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The story of the return to competition

By James Edmonds with Eddie LePine

Photo’s by Jack Webster, Thomas Murray and Champion Motorsport

champion motorsport livery
The iconic livery is back

2020 was a bleak and dull year for most. With 2021 looking to follow suit, we in the world of motorsport, do at least have some brightly colored rays of hope to brighten our year.

The excitement generated by the unexpected announcement from Champion on their imminent return to motorsport, could only be matched by the despair we suffered over their departure from the ALMS some 13 years ago now.

With the 99th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb set to start on June 27th, Champion’s reentry will see them dipping their toes back into the world of racing at an event to which the team has never before attended. With a rich history of very glamorous endurance and sports car racing, which started almost 30 years ago, the Champion organization has been conspicuous by its absence since Audi withdrew its North American prototype racing program at the end of the 2008 season. 

Champion Racing started out in an IMSA support race in 1993 with Mike Peters driving a 911RS America. This progressed quickly to a 911 GT2 in full IMSA competition before upgrading to the 911 GT1 Evo at the dawn of the ALMS. Not to mention the touring car programs too. Their most famous – and perhaps most fondly remembered program however – was from 2001 onwards with the revolutionary Audi R8. With wins at Sebring, Petit Le Mans, their swansong overall victory at the 2005 24 Hours of Le Mans and with many wins and championships all along the way, and always with the best drivers in the global paddock, Champion Racing was one of the most polished and well respected teams anywhere in the world. Their sudden departure was a shock that left their huge fanbase reeling.

Champion Racing R8
Champion Racing R8 Le Mans 2005 by Jack Webster

That loss, however, was nothing compared to the shock that was experienced at the untimely death of company founder, Dave Maraj, known affectionately to his staff as The King or Mister M. It was cruelly ironic that he should lose his life in a boating accident. Sailing filled the racing void and was something he dearly loved. His Oyster racing yacht – aptly named 24 Heures – fueled his competitive streak after his years of racing.

“Err, we’re retired. We aren’t supposed to be racing.”

– Mike Peters

Seeing Champion come back – even if it’s just for a single event – has reawakened their fans with a huge amount of interest and enthusiasm for an event which is not generally in the wheelhouse of those fans. To be sure, the Pikes Peak event will have a huge number of new fans this year, and Champion will equally benefit from the hill-climb racing fraternity’s interest too.

I visited Champion’s state-of-the-art, destination dealership yesterday as well as the Champion Motorsport shop where the car is being prepared. I spent some time with Dealer Principal Mitra Maraj and General Manager Mike Peters, (who is either accredited or accused, depending on who you talk to, with getting Dave Maraj involved in racing to begin with) about their exciting new project.

Mitra takes up the story of how the seed was planted. “Last year I sponsored a car for Pete Stout,” he explains. “He does 000 magazine which is phenomenal. He called me three weeks before he went there (to Pikes Peak) to do a photo shoot with an art car. He got David Donner, who was the King of the Mountain (previous overall winner) to drive. While they were doing the photo shoot, David tested the car briefly and said, ‘This car’s really competitive. I think we can do it,’ so Pete called me and asked if I’d be interested in sponsoring it. Of course! Motorsport! I’m hooked.

Mitra Maraj continues the Champion legacy. by Larry Reynolds

“I didn’t grow up watching football or other sports, I grew up around motorsport. David Donner competed and did well, and I thought about it and was talking to Mike Peters one day. We called Alwin Springer at Porsche Motorsport and I asked him to tell me a bit about Pikes Peak. ‘It’s hard to breathe’ was his answer. But he’d been there with Jeff Zwart in the ‘90s and said that a GT2 Club Sport would be competitive there, so we purchased one from Porsche.”

Pikes Peak may seem like an odd choice for a company whose history is all sports cars and endurance racing, but Mitra explains the reasoning. “November 13th is when the idea came to me because I couldn’t sleep that night. I was just thinking and thinking about it, so I came in the next day and talked to Mikey (Peters). I said, ‘Mikey. I wanna race Pikes Peak!’ He said, ‘Err, we’re retired. We aren’t supposed to be racing.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not really racing. It’s time trials. A hill climb, so you’re not really racing, you’re just competing against the clock.” Funny how one can find justification when something is this important!

What was it, I asked Mitra, about that night that made him think of this event?  “It was something I grew up with,” he continues. “I watched so many videos of Walter Röhrl in the Audi, and then the Peugeots. That’s what really put Pikes Peak, for me, on the map when I was a kid, and then watching Jeff Zwart racing Porsches throughout the years. My dad had a good relationship with him.

“It was always there, but it was dirt roads. Then it turned to asphalt and one year me and my dad were talking about Pikes Peak. He said that it would be interesting, but Porsche really didn’t have a car at the time.”

