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Dave Maraj: A Champion Remembered

Words by James Edmonds. Photo’s by Thomas Murray
Reproduced here with the kind permission of  Quattro Quarterly magazine

Do you ever, when you’re about to board a flight, wonder if today might be the last day you speak to someone you love? It’s not unnatural. Separation causes anxiety, while distance causes us to lose touch. Even still, the inner optimist in most never truly believes that this day might be the last day… even if the inner pessimist flirts with the nearly unimaginable thought.  One wonders then, if this line of thinking ran through the heads of many players from the world of Audi Sport’s rich competitive racing past as they prepared to board their planes on the return home from sunny Florida.

Icon. Legend. Inspiration. Leader. All words that came to the minds of many when discussing the late great Dave Maraj. No word though was more prevalent than “Respect”. It was a mantra Dave lived by and whether you were a prince or a pauper, he gave it and received it in equal measure. It is who he was.

Having known Dave Maraj for 16 years, I came to know “Mr. M” and many of those close to him at his world class Champion Audi and Porsche dealerships and, of course, from his passion – Champion Racing. That name alone is enough to quicken the pulse – and, if the team was coming to town and you were lucky enough to see them, then by golly, it was a treat to be savored! They were the doyen of the sportscar racing world and the wins came through hard work and dedication. Their quality, from preparation to presentation, rivalled the best in F1 such was the high standard set by “The King”.

That was a moniker he likely took some discomfort in. Mr. M was generally quiet and unassuming, always shrugging attention, but he possessed an undeniable inner strength which commanded such respect that he widely became known thus. It was that respect and affection given by all his employees and friends that earned him the outwardly immodest title.

His unassuming nature was never more evident than when he returned from Le Mans in 2005. Having just become the first American team to win overall since 1967 (and to this day the last), he strolled into the showroom to be greeted by the assembled employees. As soon as the cheers and applause began, he immediately looked down…shook his head…and downplayed the whole thing. A celebrity with need of a spotlight he was not.

Once the shock of his passing gave way to remembrance, a wave of emotion and an outpouring of love the like of which I cannot remember, hit the news and social media at a furious pace. Reaching out to several of his friends for their feelings and memories, it became clear to me that their stories could paint a much better picture than my words alone.

Larry Reynolds is one of Champion’s longest serving, most enthusiastic and certainly most knowledgeable brand ambassadors, and he knew Dave about as well as anyone. A legend in his own right, he’s a great place to start in remembering Mr. M. “Dave is gone too soon. Every single thing he built, misses him. The buildings are pristine, but seem so empty without him. It feels like he is all around us, but no longer here.” I interject that pristine was the way Dave liked it. When the news came that the floors in the shop were being repainted again – a huge undertaking that typically occurred once a year – you hoped that it was on your scheduled weekend because it meant a free day off!  Everything was that way, and heaven help anyone who was caught flicking a cigarette butt onto the ground!

Opening a car dealership is no mean feat, even for an experienced operator. How did Dave do it? “Well, Mr. Maraj was driven. How do you start a new Porsche dealership in sleepy Pompano Beach with limited previous experience of the brand, and become even moderately successful? He started with great design and architecture when he built the first showroom and huge service area. He had great instincts too and started working at increasing the sales volume – as he would say to me, ‘Inch by Inch, everything’s a cinch.’

“That synergy worked very well. For the last 30 years, we have been the number one volume Porsche dealership in North America. I think that was accomplished by one very powerful quality that Mr. Maraj had: Leadership. I guess he began feeling more comfortable with his business and thought back to his passion that had started in Trinidad – rallying and racing sports cars.”

A core group of dedicated Champion petrolheads and race enthusiasts hatched the fledgling team by preparing the cars in what is now the dealership café!  “We started by building a grass roots GT program and truly learned along the way. The race cars got better, the classes higher and the knowledge began to accumulate.

