C.J. Wilson, a former Texas Ranger and current Los Angeles Angel, is not your typical baseball player/professional athlete.
Like a lot of athletes these days he does have tattoos, but the large one on his torso says “Straight Edge,” a reference to his commitment to lead a life free of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and promiscuous sex, in harmony with his Taoist beliefs. The left-handed pitcher studied film in college and can read some Japanese, speaks Spanish and is currently working on Portuguese by chatting with his Brazilian supermodel girlfriend, Lisalla Montenegro.
It’s Wilson’s avocation, however, that really sets him apart in the clubhouse.
“The hobbies in the locker room are golfing and hunting, depending on what part of the country you are from,” Wilson said during a phone conversation with the American-Statesman. “With racing, you’re an outlier.”
Wilson will be at spring training this weekend, not the Circuit of the Americas. But his Austin-based team will have two cars competing in Grand-Am’s Continental Tire Street Tuner (ST) series Friday and Saturday.
“He is extremely committed to racing as a sport,” said the team’s engineer, Andris Laivins. “For C.J., this is an investment in a business. His race team is a long-term entity that is going to succeed on its own merits. This is not a vanity project for C.J.”
Wilson, 32, plans to resume racing once his baseball days are over.
“I believe in working your way up from the bottom,” Wilson said. “I would never race in a series where I was an embarrassment.”
His current function, however, is as an owner of a team that was formed less than three years ago.
The race team’s headquarters are in an unassuming, 8,300-square foot warehouse /garage/office on the east end of town, not far from U.S. Highway 183.
“It looks like a jail from the street. It’s not a very attractive building, but we like to keep a low profile,” Laivins said.
Two large haulers are parked in the back, poised to carry the cars on the short trip to Circuit of the Americas, where the team’s five local employees will be joined by about half a dozen out-of-town workers and four drivers.
The team is based in Austin basically because Laivins, a 32-year-old Dallas native, now lives here.
It looks like Wilson will be back home in California for a while. In December 2011 he signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Angels after playing seven seasons with the Rangers. Wilson grew up in Southern California, where his father worked on the pit crew for a race team.
“That’s where I fell in love with the sport,” Wilson said “Winning a race — just the thrill of passing — you don’t get that in baseball. Baseball is start and stop. Racing is constant. You’re calculating a lot more stuff in racing. In baseball you throw the ball, there’s a result and then … well, you can sit there and tie your shoes.”
Wilson said he first raced on a track in 2006, and in 2010 he was part of the driver rotation that won the E-1 class in the team’s Mazda MX-5 at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, an endurance race held annually at that California track.
“If I was an under-the-radar guy, I would still be racing,” Wilson said. His budding racing career, however, was sidetracked when his baseball career suddenly blossomed and he went from just another guy in the bullpen to a valued starter who was 31-15 in his final two seasons with the Rangers.
In addition to a race team, he also owns a car dealership and a motorcycle dealership in Illinois.
“I’ve got employees. If I get hurt (racing) there’s no safety net for them,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s team runs Mazda MX-5s that are lighter than most of the cars in their class, 2,300 pounds without the driver. With 200 horsepower and a top speed of perhaps 135 miles-per-hour, they’re a little under-powered compared to some of their brawnier competitors. Grand-Am regulates the specifications of the various makes of cars to keep the competition close.
“It’s kind of a small, nimble car, we can go around corners faster, but it’s a harder place to pass than a straightaway,” Laivins said. “Any time we’re at full throttle, we’re at a disadvantage with the other guy. There’s a lot of tracks we go to, like Daytona, where we have no chance.”
Laivins said while the team was leery of two straightaways at Circuit of the Americas, there was a chance the tight turns at the track would be helpful.
He added, “Nobody has raced here before. Nobody has been on this pavement before. I think that spices things up a little bit.”
GRAND-AM OF THE AMERICAS
The Circuit of the America’s second race, Grand-Am, features sports car racing from exotic prototypes to Honda Civics. Qualifying is Friday and the race is Saturday, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $59 for the weekend, with on-site parking at $30. Tickets can be purchased through COTA’s website or at the track.