A Brand and a Dream: The Up-Start Crew (2004 Grand-Am Cup)

I hope you all enjoy this recounting of Karl’s hunt for that elusive professional racing championship.  If you enjoy this telling tale of a brand and a dream, please rate/comment and pay it forward by sharing it.

My Thoughts Enclosed…Rb

2003 – The Birth of a Brand

2004 – The Up-Start Crew

When the call came, I was ready and willing to answer it. Karl needed a crew, so I acquired my credentials and signed up for the season. Fellow karter and master mechanic Ian McQuillan joined on as Crew Chief and Race Engineer. I took on the role of Team Strategist, Pit Coordinator, and general Team Enthusiast (i.e. whatever needed to be done as long as Ian would allow me ;-)).

The three of us were now on our way to sunny Florida to introduce Compass360/Racing to the racing world.  I love working in startups, and this was indeed a startup to be proud of. On that faithful week in January, Karl Thomson started to learn the ins and outs of professional racing from a driver and team owner perspective.

Daytona 250 (January 29 – February 1, 2004)

We were fortunate to pair up with another team for part of that season. They were the previous owners of the car and this facilitated matters greatly. As usual, Karl was very smart in setting up the deal contingent on a transition period. They were able to help out with the much needed infrastructure before, during and after the race weekend. What is more important, it provided all of us with a team to observe and learn from.

The BMW Z3 Coupe (not available in Canada) was showing its battle scars from past seasons.  Even the steering wheel lock was sticking, and this is not something you want on a race car. We didn’t know how bad the old Z3 really was until practice.

Karl made his way out onto the track of Daytona for only the second time in his life.  He had practiced this lap so much in his mind.  So much so, that Karl turned into the nonexistent infield in the Daytona 500 Arcade.  With his first lap triumphly behind him, he felt out the track.  After five laps, the radiator decided to come loose.  With the radios barely working, Karl was all alone when the temperature sky rocketed.  The engine was DOA by the time it made it back to the pits. With a fried engine, Karl was again thinking he would not be racing at Daytona.

One of the handy things about production stock racing, is that when something breaks, there are easy replacements to be found. I have seen many teams rent compatible cars purposely for spare parts on race weekends.  Diehard racing fans have loaned parts from their own cars.  However, we were not that fortunate.  A call to a salvage yard in Orlando found us a stock engine.   At least, this would allow us to take the green flag and hopefully see the checkered.

It is when you see a stock motor fighting against modified engines, that you realize very quickly how much work goes on from the showroom floor to the track. It is when you see an engine being replaced in a day, that you realize the racing is as fast off the track as on it.

Karl started at the back of the pack, but would start.  With a “new” engine, an avoidable penalty and a severely botched fuel stop, the team soldiered on to take the checkered flag finishing a distant 21st having started dead last. Regardless of the result, Karl had finally taken the checkered flag at Daytona.

Robert Lavigne (left), Karl Thomson (center), Ian McQuillan (right)
Robert Lavigne (left), Karl Thomson (center), Ian McQuillan (right)

That weekend, we all learned some valuable insight into running a 3 hour endurance race in a competitive professional series. The race was televised on Speed TV providing extended coverage of the series. Everyone got to experience watching our little Z3 with Karl at the helm being passed by faster cars on the banks of Daytona.

(2004 Daytona 250 Results, Blog and highlight footage)

The rest of the 2004 season saw its fair share of stories, adventures, highlights, and mistakes. We would struggle with unknown paperwork, stringent rules and regulations, technical inspections, driver changes, mileage calculations, and sponsorship decals. Every race weekend we learned something new and apply it at the next race. An entire blog could be written on that 2004 startup year and Karl did just that.

(Karl’s 2004 Season Blog)

One of Karl’s unmistakable mantras is to only invest in what made the car faster. Creature comforts were not for us. We were the underdogs coming to challenge the big boys and every penny counted. We showed up with car in tow behind a van and yet garage next to NASCAR driver Kyle Petty. For comparison sake, Kyle was fielding a pink Porsche 911 GT fully sponsored by the movie Cars.

We got to spend the entire weekend watching a real pro interact with his team and his fans. The Petty’s (having met both King Richard and Kyle) are the class act of any organization. So many people could learn a lot just by watching them. To put it in perspective, both Petty’s have one of a fanciest, elaborate, methodological, relaxing, engaging autograph I have ever seen. I have over 150 racing autographs from all forms of professional racing. You know a Petty autograph when you see it. They make a point of not having a rushed signature so that they can ensure their fans have that special moment as they sign. You never feel like you are being rushed when interacting with a Petty.

Photo by Robert Lavigne

Homestead-Miami Speedway 250 (March 26 – 28, 2004)

Our second race was Homestead in Miami. Karl was starting to learn the handling of the Z3 Coupe. Sadly, each event also brought forth a new Co-Driver with little familiarity to the car or the team. Homestead would see us crack into the top 10 and earn some prize money.  Homestead marked the first race were we called all the shots and it showed in the results.