The weapon of choice for the very fast approaching event is a 2019 Porsche GT2 RS Club Sport. It is at the Champion Motorsport facility now, being built by some of the same people who worked on the last cars campaigned by Champion Racing. “We are just really getting familiar with the car,” explains Mitra, “and then we’ll do some adjustments and get some testing done. We want to make sure the car is well balanced, because at Pikes Peak it’s all about low speed grip and being able to put the power down. The GT2 has 700 horsepower,” he laughs. “Which is a lot for a car right out of the box!”

The car is being prepped for the Time Attack 1 class. Don’t feel bad. I had to look it up too. The car may be eligible however, for the top Unlimited Division class. Mitra continues the thought, “We are trying to work on some aero bits and other things but the GT2 from last year was qualified to run in Unlimited and Time Attack…the people at Pikes Peak have been really great honestly, with great communication. We’re excited, they’re excited.”

Even with an almost 100-year history, I imagine that as storied as the event is, when a team with the following of Champion shows up, they will bring a lot of interest with them. After all, it’s a once-a-year event with a dedicated but smaller following than the international series where Champion has previously competed. “They have a great history,” says Mitra, “and a lot of great drivers have been there. It’s more of a bucket list for some drivers who have raced certain events and have never done Pikes Peak. I’m super excited to be a part of it.”

champion racing GT2
Champion Racing Livery Sebring 1996 by Jack Webster

How about the iconic livery? Will we see its return? (I gathered from reading the social media flurry after the announcement that the livery was a big question!). “The livery is going to be…The Livery! You can’t forget it,” he says chuckling. “We’re going to have a modern touch, but you’ll know when you see it.” I also looked at the official entry list, which lists the car as number 38, that most famous of Champion Racing numbers. Grown men may be reduced to tears when this thing runs, if they know Champion history.

With so little time between press release and the event, will there be a test program? “Yes. Any tight track really. Anything with low grip. High speed is not an issue for us. I don’t know if Sebring is right, but it does have bumps. The top speed at Pikes Peak will be 140 to 150 maybe for a split second with an average probably in the 90s, so our testing goal will be any small circuit.”

“I always liked David Maraj at the time. He had a great style”

– Romain Dumas

Getting back in the fray after a long absence, at an event where they have no hands-on experience will come with a steep learning curve. (No pun intended). What are the expectations? What would make this a successful outing for the team? “Make it to the top!” jokes Mitra. “Seriously, I’d love to place in the class and get a record time if we could.  That would be a success for me. But my major goal is to make sure that the car is safe and makes it up to the top. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday – that’s the fundamentals of it.”

No stranger to Champion, Porsche nor most certainly, Pikes Peak, is the driver. Mitra laughs. “Romain Dumas! He is King of the mountain! He holds the outright record (2018 Volkswagen I.D. R Pikes Peak, and at 7:57, no one else is even close) and being a Porsche factory driver, in a Porsche, it’s just great for both of us to do it. We reached out to him and after our first conversation, Mikey looked over at me and goes, ‘We gotta get him on board. The wealth of knowledge he brings to the table for us is huge, and he has a good record of getting to the top.”

Romain Dumas Audi R15+ Sebring 2011 by Jack Webster

Romain is very busy with his customer Porsche race-prep business as well as still driving and testing. By chance, he will be at the Nordschleife just prior to his arrival in Colorado which should be excellent practice for the mountain with its not dissimilar challenges. The Green Hell has 154 turns (156 at Pikes Peak) and a total length of 12.93 miles (12.42 at Pikes Peak) making the narrow and bumpy tracks startlingly similar.

We spoke to Romain for his thoughts on returning to the USA and why this event is so special to him. “So, to be back on Pikes Peak, I am very happy. For me, it’s one of the nicest races you can do, even if it’s really short. The feeling you get is incredible. You need to do the prefect run, and for sure it is really dangerous, but the scenery is so beautiful, so for me a real pleasure. On top of that, when I was a kid, my dad was always doing hill climb in Europe, so I always liked this style [of racing].”

romain dumas wec cota 2014 porsche
Romain Dumas by Jack Webster

Romain will be the first driver to race a Champion car in 13 years. What are his feelings on being part of this historic team? “I am very happy to be back there with Champion, a team that I know very well, because we always fight against them with Penske. It’s quite funny, but I always liked David Maraj at the time, because I always liked his,” Romain pauses, “he had a great style. I was always surprised looking at this guy. He always had a nice race suit and nice shoes! To now race for his team, it’s really cool for me and on top of that, with a Porsche!”

As a four-time winner and holder of the outright mountain record, we asked Romain about his own expectations for the event. “It’s the GT2 RS Club Sport, so more or less a modified car that we all know. The target will be to fight for the class win, but anyway, the first thing will be to enjoy and to have fun and we’ll see at the end the result. It’s not easy to know what will happen because it will be the first time for us with the team and the car there. We will do our best and I will give maximum input to prepare the car well. So we’ll see what happens!”