“Mr. M attracted the best and most enthusiastic people who shared his passion. He hired some of the best drivers, in the world – maybe the most impressive group ever to have competed in the US and Europe.  With persistence, Champion Racing won numerous American Le Mans Series and World Challenge championships, the pinnacle of course being victory in the 2005 24 Hours of Le Mans. To start racing, and progress to that unrivaled and elusive level that so many have attempted yet not attained, took the same leadership style that carried Dave through his business.

“Mr. Maraj started to relax and found sailing enjoyable. He soon surrounded himself with great people again and commissioned a spectacular racing sailboat. What happens next? He goes out and starts winning prestigious regattas! With Dave Maraj, it was never about personal gain. It was about accomplishment… for himself, and the people lucky enough to be along for the ride. We will all miss his strength, guidance and leadership but try our very best to go on and make him proud. He was and is his  namesake, a true Champion.”

Bill Adam was one of Champion’s first drivers and chose to focus on his friendship with Mr. M. “The first time I ever met Dave, I got a phone call out of the blue in 1993 from Mike Peters. Autoweek was doing a road test of the new Porsche Turbo at Moroso and he said, ‘No offense to the guy doing the story, but Dave doesn’t trust him and we’d like to hire you to do the track portion of the test.’ So I went up and did it and Dave was just non-stop smiles the entire day.

“He asked me to dinner afterwards and that started an almost weekly dinner with him. They were always wonderful. He loved to drink Johnny Walker Black and when I was in Scotland once, I stayed at a B&B whose owner was a member of the Royal Scotch Society. I told him I wanted to take back a good bottle of Scotch and asked what he recommended. When I told him what my boss liked he said, ‘That’s crap!’ The next morning, he gave me directions to a little shop and told me to buy some Aberlour. When I got home I took a drive to see Dave and got there at about 10:30 AM. He asked about the family and the trip and I pulled out the bottle. I told him that it came highly recommended and he looked at it lovingly and said, ‘I’ll have to try it sometime.’ He put it down and a second later, picked it back up and said, ‘I think it’s time.’

“Over dinner one night he said, ‘I’d like to get involved in racing. I don’t know to what extent at this point but if I build a car will you drive it for me?’ I said that being with him was so enjoyable that he didn’t even have to pay me! This was just fun for me with a man I considered my friend and not my boss.

“One of his customers was the president of the shoe company H.H. Brown. He knew Champion was a small private team and wanted to throw a few bucks their way. H.H. Brown stayed on all of Dave’s Porsches because, ‘They were there when I was a nobody.’ I still retain so many friends that I had met through Dave. That’s a testament to him and the type of person he was. “

With a singular vision to make Champion a ‘brand’ before branding became trendy, Dave was on a roll with his team, now letting the world in on his little corner of the world in Pompano Beach. Success came quickly due to his other now famous quality of spotting latent talent. All his team members were carefully chosen. They all held equal importance, and were treated with the same regard.

This may be best illustrated by Jacky Carrie who was there almost at the start and is still there at Champion to this day. Jacky details cars at the dealership and his passion was recognized by Dave who invited him to the team to take care of all aspects of the team presentation. From keeping the cars and team transporters immaculately clean to sweeping the gravel out of the garage after a mid-race “off”, Jacky was loved and respected by one and all.

Back in the hospitality center after a Petit Le Mans victory one year, with the champagne was flowing, Mr. M announced Jacky as he came in to share the celebrations. The entire room stopped with applause and cheers – not just the crew, but all the drivers and team management as well.

The rise to championship status didn’t always come easy though and there were bumps along the way. Brad Kettler, long time crew chief and technical director for Champion Racing in its heyday takes up the tale and explains how Mr. M got past these issues with a comparison to Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx. “It was very toxic and closed up at Veloqx and everyone was on an island as a team. Even though they were working together they were not acting as a team and that was one of their big undoings. We had periods of that, but the difference was that Mr. M recognized it when it was happening. We acted against it and it took a lot of strength to break up the cliques.

“When you get high end people like a group of musicians or geologists or any group where you have the most talented people together you’re going to have conflicting opinions. If you don’t step in and intervene in the cliquishness and selfishness, it will take over. Mr. M talked about it with us as a management group, certainly Mike Peters, Louis (Milone), Jerome (Freeman) and myself and we were honest enough to admit there was a clique and Mr. M brought us all in and we restructured them. That was a big thing to do.”

