The metamorphosis of C.J. Wilson

on May20

EDITOR’S NOTE: Come back to on Monday for our in-depth look at racing and the key role it plays in the auto industry.


C.J. Wilson has an easy list for what makes a car great.

Sitting in a camp chair a few feet from pit lane at Buttonwillow Raceway, with the top half of a race suit tied around his waist, the former Major League Baseball all-star pitcher ticks off a car’s must-haves to a handful of fellow gearheads.

It must be, or at least feel, super light. It must have good sound, amazing brakes and enough horsepower to break the tail loose.

Oh, and the car needs to shoot fire from the tailpipes when shifting.

“Anything that shoots fire is awesome,” Wilson says.

Just a few minutes later he’ll be lapping the 3.1-mile ribbon of track in a supercar that just happens to meet all of the criteria — his battleship gray McLaren 675LT Spider.

Life after baseball

There’s retiring, and then there’s retiring at age 35 with millions of dollars in the bank and a passion for racing, owning and selling some of the world’s most pedigreed car brands.

Wilson is doing the latter, having officially hung up his glove in 2016 after an 11-season major-league career that included three World Series starts with the Texas Rangers in 2010 and 2011, and two All-Star Game appearances.

During that span, brewing in the background of Wilson’s considerable attention span were both a passion for cars that traces back to his childhood and an interest in the complex and capital-intensive world of auto retailing.

Wilson combines his passions for racing cars and selling them: “When someone comes in now, they want service. That’s all it is.”

These days he’s combined the two, running CJ Wilson Racing as well as a collection of 10 car and motorcycle dealerships sprinkled throughout the U.S., including Chicago; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Fresno, Calif. 

The dealership network is to be the financial cornerstone for himself and his family, which currently comprises his wife, Lis, and his 1-year-old daughter, Valentina. 

The racing teams — for which Wilson is also a participating driver — scratch his considerable itch for speed and post-baseball accomplishment. 

“My goal as a race team and as a driver is to be a Le Mans winning team … and a Le Mans winning driver,” Wilson says. 

He’s here at Buttonwillow, a flat track a few hours north of Los Angeles, as part of a private track day he and some friends set up. It’s mostly for fun, though Wilson has mixed in a little business and brought a small tent from his Fresno Porsche store as well as a new Panamera sedan to show off. 

Podium success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans — arguably one of the most storied events in the pantheon of motorsports — is a “huge, monumental goal,” Wilson admits.

In the cocoon

To Wilson, there’s a purity in competition between machines.

Race cars, he says, serve as the great equalizer: They largely take the innate physical limitations of humans out of the picture and shift the dependence to machines, which can be pushed and repaired in a way people cannot.

Athletes of his caliber depend on a physical gift to excel. Racing is more egalitarian.

“If a person is really truly clean” — that is, steroid-free — “we’re not equal in the physical tasks we can complete,” Wilson said. “But as a driver you can adapt, and you can learn how to drive.”

That’s where Wilson finds himself now, in what he calls the cocoon stage of a transformation from a professional baseball player to a professional driver.

He’ll spend this season behind the wheel of a black and orange Porsche 991 as part of the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama, a 16-round race series in which drivers of identically prepped 911s go head to head.

In addition to honing his driving skills, he’s working on adding lightness to his skill set, dropping from a fastball-friendly 215 pounds to below 200 pounds for the first time in a decade and a half. This means no stress-eating to take the edge off owning a growing portfolio of dealerships.

Wilson now holds franchises for Mazda, BMW, Porsche, Audi and McLaren. That each of these brands has both a current stake and storied history in racing is not a coincidence.

“I personally am only interested in brands that race,” Wilson said. “I just think brands should be rewarded for testing their cars at the limit.”

Service ethic

Though he has no formal business training, Wilson draws on his five years working at Nordstrom during his days as a college and minor-league ballplayer.

The jump from selling neckties to 911s isn’t a big one for the former pitcher.

“When someone comes in now, they want service. That’s all it is,” Wilson said. “You have to filter out all of the noise and just get to the kernel of what they’re actually asking for.”

He has no particular goal for the number of dealerships he’d like to own. “It’s more about the quality of the situation,” Wilson said. Markets and brands matter more than number of rooftops.

Later in the afternoon, Wilson comes in from another session on the track, this time with a passenger.

As he circles around his 675LT checking tire pressure, he gets a look at his latest track times.

“That’s the problem with giving people rides during a track day,” Wilson says. “It eats into your lap times.” c

Wilson’s lineup card

Six cars C.J. Wilson would buy with someone else’s checkbook, in order:

  • McLaren F1: “I’d call the people that I know who own F1s, and I’m buying one of their F1s. Without hesitation that’s the first car I buy. They’re that good. And that special.”
  • Historic Le Mans prototype or Formula 1 car raced by a select group of drivers: “There’s one particular driver that I would chase more than anybody, but I don’t want to say who because then people are going to jack up the price.”
  • Ferrari 275 GTB: “I’ve always really liked them, but I’d get one in a color besides red.”
  • Porsche 997 GT2 RS: “Floating somewhere out there is a really cool one.”
  • Mercedes Project 1: “I would never buy it unless I just had a preposterous amount to spend, because it’s not really my wheelhouse. But I’d get that, sight unseen, on principle. I want to go 170 around a corner because the sensation is so wacky.”
  • Lancia Stratos: “Because it’s so weird. And super cool. They’re iconic. You look at it and if you’re a car guy you know exactly what that is.”

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