(2004 Homestead-Miami Speedway 250 Results and Blog)

Phoenix Twin 200’s (April 8 – 10, 2004)

Phoenix saw Karl make the Speed TV highlight reel. A wheel bearing got lose and the ABS failed going into turn one.

Karl was asked for his first autograph by a fan. This is the same Karl, who would not sign my Rolex 24 Program until he finished a race at Daytona.  Karl is very shy about his success. This autograph request would not be his last

Between the Arizona heat, a smooth but slow Co-Driver, and a now limping Z3, Karl managed to finish thirteenth.

(2004 Phoenix Twin 200’s Results, Blog and Pictures)

Mont-Tremblant 250 (May 21 – 23, 2004)

Mont Tremblant brought another engine failure made worse by constant radio problems. This was a near repeat of Daytona.  Although, we had a replacement engine shipped from Toronto to Mont Tremblant. We found that the wrong engine was shipped. A third engine was couriered from Toronto which ignited mere minutes before the race.

My housemate Paul Bruch, and great friend of the team, would earn our praise by working all night changing the engine with Ian. The late night effort allowed us take the grid and finish a respectable fourteenth.  The weekend marked the Z3 being an official Compass360/Racing entry for the first time.

Photo by Robert Lavigne
Photo by Robert Lavigne

(2004 Mont-Tremblant 250 Results, Blog and Pictures)

The Glen 250 (June 18 – 20, 2004)

A replacement transmission from Alabama arrived at our hotel before the race in Watkins Glen. The good folks running the Painted Post’s Econo Lodge allowed us to prepare the car for the race under the lights of their main entrance. A thirteenth place finish out of 27 cars also marked a new addition to the team. Karl’s father Phil joined the team that father’s day. Since that weekend, he has become a pillar for the team and it is a joy to see Karl and his father working together at the track.

(2004 The Glen 250 Results, Blog, Pictures and InCar Video)

EMCO Gears Mid-Ohio Road Racing Classic (August 6 – 8, 2004)

Mid-Ohio saw our refurbished Z3 finally showing Karl’s driving ability. After some last minute tuning, we were finally racing competitively.

During a yellow, I miscalled how long the pace car was going to stay out. This cost us a few spots as Karl was now out of position with the field. However, Karl showed his improved familiarity with his Z3 and brought to the line in sixth, our best finish yet.

(2004 EMCO Gears Mid-Ohio Road Racing Classic Results, Blog and Pictures)

The Miami 250 (September 18 – 19, 2004)

A return to Homestead brought forth yet another new Co-Driver. It also marked a race dedicated to Karl’s inspiration to go professional racing, the late Mike Mori (a fellow karter and Porsche racer).

Karl applied what he learned from our first race at Homestead and finished the race an improved 7th.  This finished propelled Karl into tenth spot in the championship in his rookie year.

(2004 The Miami 250 Results, Blog and Pictures)

VIR 400 (October 1 – 3, 2004)

Virginia reintroduced our engine problems with the car requiring a constant restart while on the track. To make matters worse the Sunoco fuel additives were eating away at our fuel cell and the transmission was acting up again. Our hopes to build upon our recent top 10 finishes was gone when the car took the checkered flag a distant seventeenth.

(2004 VIR 400 Results, Blog and Pictures)

Barber 250 (October 8 – 10, 2004)

Barber (Alabama) saw the return of the mysterious gremlins that put the car into “limp” mode. A bad call regarding the timing of our driver change resulted in us not taking advantage of the flurry of yellows that followed. A stunning off in plain sight from the pits showed us the decreasing handling of the tires. Karl forged on and brought the car home in eleventh spot.  Out of 100 drivers, who had raced so far in the season, Karl was now standing a respectful fourteenth.

(2004 Barber 250 Results, Blog and Pictures)

Lexus Grand American 250 (October 29 – 31, 2004)

The final race was in California. It marked my departure from the team after an eventful year. By this point in the season, Karl had a proper crew in place and my work responsibilities precluded me from attending race weekends.

California also saw Karl pairing up with Kevin York. Kevin would become and remain a good friend of the team over the coming years. A 9th place finish in California saw the team earn four top ten finishes in Karl’s debut season.

(2004 Lexus Grand American 250 Results, Blog and Pictures)

2004 Season Enclosed Thoughts

2004 saw that little BMW Z3 Coupe start every race and finish every lap with not one DNF. Karl finished with 189 points (fourteenth) to Sylvain Tremblay’s factory-supported 288.

(Standings – Driver Points 2004)

Karl earned the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC) Kendall Award that year joining the likes of Scott Goodyear and David Empringham.

The story of Karl’s quest continues in 2005 – Building Upon a Dream.

2005 – Building Upon a Dream


8 thoughts on “A Brand and a Dream: The Up-Start Crew (2004 Grand-Am Cup)

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