As they climbed the racing ladder, the next step was a big one. A prototype. Being the country’s largest volume Porsche dealer meant that it should be a Porsche engine. No single car was more challenging than the Porsche Lola. Its legend grew more from its epic failures than any of its non-successes, but Mr. Maraj was loyal to Porsche who had supported him so well with the GT1 car and was determined to make a Porsche engine work. Despite their best efforts the car was, as Brad puts it, “A turkey…a piece of s**t from America that couldn’t fall out of a tree and was shaped like a wedge that you split wood with.  Ugly race cars are seldom good. It’s simple to say and chuckle about but it’s absolutely true. And that car was ugly.”

Kettler pondered the question of anecdotes that were maybe hidden from those outside the team.  He reveled in this one: “I really hate to pick on the Lola so bad, but we were working on it at Sebring doing turbocharger evaluation tests. Alwin Springer was there with a bunch of people from Porsche and Mr. M drove up into the pit lane in a new A8 with a Bang and Olufsen stereo in it. He pulled up behind the Lola, got out and with the door open said to all the guys, ‘I have the perfect song for this car!’ He cranked the volume and played Adam Sandler’s “Piece of S**t Car” and we all had a really fun moment. He also suggested that we put the car on a post outside a bar and call it “Lola’s” – otherwise known as The DNF Lounge! There was a lot of humor in him.”

Brad was like many long-term employees in that he had a working relationship as well as a friendship with Dave. “He was wise. But, as a friend, if you took the time to reflect and talk with him, you would learn a lot more than what you were initially talking about. Learning about a cricket match, trading diamonds in Antwerp. These were the factors that made him so fascinating and he knew what he was talking about. He gave me a lot in life and allowed me to do something amazing alongside him. Many of the things I’ve done in life, I would not have been able to do without his support and council. He had a lot of wisdom from world traveling and trading and had a lot of patience. He taught me to be a better sportsman and a better businessman and to listen to people. To speak your mind.

“Ten years after not working for him, we still would talk every week on the phone. That’s what I will miss. That and not seeing him in his office face to face, shaking his hand and telling him what was going on. That’s gone forever.”

Of all the drivers who were fortunate enough to enjoy being on Dave’s team, I could imagine Emanuele Pirro (known as EP around the halls at Champion) being one of those who took his death the hardest. He drove for Champion for many years and has four rings in his DNA. His atypical Italian nature means that he wears his emotions on his sleeve. “Any person who dies, it makes you feel bad, but this time it was more than that and I asked myself why? The Champion group still stays together, so it was more than a team and Dave was more than a team owner.”

EP first met Mr. M when he was racing in the ALMS with Joest and says, “I got to know him as a competitor. They were good and gave us a hard time even though their car was not the same spec as ours. When Joest stopped and we were assigned to Champion, I found immediately a very good community of people. The people were committed and had a constructive spirit which is not one hundred percent granted. It was something special. Each individual was a special guy and rich inside.

“On top of them all was this guy. Dave was a very reserved person and wouldn’t open the door to his personality easily. But, he was always there and knew what was going on. He was there but he wasn’t there; wasn’t visible; he knew and understood everything. Normally people are intimidated by the boss and the boss cannot be loved by their employees, but in Champion this was not the case.

“There was a massive respect. People were doing very high quality work not because they were afraid but because they just felt there was no other way. They were doing it with a smile on their face and made it a lot more enjoyable and more successful for me. There were no politics, but a high spirit of belonging. Little examples: after every race we would all go out together and always with Dave’s credit card! Once a year we had a day together at Cedar Point in Michigan…all the team. It was incredible fun. This was all organized and paid for by Dave and it meant a lot for the people that worked hard.

“He was a very discreet person who was lean with his words. Some people speak a lot and don’t say too much. He wasn’t speaking much but was saying a lot. Sometimes he didn’t need to speak at all to tell you something!

