Justin Marks On Trackhouse’s Ambitious NASCAR Goals

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Photo: Jared C. Tilton (Getty Images)

Just a few weeks ago, Ross Chastain crossed the finish line first at the Circuit of the Americas to take home Trackhouse Racing’s first win in the NASCAR Cup Series. It was an impressive enough feat, considering Chastain’s heated battle for the win in the closing laps of the race — but what made it all the better was the fact that this win came within the first two years of the team’s existence.

Team owner Justin Marks is doing something fascinating with Trackhouse, the team that’s co-owned by Armando Christian Pérez, who you probably know better as Pitbull.

Marks, a former racer himself who grew up in a family imbued with entrepreneurial spirit, and in a recent interview with Jalopnik, he talked about the goals he sees for the team — namely, that it will be more than just a race team; it’ll be a force for change and growth in a sport loaded with negative stereotypes.


Elizabeth Blackstock: I usually like to start off by asking, what was the first moment when you realized that you really wanted to be involved in racing somehow?

Justin Marks: In general, I was six, seven years old. I grew up in St. Louis and my grandfather took me to little fairgrounds, dirt tracks on Saturday nights. It was just the highlight of my youth, was going and seeing these race cars go around the race tracks in Burlington, Iowa; Quincy, Illinois; and these little places. That’s where the bug bit and it all started from there.

EB: How did you decide that you wanted to be a driver? What was the path to the driving?

JM: I was such a fan of it, that I just knew that I wanted to have a career in this sport. I wanted to drive, because I wanted to participate. I wanted to be one of these stars that I grew up idolizing, but I didn’t really grow up in a racing family, per se. I didn’t grow up karting or anything like that.

It honestly started my senior year of high school, when I was just playing video games and going to the races. Our counselors at school called us all in to start talking. It was probably junior year. Started talking about college and life after high school, “What do you want to study? Start thinking about where you want to go to school.”

It was the first time I started really thinking about my career. I just was like, “I want to be a race car driver.” I had never driven a race car before. I’d never done any of that stuff. More to do with my parents, where if I got some good grades in school, I could go to a local racing school and qualify for my local license. I got started like that. It was really quick. I drove my first ever car race in, basically, the end of 1998, the first I was ever in a race car. In January of 2001, I was in 24 Hours of Daytona. It all happened really quick for me.

EB: Your sports car racing career is super interesting, because not many people could say they won Grand Am and the Koni Challenge with world-renowned talents, like Joey Hand and Bill Auberlen. What encouraged you to move from that to NASCAR, rather than continue that Grand Am success?

JM: Yeah. I always was a NASCAR fan over every other motor sport. It’s just the people that I met in Northern California and the people that gave me an opportunity to get involved in the sport were just all sports car guys. That’s how I found my way into my Porsche team. Then, obviously, with the factory BMW team and then with Turner Motorsport.

But what happened was, in the end of 2006, I was on the factory BMW team at Prototype Technology Group. In 2006, BMW notified the team that they were not going to support a North American sports car team in 2007. I think they were in between model years on the M3. They were taking a one-year hiatus, until the new generation M3 came in. We all had to scatter. That was me, Joey, Bryan Sellers, Boris, and a couple of others all had to go find jobs.

I was 25 years old. I thought this was a great opportunity for me to switch careers, so I left sports car racing that year, instead of trying to find another job in what was the American Le Mans Series at the time. I packed my bags and I went to North Carolina. Rented a bedroom out in Sherrills Ford, outside of Mooresville, and started knocking on doors and racing here and there in low-level ARCA cars. Got some momentum and got a full ride in ARCA. Then, went to the Truck Series and went on from there.

EB: What convinced you to go from driving to team ownership? Where did that transition come in?

JM: I was always a fan of the business. I was born in St. Louis, but we actually moved to California when I was about 10 years old. My father was in the technology industry. I grew up in Silicon Valley and the family business was investing venture capital, so I saw a lot of great businesses get created and change industries. That was always really fascinating to me. I wanted to apply that entrepreneurial, disruptive spirit to the motorsports industry, as I started getting older.

It wasn’t really on my radar in my 20s or even early 30s, but I started a couple small businesses. As I started getting into my mid and late 30s racing, I’m not really chasing a career anymore. Now, I was procuring all of my own sponsorship and that’s how I was getting opportunities.

Then, as I started to look at 40 years old on the horizon, I just came to the realization that NASCAR announced they’re launching this new car. The ownership in NASCAR is starting to get up there in years. There was no young owner. There was no disruptive brand in the space. I saw it as an opportunity to shake things up, to really stand out, and to create a foundation of something that could be successful for decades. When I came to that realization, I decided that my driving days were over and I went full-time into this Trackhouse project.

EB: I know you mentioned your father and growing up in an environment where you were watching someone be a venture capitalist, what lessons did you learn to help you become a successful team owner?

