The 'most diversified car owner in American motorsports' races time. - by Robin Miller It's nearing 10 in the morning of the Elkhart Lake race and Cal Wells has more on his plate than A.J. Foyt at an all-you-can-eat buffet. He's...
The 'most diversified car owner in American motorsports' races time. - by Robin Miller
It's nearing 10 in the morning of the Elkhart Lake race and Cal Wells has more on his plate than A.J. Foyt at an all-you-can-eat buffet. He's got prospective Busch driver Ryan Newman sitting in his hospitality tent and needs to spend some quality time with the USAC star. A representative from McDonald's (his new sponsor in Winston Cup) drops by to chew the fat. His smooth CART rookie, Cristiano da Matta, requires a brief audience, and in 30 minutes his two-car Formula Atlantic team of Anthony Lazzaro and Andrew Bordin will be taking the green flag. Oh yeah, Chicago Tribune motorsports writer Skip Myslenski is also waiting patiently for his 15 minutes with Wells. Welcome to Cal's World, a non-stop run of meetings, phone calls, races and travel for the most diversified car owner in American motorsports. "I've always liked the competition that racing breeds and this is what I live for," said the 43-year-old Californian, who began off-road racing as a teenager and has ascended to become a major player in open-wheel and off-road racing, with stock cars on the horizon. He's running two-car efforts in CART and KOOL/Toyota Formula Atlantic, he's got his ass-kicking off-road truck program with Ivan 'The Ironman' Stewart and, starting in 2000, he'll have a Busch car and a Winston Cup car. Not even Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick, Carl Haas, Jack Roush or Jerry Forsythe can claim that kind of versatility. "It's a challenge, certainly, but I've got a bunch of good people working for me and that's what makes all this possible," he said. "Mark Johnson (general manager and VP of operations) is my right hand. The Champ Car thing can run without me because Richard Buck and the Atlantic team is a turnkey deal. I've had an 18-year relationship with Toyota in off-road and Ivan's team is as solid as they come. Now I've got to get my NASCAR programs in order and fast. Daytona is only seven months away." After losing his Winston Cup sponsorship to Wells, a riled-up Ricky Rudd referred to the CART owner as "some guy with a fancy briefcase and a second-rate Indy-car team" during an interview on ESPN. Even though Rudd took Tide away from Rick Hendrick and isn't exactly in a position to belittle anybody's program (he's ranked 28th), his anger was understandable. Regardless, it would be very wrong to dismiss Wells as some Johnny-come-lately, rich-guy hobbyist who wants to play around with stock cars. Wells is a racer -- from the top of his receding hairline to the bottom of his shoes -- who built his empire with smarts and hard work. He's got Pioneer and MCI sponsoring his CART and Atlantic cars, Toyota funds his desert storm and he's got a five-year deal with McDonald's for Busch and an undisclosed deal with Tide for his Cup effort. "I guess the criticism (from Rudd) was to be expected but anybody who knows anything about me knows I'm a racer, first and foremost," said Wells. He went to Daytona Beach two weeks ago and faced the media music after being perceived as an evil open-wheel devil after gobbling up the sponsors of Bill Elliott and Rudd. "We didn't go after Ricky's sponsorship. I had talked to them about some CART stuff, but one phone call led to another and it just evolved. I figured Ricky would be bitter and I guess I'm glad I went to Daytona to take my hits face to face. "Proctor and Gamble wanted Ricky to stay in the car," he added, "but he was adamantly against it. He'll get over it." Wells has overcome several hurdles in his life. He bounced back from a severe head injury as a teenager in an off-road race, and survived the sudden deaths of mentor Mickey Thompson and driver Jeff Krosnoff. He started PPI in 1979 with a small loan from his parents and three employees. By this December, he'll have race shops in California and North Carolina with 230 people working for him. "I worked with Bill Stroppe and Drino Miller, building off-road cars and learning the business," said Wells. "Then Mickey helped me get my deal with Toyota in 1982. It was for $180,000 and a two-truck desert race team with Steve Millen and Ivan (Stewart). "That was a great time for me. I learned a lot about how to deal with corporate America and Mickey (killed by a gunman in 1988) was very good to me." A dominating force in off-road with Stewart and Toyota, Wells came to the rescue with longtime Indy-car owner Frank Arciero, who was thinking about packing it in. "We came to Indy with Hiro (Matsushita) in 1995 and that pretty much hooked me on Indy car racing," he recalled. "So we started Arciero/Wells Racing in 1996 with Toyota and Jeff, and then we lost him at Toronto (Krosnoff was CART's first fatality since 1982). That was extremely tough because he was such a great kid." Wells had Max Papis and Robby Gordon in 1998 before they left. Now he's got the veteran Pruett and rookie rocket da Matta, who gets more impressive by the week even though Toyota is still playing catch-up. At the moment, Wells is scrambling to get a NASCAR shop ready in Hickory, North Carolina and fill his roster for both cars. Greg Moore is thought to be on top of his Cup list, while Newman or Lazzaro may be the Busch choice. "I've got a lot of people to talk to," sighed Wells. And not nearly enough time.