Change Agents

May 25, 2023

Some use the term “disruptor” to describe McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown and Trackhouse owner Justin Marks because of their ability to think outside of the box in their respective forms of racing and change the way business is conducted.

Brown prefers the term “Change Agent” because that is what he has done since taking over the famed McLaren F1 team when he was named Chief Executive Officer of McLaren Racing on April 10, 2018.

The 51-year-old from Los Angeles, California isn’t afraid to rock the boat among the staid and pretentious team principals in the Formula One World Championship or in the NTT IndyCar Series.

That sounds a lot like the 41-year-old owner of Trackhouse, as he creates new and innovative ways to build a brand in NASCAR.

“I’ve never thought about the term change agent as opposed to disruptor,” Brown said. “I think it’s the same meaning, but change agent has a bit more of a positive connotation to it than disruptor.

“But I don’t think there is anything wrong with disruptor.”

When Brown was a 16-year-old in Los Angeles, he attended what was then known as the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He wanted to become a race driver, so the ambitious lad sought out one of the greatest drivers of all-time – Mario Andretti.

It was 1987 and Brown recalls the conversation was brief. Andretti was still a star in the CART IndyCar Series, but he took time to talk to the motivated and driven Brown.

“It was short and sweet conversation,” Brown recalled. “I was quite intimidated.

“I asked him how do I get started in racing? He told me go-karting. That was the extent of the conversation. There happened to be an ad in the race program, which I still have, for Jim Hall Karting.”

Brown would compete in the junior formulas of racing in Europe, but his real forte was marketing and sales.

He created the world’s largest motorsports marketing agency, Just Marketing, Inc. (JMI) and was based in the Northwest Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville, Indiana.

JMI was able to create some of the biggest sponsorship in NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One.

He even helped broker the deal when Liberty Media purchased Formula One in 2017.

McLaren Racing was impressed with Brown, and he went to work for the famed team that was created by the legendary Bruce McLaren of Auckland, New Zealand in the 1960s.

Since that time, Brown has shaken up Formula One with his innovative and creative concepts. He even rankled the F1 purists by returning McLaren to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 in 2017 with two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso.

Brown saw value in the NTT IndyCar Series and at the end of 2019, he purchased ownership stake in the team owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson to form Arrow McLaren SP.

Since then, McLaren has purchased most of the team, although Schmidt and Peterson remain as stakeholders in the operation.

Arrow McLaren features four drivers in Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 including Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, who starts outside Row 1, Pato O’Ward of Mexico, who starts in the middle or Row 2, Alexander Rossi of California, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 who will start on the inside of Row 2 and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winning driver Tony Kanaan of Brazil, who starts on the outside of Row 2.

Brown’s story sounds a lot like Justin Marks of Trackhouse, although both took different paths to reach their goal.

“I don’t follow NASCAR closely, but I know him from buying Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team,” Brown said. “I’ve heard he is a very dynamic guy with new thinking which is what the sport and any business needs.

“That’s the way I was way back when.

“I’ve heard good things about Justin. I’ve spoken with him, and he has big ambitions and is a bit of a change agent, which is good for the sport.

“Fresh faces in our sport, whether it’s team owner, driver or the next engineer, there is always ‘the next’ in any sport. It’s evolution. With the say things move, things are getting better and better.

“Whether it’s athletes, golfers are getting better at a younger age, drivers are getting better at a younger age, I think that is exciting.”

Sunday, May 28 will be a very busy day for Brown and McLaren. Before the 107th Indianapolis 500, his two F1 drivers – Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri – will compete in the famed Grand Prix of Monaco.

Brown will be at the Indianapolis 500.

After that race is over, it’s the NASCAR Cup Series turn to take the spotlight in Motorsports Biggest Day with the annual Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Marks admits that in many ways, Brown is a role model for the way he has created the path for Trackhouse.

“What Zak has done with the McLaren brand in Formula One is really a lot of what Trackhouse is doing,” Marks said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for what he is doing.

“McLaren is doing a great job of pushing the envelope and redefining what branding looks like for a race team. Changing the architecture of the brand, the way you talk about yourself. Trying to engage with lots of different people and taking a look at the sport and the way it has always been, where is the opportunity to do things differently.

“That is what we are trying to do.”

Marks is highly creative and tremendously ambitious. He is able to envision changes to NASCAR that others may not see and make Trackhouse a “brand.”