JM: I think in that household, it was basically recognizing where industries are ready for change. You see it all the time. It’s all part of our lives. All these high-tech companies that change the way we do things. We get groceries and stuff delivered to our door now, all this kind of stuff. It was just recognizing where there’s an opportunity to do things differently, and grab a bunch of momentum and a bunch of market share. I recognized that.

But, then, to be successful, that really came from all of my years in the industry as a race car driver. I understood how much of a headwind it is to have a dysfunctional culture inside of a shop and how much more performance you get when everybody is supported, cohesive, has a voice in the company, believes in the mission of the company, and feels like it’s a great place to work.

I saw that across all the spectrums. When I recognized that there was an opportunity for Trackhouse to disrupt Cup racing, the other side of that was making sure inside the walls of our building, regardless of what we’re doing outside, we build a really great place to work that’s positive. Ownership’s got a relationship with the workforce and everybody has a voice. Everybody’s excited about the opportunity the company has in the sport.

EB: You’ve really put a priority on developing the talent that you have with your teams, even to go so far as to talk about the GoPro Motorplex, the grassroots of grassroots. You’ve taken talents, like Suárez and Chastain now, to help them make this next step of their career. Is there personal fulfillment for you in that, as opposed to being a NASCAR driver, racing in ALMS and what have you?

JM: Somebody asked me recently, what was better, the Xfinity race that I won in the rain at Mid-Ohio or Ross’ win at COTA. I said, 100%, Ross’ win at COTA, because I don’t really have any ego or anything like that. That’s why it was important for me to not have my name on this race team, to have everything we do be bigger than me.

I get motivated, truly, by giving people opportunities to be successful in their lives. If they’ve got the work ethic, the passion, and the dedication to it, I want to give them that opportunity. That goes for everybody in my company.

When I met Ross 10 years ago and became friends with him, I watched his career, watched him in these tough moments, and these good moments. Over my friendship with him for 10 years, I’ve realized this is a championship caliber driver, that just needs his right opportunity. I knew him well enough to know what it was going to take to put around him, to give him that opportunity.

With Daniel, I raced against Daniel the year that he won the championship in the Xfinity Series with Gibbs. I’d gotten to know him. Part of what’s important to Trackhouse, is we want to be the conduit for great storytelling, because we’re a marketing company, first and foremost, is what we are. We want to tell stories and Daniel has an incredible story. He’s a great brand ambassador. To top it all off, he’s an incredible talent, with unmatched preparation, focus, and determination, and it’s just unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Seeing Ross have that moment of winning his Cup race and being one of 39 or 40 drivers ever to win in all three divisions in NASCAR, I took immense pride in seeing the joy that he was experiencing. That’s what I got out of it. Then, we’re really close there with Daniel. It’s going to be the same thing when we finally get Daniel in victory lane. Those moments are the whole thing working.

EB: How does having these prior relationships with these drivers impact the way that the team functions?

JM: Look, I have 130 people working for this company and I had real previous relationships with about 25 of them. A lot of it is just making sure from a macro level, that I contribute to creating a workforce that’s very cohesive and where everybody can do really good work.

But there are those individuals that I have incredible personal respect for. I’ve seen what they’ve done. I know exactly what their talent profile is. It’s been important for me to bring into this company, because I know that they can take the mission, run with it, and be very effective at it.

That starts with our two drivers and our executive management team, Ty Norris, who’s been in the sport for 30-plus years and built DEI for Dale Earnhardt, brought Toyota to Truck Series, and all that stuff. Then, a couple of other people that have just been here for so long, they know how the sport operates. From day one to Trackhouse, they just were on rock-and-roll mode. It’s just a combination of those two things.

EB: Yeah. You’re doing something really interesting, especially with Pitbull as a co-owner and Daniel Suárez as a driver, reaching out to the Latinx community. Was that intentional on your part, to help combat some of the stereotypes that NASCAR has?

JM: Yeah. For sure. That whole thing is a journey, not a destination. It’s going to take some time for us to get where I want us to be. But when we talk about disruption, and we talk about doing things differently, bringing something new to this sport, this sport is dominantly white male, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

But it’s going to take time, because, obviously, when we started Trackhouse, I had to lean on a lot of industry knowledge to get us going. Industry knowledge is predominantly white male, but it’s very much in the strategic vision of Trackhouse to be a representative business, to be a company that is friendly to all different kinds of people, and positions itself to be a place of opportunity for all different kinds of people, and where the only Latin American driver in the sport, the lead engineer on that car is from Mexico.

Obviously, Armando, Pitbull is a great ambassador for us in his community. We continue to work in that way. We’ve got a great summer internship program that we’re building and trying to partner with some historically Black colleges and universities in the U.S. We will just continue to do this, but it is important to us, because it should be important to everybody. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, whether you’re a Fortune 500 publicly traded company or you’re the corner restaurant. I think that every business in America has a responsibility to try to be a positive influence in your community, and the community means all different kinds of people.

