Tom Weickardt – The Man Behind Carsport America

© Andrew S. Hartwell

It all started a few years ago, at the Petit Le Mans, with two Vipers
bought at auction just a few weeks before the race, a hastily
assembled crew comprised of Chrysler engineers and several
wrench-benders of assorted backgrounds, and a team name pulled
out of a hat. But despite that somewhat discombobulated beginning,
and despite a first race that saw one of the team’s Vipers roll end
over end down the turn 10 dip at Road Atlanta, Patriot Motorsports
persevered and later evolved into American Viper Racing.  As AVR,
the team has been at every ALMS event since. And they never
stopped trying to get better.

While they didn’t really ever get to the top, in 2003, they plan on
getting better. Much better.

Why the optimism? Because the man behind Patriot Motorsports / American Viper Racing (AVR), Wisconsin’s own Tom Weickardt, has come a long way from the days of simply announcing to some friends, “Hey! Let’s go racing”.  For this season, Weickardt intends to have everything that needs to be done to go racing be done differently – and better -than it was done in the past.

Introducing: Carsport America – the team that will bring the Pagani Zonda to the American Le Mans Series.  Why a Pagani and not an improved Viper? “I found I had a bit too much extra money lying around so, why not the Pagani?” said Weickardt with a hearty laugh.

That quote might be easily construed as a sign that Carsport America is not an effort to be taken seriously.  But such an assumption would be erroneous. Tom Weickardt is approaching this new venture with a high level of professionalism. Weickardt is stepping up his game and is bringing along some very professional resources to insure that the 2003 approach to racing far exceeds the ‘hunt and peck and have a wreck’ approach of the past.

Carsport Modena And Carsport America – One Builds Them, One Races Them
Weickardt, Toine Hezemans and Paul Kumpen joined forces to create Carsport Modena and this new company will have the rights to manufacture and sell the racing version of the Pagani Zonda.  Carsport America is the name of the newly formed North American race team, solely owned by Weickardt, that will campaign the new Pagani Zonda in the ALMS.  Carsport America will thus put it’s best foot forward to see that the car is properly campaigned, with 2003 the starting point for what Weickardt hopes will be a long term effort.

Why start over with the Pagani? “I was initially interested in the car for the distribution rights in the United States.  But I became interested in it as a racecar because, well… the Viper has been in development for eight or nine years now and it is simply difficult to justify putting more money into developing the car further.  And I was really the only one in the United States putting money into that car. It is a great car, and we could have gone further with it. But I think the Pagani offers us a new challenge that, when combined with the Viper, affords us a better opportunity to make a more viable effort.”

Weickardt’s partner in Carsport Modena, Toine Hezemans, is someone that Weickardt readily admits, “knows everything about cars.  And his knowledge will be beneficial when we introduce the Zonda at Sebring.”

The two met when AVR went looking for technical assistance and connected with Hezemans Carsport Holland team, who were campaigning the Vipers in Europe.  Weickardt recalls, “Over a year ago I flew to Spain to watch a test on his Vipers.  From there, we flew over to Italy to look at the Zonda.  He had been kind of eyeing this car to take it racing, as was I.  I could see the benefits of building a good racing history and then transferring that image to a distributorship in the US.  But the idea of racing the car certainly has an inherent appeal and should ultimately help with sales of the road car, through whatever method of delivery best gets the job done.”

History has demonstrated that it is extremely difficult to take a brand new racecar to the podium in its very first race.  Weickardt is determined to write history in his favor.  “I know that winning right away is hard but I intend to take this car and this team in that direction, and I will be upset if the car isn’t competitive.

“Even though the road car had some wind tunnel work done on it, we will not have time to go into a wind tunnel with the racecar until after the race at Sebring.  The ACO representatives have been up to the Pagani facility several times already so I expect there will be only minor issues to deal with.  Pagani has met the minimum car production requirement so I don’t expect us to be hit with any penalties.

“And we do expect that, within 60 to 90 days of the race at Sebring, our development efforts will find a few more seconds per lap.”

An Infusion Of New Energy
Weickardt is the owner of a company called ESP (Electronic Systems Protection). Today, he finds that his business interests have become secondary to his racing. In fact, he spends more time at the team facility than he does at ESP. For him, the 2003 effort represents the most professional approach taken yet to competing at this level.

“That first year of racing, I think I was like the dog that jumps into a pool. It was very easy for him to get in but very hard for him to get out.  It is much easier to run a normal business than a race team!  But I’ve been learning along the way. It is a very expensive lesson that racing teaches you. You have to decide if you want to be in it or not.  I have decided that this is the perfect time to take our game to a higher level.

“Two years ago, we were able to complete every race but one. From a finishing standpoint, we did very well. But that was not the case last year, for a combination of reasons including the personnel put to the task and the developmental work we were involved with. For 2003 and beyond, Carsport America will raise the bar.  Our effort will reflect a renewed vigor to do what it takes to win.

A New Start – A New Facility
Weickardt lives near Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA) and has decided to bring the race team home.  In Glendale, “about 10 minutes from my home”, Carsport America has put together a brand new, state of the art facility for maintaining the race car. “It is about 6,500 square feet and we have spent the last few months outfitting the shop properly with the newest and most technologically advanced equipment. The right people are starting to gel as a team and I have confidence in each of them to make a substantial contribution to our success.