Mike Peters, as mentioned earlier, is the one who first drove a car under Champion Racing, and got the wheels turning towards the future. He later became team manager and strategist while keeping his day job as a Porsche sales expert at the dealer. He is now the General Manager of the world’s largest volume Porsche dealer. He and many others have been there for 20, 30 years or more. Consistency and stability at the workplace were huge key factors in the symbiotic success of the race program and one which, The King, Mitra, his brother Naveen and Mike have always managed brilliantly.

“Me and Le Mans one day? You never know.”

– Mitra Maraj

Mike takes up the story from his perspective and talks about how it started. “Mitra came to me with the 000 magazine last year and I saw the car with the (Champion) logo on it,” he explains, “and he felt like this was a year of opportunity, because we didn’t feel like too many manufacturers were going to jump on board. We thought that we’d be able to get a decent driver because the race programs were so weak because of everything, and the car is relatively competitive. Anything could show up though…nobody knew that Volkswagen was going to show up and do seven minutes when they planned to go that year. We could still get snookered out of anything, but if it’s anything like last year, I think we could be right up front.

mike peters
Mike Peters Team Manager by James Edmonds

The rules for the class in which the car is set to run, do allow for some modifications and I was lucky to be allowed to see the car, although forbidden to photograph it. Fair enough.  Mike’s cards are close to his chest when asked to give a glimpse of what we may see. “We’re not really doing anything,” he pauses, I chuckle, “well, we are doing things, but nothing we can disclose right now. At some point it’s going to become obvious what we’ve done and how we’ve done it, but the harm will be to advise our competition of what we’ve done, which we don’t want to do. Ultimately, there’s a lot of detail in what’s taking place. With suspension, brakes, aero, engine, management – on both ends – managing it for temperatures and managing it for performance, so all of that stuff is where we’re working, but the details are where we have to hold back for right now.” This is good. It opens the door for a follow-up!

Having been here before, Mike knows what a Pandora’s Box this can be, but he seldom gets excited. Team manager. Le Mans winner. Level head. No outbursts of emotion. You get the picture. Is he excited to be back at it? “Well right now, it’s a bit of a challenge. Trying to run all this and trying to stay on top of that (running the world’s biggest Porsche dealer remember?), it’s…challenging,” says Mike is his very level mannered way. “It’s not like trying to do a whole season. It’s minor, it’s under ten people really, and it’s ten minutes up the hill. Hopefully a lot less.

“But there’s a lot involved. There’s an entire week of practice out there and some other stuff we’ve got planned in advance of that. It’s just a lotta work.”

champion racing trophy case
SOME of the Champion Racing accolades. by Champion Racing

This small effort might sound like the way things started for Champion way back when, but Mike sees it differently. “If I was to place this program in the mix, I would say it’s got – at minimum – the attention that the World Challenge programs had, and it’s not far off our Audi  program when we went factory, as far as the effort that’s being put forth and the direction we are trying to go. I would consider this a very professional program with the right people involved and as long as everything comes together in the timeline – and it’s tight, it’s very tight, we should be looking pretty good.”

For those following the Champion interest, but with little knowledge of Pikes Peak, here is a little history: Pikes Peak (or more correctly perhaps, Pike’s peak), was first viewed by Lt. Zebulon Pike during an exploration mission launched at the behest of Thomas Jefferson starting in 1806. Pike thought that the mountain could never be scaled by humans when he turned back having reached the midway point; he and his team in nothing more than shirts and trousers yet in waist deep snow. He lacked, of course, the vision afforded by the following century’s explorers as well as the primitive ‘modern’ equipment enjoyed by the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary. I wonder what he’d think of today’s event, his only point of wheeled reference being a horse buggy.  Another interesting fact: Katherine Lee Bates was so overcome by the vista from the summit in 1893, that she was inspired to compose the lyrics to America the Beautiful.

I wonder what history will be made this June when the Champion name thrills us again. Will this event be the genesis of a return to top competition? Will we once again be witness to the glamor and excitement of the early 2000s and see Champion Racing’s iconic colored livery streaking down the Mulsanne to our collective delight? I know the burning question on everyone’s mind, and I wouldn’t have gone fishing with the team principals without casting this line out there. Will they, or won’t they?

The feeling that struck me after talking to both Mike and Mitra, was that they were both happy to discuss the future when I was expecting them to wave me off. Mitra Maraj – “Me and Le Mans one day? You never know.” This said with a broad grin.

Mike Peters, at the end of our chat mused, “The real question is, what do we do after this? Do we sell the car and retire from it again or do we find some other opportunities? It’s happened before. We did the Miami race because Dave [Maraj] wanted the publicity, and before you knew it, we jumped in full time racing.”

The thought alone gives me goose bumps as I type this, and Mister M is surely smiling at the prospect.

dave maraj the king
Champion founder, The King. Dave Maraj by Thomas Murray

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