“Normally when someone dies, he becomes a good guy and people tend to forget the not-so-good things. In Dave’s case, all of us kept in touch with him and each other and this feeling was there before he died. There are very few people with such a great attitude.”

Documenting for posterity is important for any team and Dave hired many world-class photographers over the years. For Champion Motorsports, one of the key players in that regard is Robin Thompson. Robin shot for Champion over a seven year period, quite literally watching Maraj and his team closely through the lens of a camera.

“I was shooting in the ALMS for nine years. I just was always an Audi fan and a Champion customer in early June of 2001 when I traded my Carrera. The used car sales manager tried to put me into Dave’s demo S8. Dave was at the Le Mans Test that weekend, but the car was a little too rich for me so I snagged a silver A4 and the rest is history.

“At the races I got to know everyone at Champion, and in 2003 had already befriended many of them for some time. In 2005 Dave asked me to put in a bid for shooting when we were talking at Road America. He already had a canvas print from 2003 and was familiar with my work. In 2006 Audi stepped in with the R10 program and pretty much took over, but by 2007 I was in full time.

“Those final two years were the peak of my racing life and everything since then to be honest, has been anticlimactic. Nothing can replace the sense of pride and honor it was just to be a fringe player in Dave’s team.”

Race engineers occupy a special place in the team and often have the strongest relationships with the drivers. It is a bond that was shown to full effect – warts and all – in the award-winning documentary, Truth in 24. The unwitting star of the film was Howden Haynes, better now known to the racing world as just plain ‘H’.

H arrived at Road Atlanta in 2004 to work with Mr. M as his team campaigned two R8 LMPs for the first time. What he found out though was that his role was not quite what he thought: “I’d not raced in the USA much, ‘cause all the yellow flags and safety car stuff was quite different to what we were used to in Europe. I went there to be an assistant engineer to whoever was in charge, but they turned around and said, ‘No. We want you to engineer the car.’ You don’t turn down an opportunity like that!

“During the race there was this voice that came over the radio saying, ‘Box box!’, and I turned and said, ‘Who the f**k just said that?’ – I was quite outspoken in those days – and this little voice came over and said, ‘Dave.’ We then had this argument as to whether we should come in or not. He was reacting to one thing and I was naive to the whole American yellow flag safety car thing and didn’t know what he was going on about. But, he was right and we did what he suggested. Later in the race it happened again but this time Dave cocked up and luckily I stuck to my guns. We did what I suggested and we managed to come in second.”

Coming away from that event H kicked himself thinking that he’d lost his big break to work for a major player on the world sportscar stage. Imagine his surprise when he got a call from Mr. M asking him to engineer the car for the next race at Laguna Seca and the following year. “Racing at Champion was amazing. Mr. M was a man of few words, but when he spoke everyone would listen. He was a quiet leader, but you knew he was in charge and he didn’t interfere. He didn’t need to. He had assembled a team that ran like clockwork and provided a sprinkling of that Champion Magic. It was a mega team to work for and it was down to him. He was one of the nicest guys in motorsports whereas most of them are just rogues and arseholes!”

Champion Racing crossed its last finishing line at the end of the 2008 season, and ten years have flown by as blisteringly as its iconic white and color-streaked livery R8 LMPs. To celebrate the occasion, Dave Maraj held a reunion at his favorite resort where perhaps a hundred or more of the team came together to reminisce about the best of times. Howden Haynes was among them, one of several who had made the trip from Europe specifically for the event. “I can honestly say that thanks to the risk that Mr. M took and the opportunity he offered me, I was able to return to that reunion having spent 100 races with Audi, won multiple ALMS championships, nine outright Le Mans victories and having become technical director for the Audi Sport Le Mans program. Without that initial opportunity, then I’m certain that my career would have taken a different path and for that I am eternally grateful to Mr. M.”

A later addition to the engineering team at Champion also made it to the reunion. Ten years on, she’s a household name… at least in households with a motor racing bent, but Leena Gade was a fresh face and an unknown quantity when she first arrived on Champion’s doorstep.

