full season. Billy and I proved the theory correct, leading the championship in the early going and narrowly finished second to the Turner Motorsports duo of Adam Burrows and Trevor Hopwood. We won four races along the way and took the Manufacturer’s Championship for Acura.

The goal for many drivers is to become a paid professional, and so it was with Johnson. He parlayed his success with us into some great opportunities, as was the plan, culminating in his current ride with Roush, where he’s been paired with Jack Jr. over the past few seasons. They’ve finished second in the championship two years in a row, and Billy’s had the chance to demonstrate his talent in the NASCAR Nationwide series at Watkins Glen and Road America.

Hoping for the same for Travis, he and I drove together in 2008, and we signed Adam and Trevor, fresh off their championship in the BMW in our #74 car. For the first time, we were running a four-car team. Adam and Trevor won their first Grand-Am race at the helm of the TSX at Watkins Glen. They followed that up with another win at Trois-Rivieres and came very close to winning a second consecutive title, but were pipped in the end by another duo. For the second year in a row, we had to settle for second place in the championship.

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At the end of that season, we talked to Honda about a change of platform. The TSX had been replaced by a new model, and it was our suggestion that Honda essentially double their marketing benefit (while keeping their contingency budget the same) by supporting the new TSX in World Challenge and having the new Honda Civic Si in Grand-Am. This notion was well received, and we began replacing our fleet of Acuras with Hondas. The relationship with a manufacturer is an important component of our success. It’s also important to note that our support is almost exclusively performance-based in the form of prize money. When we do well, Honda (through their Honda Performance Development, or HPD, arm) rewards us, and that’s the case for anyone running a Civic in Grand-Am, and now World Challenge as well (the TSX has moved into a different class). If you want a long-term relationship with a manufacturer, make sure you’re always bringing them a lot more value than they’re paying out!

For 2009, we signed Randy Pobst to drive with Christian Miller, who’d also driven with us the year before. From the outset, they were magic and the new Civic performed flawlessly; the combination of drivers, crew and car netting us Grand-Am’s Driver, Team and Manufacturer championships. We followed that up in 2010 with an even stronger driver lineup for our four-car Grand-Am program, which resulted in a championship run that went right down to the wire at the season finale, where David Thilenius and Lawson Aschenbach took a fourth-place finish in our #74 car and won the title. Zach Lutz and Ryan Eversley, who had also been in the hunt all year, were third in the final standings in #75.

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For the first time, we expanded beyond the Grand-Am paddock, teaming up with our friends at Durabond to run a three-car program in Canadian Touring Car. Mirroring our results in the U.S., our squad took first and third place in the championships, with Anthony Rapone standing on the top spot and yours truly in third.

For 2011, we felt that the new rules for World Challenge would allow the Civic to be competitive in Touring Class (the TSX was still supported as well, but moved to GTS class) and felt we could be championship contenders there. Lawson was re-signed to lead what became a four-car program there, while Ryan (co-driving with Keith Carroll), Zach and Dave anchored our Grand-Am program. After hard-fought battles in both series, we won Driver, Team and Manufacturer titles in World Challenge and were a close second in Grand-Am.

Our plan was always to be in for the long haul, and the proof’s clear to see: of all the teams that competed in 2004 when we started, Compass360 Racing ...

When we started the team, the hope was to build a long-term, sustainable racing program. It’s amazing how many people come into racing, spend a pile of money and then leave after a few years. Our plan was always to be in for the long haul, and the proof’s clear to see: of all the teams that competed in 2004 when we started, Compass360 Racing is the only full-season team still running in Grand-Am’s Street Tuner class. And we’ve been first or second in the year-end standings five years running.

The little panel van is long gone, replaced by a fleet of transporters and trailers. In 2007 we opened our own facility dedicated to running our eight cars, as well as the occasional customer’s race car, capably steered by Ray and our full-time staff — a big change in a rather short amount of time.

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The folks at HPD tasked us with the build of a new ’12 Honda Civic Si coupe, which will form the basis of our program for the next few years. It made its debut at the World Challenge finale at Road Atlanta in October 2011, and after some further testing in California, was on display at the Honda booth at SEMA in Las Vegas.

We’re planning that this new platform will win its share of races — and championships.

Karl Thomson is managing partner at Compass360, a marketing communications firm based in Toronto. C360R is the company’s multiple-championship-winning motorsports division. For details, visit C360R.com.

By Sideline Sports Photography
1 Articles

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