EB: It’s super interesting to hear you talk about that, because I guess a lot of people traditionally think of racing as totally disconnected from all of that. A racing team is just a racing team and they just go on the track, but there’s so much more that you all are doing to elevate Trackhouse Racing beyond just being a racing team. What are your plans for the future with that?

JM: I’m trying build a motorsports-based entertainment brand and to use our position, our global marketing platform in NASCAR to scale the Trackhouse brand across all different kinds of motorsports, and arts and entertainment culture.

We have a partnership with a PGA golfer, James Hahn, who’s ranked top 100 in the world. We’ve got a partnership with Dana White in the UFC, that continues to evolve. We’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re doing in Nashville, a partnership with the ACMs in Las Vegas, and all this kind of stuff that we’re doing with and live entertainment, on and on.

That, fundamentally, is the goal here, is that in 10 years from now, if I were to look back on this conversation and look at the journey over those 10 years, I would be proud that, “Remember back in the day, when this whole thing got started, because we were a NASCAR team? Now, look at us.”

I think that comes from a desire to take captive attention and a captive audience, like we’ve got in NASCAR, and take that attention and scale a brand that people can identify with. We’re about individuality. We’re about authenticity. We’re about possibilities in the world. Take that and scale it beyond racing, to where we can truly be a very effective marketing company for all different kinds of people.

EB: Timing of the team’s evolution is super interesting, as well, where it came in this crucial moment in NASCAR where we’ve got a brand new type of car. They’re looking at targeting brand-new audiences. Especially NASCAR, had this push for social change, banning the Confederate flag and stuff in 2020. Did that help influence your decision to form a team at the time you chose?

JM: No, I wouldn’t say that that was a driving force in the “why” we did it. I think that really the driving force was just recognizing an opportunity in an industry that was ready for change and ready for disruption, like I say. The new car gave us an opportunity to come in and be successful, because it broke down barriers at entry.

But when we were forming Trackhouse, determining what the brand was, and what we were going to be, I was sitting in my house doing this work, watching these George Floyd protests get violent all over the country. I looked at that and went, “We’re the luckiest people in the world to do what we do. It’s not real jobs.” In that moment, I was like, “We have to be a team, a brand, and a company that gives back, that is good stewards of the community.”

We’re doing programs in these charter schools in Florida, and we’ve got a STEM education presentation with our partners at CommScope, that we take to inner city schools and race markets across the country. We continue to grow that side of our business, because we have a responsibility to give back and to try to contribute to the greater good. That’s what we’re trying to do all the time.

EB: You all had great performance right out of the gate in 2021, but this year, it’s gone almost off the charts. What lessons did you learn in your first year, that helped you guys move into this year?

JM: I would say that there was nothing really that we could learn on track last year, that was going to contribute to this year, because the cars changed. But for me, it was really learning the political dynamic of the garage area. It was about really paying attention to how teams are being successful, how they’re going to the racetrack prepared, learning Daniel and Travis, the people that are on the 99 team, just developing a strategy on how to build a culture, and doing that all in the context of what it’s going to take to be successful technically with the new car.

When we completed the Ganassi acquisition and this place was ours the Monday after the Phoenix finale, we were able to put all of that into action. I think that’s been a big contributor into our success, because I’ve got a lot of conviction about what I believe it’s going to take to be successful with this car, building this entire company around the future, not the past. Then, that’s all about this car.

EB: Has that second car this year helped both teams or both cars get better?

JM: Yeah. It gives us twice the opportunity to learn. It gives us an opportunity to go to the racetrack with two different philosophies on strategies, set-up, approach, all that kind of stuff. We’ve been able to learn from both teams and be successful right away. Yeah, it’s been a huge help.

EB: Aside from NASCAR, you’re also part of the ownership group that brought IndyCar to Nashville. What made that project so important to you?

JM: We’re a Nashville-based company. We actually run the business up in Nashville. It’s where I live. We’re trying to have a diverse portfolio of investments in the sport. I had an existing relationship with the organizer and founder of that Grand Prix. He called me to tell me what he was doing. He actually called me just to talk about something totally unrelated to the Grand Prix.

But as I learned about it, I asked if there was an opportunity to invest in it and there was. It’s a great brand extension for Trackhouse, a great investment for the portfolio of Trackhouse. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to put on a street course and learned about the IndyCar business model. That will help Trackhouse in the future.

EB: Are there any hopes that NASCAR will be racing on the Nashville Street Circuit in the future?

JM: I believe they will.

EB: Yeah? That’ll be fun. My last question is one that I ask everyone, what is your daily driver?

JM: Oh, gosh. I’m a car guy. My daily really is a Chevy Suburban, but I just took delivery of a 2022 911 Turbo S Lightweight, which is one of the only in the country, which is just ludicrously fast. Then, I’ve got a ‘73 911 RS Clone and a ‘53 Chevy pickup. I drive them all, I love them all, and I want more.

EB: That’s not a bad collection. That’s pretty good.

Reference-jalopnik.com

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