Back then, Gade’s initial meeting with Mr. M caught her a bit off guard.  “He asked what my background was because he picked up that I wasn’t English, although I’d been brought up in Britain. I told him my parents were Indian. The thing that struck me when he said his name was Dave – and I know this sounds stereotypical – but I wasn’t expecting a brown person and I thought, ‘Oh – he’s Indian!’ and then out comes this Trinidadian accent and I was so confused!

“We talked a little bit about where my mum and dad were from and had I been to India. At the end of the conversation he said, ‘Can you cook curry?’ I said, ‘I learned from my mum. I’m not great at it but yes.’ He said, ‘Good! At some point you’re going to cook me a curry!’ I thought I was there to engineer a car! That was my first encounter.”

It didn’t take Leena long to see where the famous magic came from as she became more familiar with her new team. “When Dave came along he would spend time talking to me. It makes you feel valued because you realize that he’s a person who cares about what his staff are doing and how they are. I soon realized that he wasn’t just doing this with me – he was doing it with everyone on the team which is quite something because the team was not exactly small. Whenever I turned up at a race that was the one thing that struck me.

“In motor racing you do have lots of turnover and every year there’s always someone new that comes into a team, but what was apparent was how stable it was. There were lots of stalwarts there when you look back, and it isn’t because it was racing with Audi or the R10 or being in the ALMS. People stay in a company when they are happy, and it was apparent that everyone was happy. No one was wanting for the creature comforts and that meant that we all focused on what we had to do. That was a direct result of Dave. No one else. That was the passion with which he went racing.”

Leena admits that she almost didn’t attend the reunion last spring due to her tight scheduling, but trepidation gave way to elation. “I didn’t know how good it was going to be but then so many people started filtering in and one of the first people I saw was Howden. Dindo was there as well and they chatted about who was coming but she hadn’t contacted anybody.

“I saw this guy who looked familiar, but I didn’t recognize. H was laughing because he knew. I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s Dave!’ He’d changed – I hadn’t seen him for 10 years – he’d lost a lot of weight but there was still that laugh, and it was so great to see him. He looked so happy and so relaxed. If I’d have known in March that was the last time I’d see him, there would be a lot more I’d want to say. I never did properly thank him.”

What would she have said? “That I will always be incredibly grateful for the chances that you gave me. You didn’t have to do that. It was your name. Your team. I know Howden is a great engineer, but you took a big gamble on me. You allowed us to form a team that ultimately went on to be incredibly strong and powerful, then set up what became Audi Sport back in Europe right up until the end.

“If there’s one thing that I’ll miss it’s his laugh. He always used to giggle but it was a big burly giggle. My overriding memory of Dave as a team principle is that he was brave enough to just let people get on with their job because they knew what to do.  He was almost invisible…but present. The thing that was different about him as a team owner is that he didn’t need to be involved because he knew he’d got the right people around him.”

When you summarize a Champion, it’s probably best to give the last word to a fellow champion. He is no stranger to this audience and, although he only drove a few races for Mr. M’s team, they were major ones. He and Dave developed a friendship – like so many others – that transcended their sport. He was also finishing the job at the wheel of the winning ADT Champion Audi R8 as it crossed the line in the 2005 24 Hours of Le Mans. In doing so, Tom Kristensen cemented the Champion Racing legend, and also his own as legend status as the winningest driver ever at that iconic 24 hour race.

“Champion Racing was a very popular team, and everyone felt at home and welcome and was a proud employee. I felt very proud driving for the team and I was very happy celebrating that victory both at Sebring but also his dream…winning at Le Mans. It was a great privilege to join his team in those years.”

Kristensen knows a lot about Maraj. And, he knows a lot about the pangs of humility that come along with a nickname that seems to the recipient as bigger than life. When speaking of Maraj, the affinity “Mr. Le Mans” has for Maraj hints at their unique understanding of each other.

“There was a great deal of respect for Dave, or ‘The King’ as many called him. It was only said with respect and a smile – not a smile even – it’s hard to explain. People were really proud of the story. There’s a hire and fire mentality which is very much in the competitive environment in racing…that was not there. There was no-race to-race or one-year contracts. He was not there to rule by terror, he had a special attitude and that was one of mutual respect.”