“I have in place now, what I think is the most key player on a race team.  And by the way, I’ve made mistakes and I expect I will make more but one of the things I found that you can’t live without is a good engineer.  I have hired an Italian gentleman by the name of Massimo Del Prete to be that person for this team. 

“Massimo has a vast history in racing.  He spent 6 years with Audi.  He was in their touring car group. He worked with all the Audi drivers, Pirro, Biela, Alboreto and others. He was their race engineer.  He has won championships with Audi.  He spent three years in Formula One.  We are talking about a guy who, if Ferrari wanted to improve one of their racecars suspensions, he is the guy they would call.  And when we go to Italy, he orders the food for me!”

The First Zonda Is In The Womb
The first racecar is being constructed now at the Pagani factory in Italy.  “The cars are being manufactured by our group, Carsport Modena, in close association with, and with help from, the factory.  The first car requires us to have a close working relationship with Pagani because they are providing a significant amount of support from a body parts point of view.  In the future, Carsport Modena will build other Zonda racecars elsewhere in Italy.

“Carsport Modena has a crew of engineers and mechanics working alongside the Pagani factory team to get the first chassis ready.  Hezemans has a great deal of experience building racecars. Pagani has experience building road cars. Together they are making improvements that may ultimately find their way onto the road cars. Horacio Pagani has been working non-stop to make this happen. He works around the clock and without his input and help, this dream of making the Zonda a racecar would not be realized.”

Viper For Sale
What is to become of the two Vipers? “I have both cars but I will only run one.  If someone is interested in one of the cars, I could let it go, but I’ve done a lot of development on the cars. They have a totally redeveloped suspension and we have them sorted fairly well. I intend to drive one of the Vipers this season while the Zonda will be in the hands of professionals!”

GTS – A Fast Division With Fast Friends
It looks like the GTS division will be a focal point for fans in 2003.  The division boasts no fewer than 10 entries for Sebring with 5 marques represented (3 Saleens, 2 Corvettes, 3 Ferraris, 1 Viper, and the Zonda). And the Zonda promises to keep up with the competition, as speed shouldn’t be a primary concern for this hot Italian chassis with a German heart (compliments of a Mercedes 12 cylinder engine).

“The street car will probably do a minimum of 205 miles per hour. But we aren’t running on the Bonneville Salt Flats.  There aren’t any racetracks we run on that will let any of the GTS cars reach top speeds.  All of the cars can probably go 220. The Viper certainly would.  At Daytona, two or three years ago we topped out at about 190. Of course, the car has to turn too and that is where the engineering design and Massimo come in.” 

“And I have to tell you it has been a pleasure for me to compete with the Corvette team. They are just a bunch of great guys.  The whole team is just first rate. I’m hoping we can give them a better run and I know they are looking for us to be more competitive with the new car.”

Who Will Drive The Zonda?
Weickardt has said his seat is in the Viper this season and that means someone else will lay hands on the wheel of the Zonda.  Can we know who that is? “Not yet. But we may have an announcement later this week. We are hoping that the announcement will include a long-term relationship with a major sponsor – someone from outside the United States – and a driver who can make the Zonda a winner.”

“For Sebring, Toine and I have already agreed on two drivers. They are Toine’s son, Mike Hezemans, and Paul’s son Anthony Kumpen.  The third driver will be the one I can’t name just yet.   We are currently looking at several drivers and additional sponsorship opportunities.  Perhaps we can put someone in the Viper with me at Sebring and then move that person over to be the season-long second driver in the Zonda, after Sebring. 

“There are a lot of people that would love to get in the Zonda. Of course, there are a lot of drivers who would love to get into any car.  But I think a lot of drivers realize that the Pagani Zonda has a lot of potential. It is a carbon-tub car and that is supposed to be of some advantage, especially when combined with the Mercedes motor.  It has the right kind of heritage behind it.

“All I can say at this juncture is that we are trying to work out the best arrangements for the success of Carsport America.  Let’s put it this way, I want this car to compete for the championship. As with every team owner, I have to balance the need for budget dollars with the need to be competitive. Ideally I will have the best of both.  I want this car to be considered a serious contender for an overall championship win in the ALMS GTS division.”

“The driver that we are trying to sign on is from an area south of the US.  The driver and the sponsor are from the same place and I can promise you it will be a very interesting relationship and one that I feel lucky about!  I guess you can say the team will have a very international flavor!”

The history of sportscar racing is filled with the names of many independent team owners who did more than just fill the fields at race events. Fans know the names like Gianpiero Moretti, Rob Dyson and Jon Field. There were many who applied a passion for racing as expertly as they applied their passion for business, owners who were successful in both areas. I expect that Tom Weickardt’s name will be on that list.

“I’m alive and doing what I want to do and I feel so fortunate to be able to say that.”

And we who enjoy watching professional teams compete in the ALMS series welcome the addition of Carsport America to the mix.  This is the year when the professional independents can really shine and it should not be too far along in the season before the name Pagani Zonda comes readily to everyone’s lips!

And lips are for drinking champagne, Tom Weickardt. But I suspect you already knew that!
Updated: 10/28/2006