The NASCAR Cup Series team is just part of a greater “brand” that Marks is creating with Trackhouse.

That is similar to what McLaren has been able to do with its brand.

“McLaren is not as big an automotive name as Ferrari and Mercedes is and it’s not as big a consumer product company as Red Bull is, but they have created a very identifiable niche for themselves in the sport,” Marks said. “They have created an iconic branding around the Papaya and the Black.

“That is what Trackhouse is trying to do with our Blue and our Black. Trying to stand out and be instantly recognizable as a brand with personality and thoughtfulness in how we present ourselves with the public and how we engage with fans and partners.”

Marks has tremendous ideas but is always willing to learn and listen to other great thinkers.

“I’ve had a lot of great conversations with Zak,” Marks said. “I like what he is doing. We are cut from the same cloth and trying to accomplish the same things.

“Having teams like this that look at the sport you are in and ask, not ‘How can we do things like everybody else is?’ but ask, ‘How can we do things differently?’ and stand out is hugely important and really vital in the growth of any sport at a time when things are changing so rapidly.”

Ty Norris is Trackhouse President and has worked with Brown when the McLaren CEO was a marketing maven at JMI, and now with Marks as he tries to create an even bigger identity with Trackhouse in NASCAR.

“I know Zak Brown very well,” Norris said. “Zak is a very progressive thinker. He is very marketing minded and driven.

“I don’t see Zak, nor do I see Justin, working on the aero packages or suggesting shock changes. They leave the competition to those guys.

“If you look at the Formula One principles, a lot of them are competition driven. I see Zak as a marketing visionary, and he always has been a brilliant guy.

“I see Justin the same exact way. He understands the competition side, the on-track performance is a validation of what you are doing in other places as well.

“Every day, both of those guys, Zak and Justin are thinking about elevating the brand that is called McLaren or Trackhouse, how to advance it, how to elevate it. A large part of that is on track competition, but it not just that.”

A key element between Brown and Marks is their ability to take the 30,000-foot view, where other team owners are focused on what happens at ground level.

“Too often, a racing or motorsports team only cares about speed and what happens on the race track and the rest will take care of itself,” Norris continued. “That’s not true.

“Justin knows that, and Zak knows that. Both are very like-minded. I certainly admire what Zak has done through his career and what he is doing now at McLaren. I’m the fortunate one that gets to see what Justin has continued to do at Trackhouse.

“Those two guys are very similar in their mindset. I don’t think their personalities are the same, but I think from a strategic way, the creative way they look at their business is very similar.”

In the process, Brown and McLaren have forced other Formula One and IndyCar teams to elevate the way they conduct business.

Marks is doing the same as a “change agent” in NASCAR.

They have both shaken up their respective racing series.

“I don’t know how other people view us and quite honestly, it’s not going to change how we act. We are very much ambassadors to the sport.

“We are always going to support the industry, NASCAR as this home we have created for our race team and our families. We are not prone to bite the hand that feeds us. We try to be very positive and try to bring things from the outside to the industry.

“We have these video boards that are the first of their kind in the garage to create a better experience for our guests. At Talladega, we started having live music behind the hauler as a representative of what downtown Nashville is like.

“These things are not big asks or big things, but they have big impact because they are so different.

“We are unapologetic about being positive. We are unapologetic about being creative. If others feel they have to follow suit, that is up to them. We aren’t doing it for them, we are doing it for us, we are doing it for our guests, we are doing it for sponsors, and we are doing it for our brand.

“It may not be important to others and that is fine. We aren’t trying to elevate them; we are trying to elevate ourselves.”

When Brown wakes up on Race Day, May 28, he will be zeroed in having one of his drivers win the Monaco Grand Prix in Formula One and one of his four drivers drink the bottle of milk in Victory Lane after the Indianapolis 500.

In Charlotte, Marks and Norris will be focused on getting either Ross Chastain or Daniel Suarez to victory in NASCAR’s longest race.

Both men want their respective organizations to stand for excellence and entice others to dream about one day being part of either Trackhouse, or McLaren.

“When Justin and I sat together in 2019 and started this company, one word we put on the white board is we have to become a ‘destination,’” Norris said. “That means a destination for the best drivers, the best mechanics, the sponsors, the fanbase, the celebrities that come there, people who want to be around the sport want to be around us. That’s the culture we have to create. “If a number of these little things build up to create that, that’s not by mistake, that’s intentional.”

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