Kristensen is eager to point out that winning in 2005 was not a given due to the huge performance restrictions that the car was forced to run with. “It is very easy to say that Audi has won quite some races at Le Mans, but that was one of the races that we definitely should not have won.  That is why with Dave and Audi North America…it is something that really I will cherish forever.”

Talking to Tom could happily take up days of remembrances and stories. One of those occurred a couple of years ago when Tom spent a year living in America with his family not far from the Champion facility. Needing something for his son to do while he was away from Denmark, Tom mentioned his dilemma to his friends. “I spoke to Mike (Peters) first and then with Dave and they suggested that Oliver could come and do an internship at the dealership.

“He worked the same way that (Dave’s sons) Naveen and Mitra did, starting out in the stockroom and getting all the way up to the sales office which I, as a dad, am incredibly proud of. It goes to tell something about Dave that when you have mutual respect, he would help you with some very valuable things.  That is something I will always thank him for.”

Tom was inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame in 2016 as the winningest driver in the event’s storied history. Contrary to popular belief and according to Dave’s son Mitra, the 12 Hours of Sebring was The King’s favorite race. Tom continues, “Scott Atherton wanted to look back at the great period of the ALMS which was very much due to Dave Maraj and Champion Racing. Over these years they were a great contributor to the series. When they wanted to induct me to the Hall of Fame, they thought it would be cool for me to get a lap and I said, ‘Couldn’t that be in the Champion R8?’ I realized that Dave didn’t have it any more and so it was down to Bobby Green and Brad Kettler who said they would run an R8 in full Champion livery, so I can do a lap of honor before the race.”

I had previously made contact with several ex-Champion Racing team members who were now working for others throughout the paddock and as Tom got ready for his parade laps prior to the 12-hour race, they all emerged from their various tents, trucks and garages. They assembled in the pit area to greet Tom and wish him well as part of an impromptu reunion of the 2005 team.

Tom laments, “I wanted Dave to come up there, but he kindly rejected saying that racing is over for him. But he invited me out on his boat instead!”

Dave’s boat – an Oyster 575 – is named 24 Heures and while Tom is proud to have been part of the reason why the jaw dropping vessel was so aptly named, he might perhaps opt to leave sea legs to the sailors and keep his own on the terra firma. “The only time I think I disappointed Dave, apart from braking too late or maybe not being fast enough on the track, was on the boat. A few hours out from the Intracoastal when I had to give a little bit of food – not for thought – but food for the sharks! Dave told me to drink some ginger ale and had a good laugh!”

Inevitably, we discuss Mr. Le Mans’ favorite moments with The King and the answer may surprise you for it is not holding aloft the Le Mans trophy with Dave at his side (although that was also one of them). “My son Oliver was with me when we went on the boat trip with Dave and his crew. I think that’s something I will definitely cherish forever.”

As we come to the end of our chat, I realize that Tom has been leafing through the book, Champion Racing. A Little Bit of Magic. He stops at a picture that really sums up what everyone has said in this piece. It’s a photo of the very first member of the Champion team, the late Keith Bransford making notes, with Dave Maraj in the background overseeing but not overbearing. “That picture says a lot. There’s a connection without eye contact. Dave’s there but he’s not there to ask anything…he’s there but he’s not there. It says everything that we’ve just talked about in so many ways.”

It is not easy to convey the breadth or scope of a person’s impact on so many others, but surely a mark of one’s legacy is the amount of love and genuine respect which they were afforded in life and in the afterlife. Not only by his family but also his friends, colleagues, employees and opponents. I have asked this question to many of the Champion Racing alumni and the answer is always the same: ‘If Dave said he was getting the band back together, what would you say?’  The answer? ‘Just tell me when and where Mr. M.’

That my friends, says it all.

Many thanks to all of our friends who helped with this story. And to Dave.

You can read our story on the 2005 Champion Le Mans win here

Find out more about Audi Club North America here