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Running series in another way

Paul Gentilozzi has more on his mind as Trans-Am's owner.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Paul Gentilozzi has all but owned Trans-Am the past five years, winning three drivers' championships. Now that he's in charge of it as well, he has set a new course -- trying to restore the series to prominence.

"It looked like the series was going to fail," said Gentilozzi, owner of the Rocketsports Racing Jaguar XKRs he, Scott Pruett and Johnny Miller will drive today after Alex Tagliani drives the team's CART entry.

"The economy's tough. Motorsports is tough. Had I not gotten involved I was worried that the series that had been so good to me was going to go by the wayside. It shouldn't. It's had a wonderful 38-year history, so all I thought it would take was some nurturing and some investment," Gentilozzi said.

He bought the licensing rights to operate and market the series. The Sports Car Club of America owns it and sanctions its races. Beyond that, Gentilozzi said, "They can't tell me what to do."

He understands Trans-Am can't compete head to head with major stock car and open-wheel series. "Nobody's going to be another NASCAR; nobody's going to be another CART or perhaps IRL. We couldn't come to St. Pete, with the cost of staging a street race, and draw enough fans to make it work," he said.

"We're a top-level, Tier 2 support series," sort of like a team in baseball's highest minor leagues. "We know what we are. ... When you've got only $10 to spend on motorsports and $8 of it goes to NASCAR because it's very successful, the other $2 gets spread over a much greater base."

So how to promote Trans-Am? With familiarity.

These are not open-wheel cars. "Trans-Am is America's hot rods -- Mustangs and Camaros and Corvettes and now Jaguars -- cars people drive on the street," said Gentilozzi, 52.

"Marketing isn't a secret. It's a basic part of any business. ... We've got to bring the factories back, not to make factory teams but to be marketing partners so they can run ads to talk about our drivers and make them famous."

Sort of like what Player's does. It is a consumer product. It sells cigarettes. "In Canada, they run pictures of the Player's race car. It does huge things for the marketing and promotion of CART," Gentilozzi said.

"You're only as famous as other people say you are. There's no self-promotion. It's promotion from the outside. Ten years ago CART and NASCAR were pretty even (in popularity). Since then, NASCAR has had great success at the expense of the other series.

"Eventually, it gets back to somebody who can tell your story. You've got to have the commercial products to sell to the general public." Unlike, say, Johnson Controls, the lead sponsor of Gentilozzi's No.33 CART entry. "They put seats in a million cars a year, but they don't sell anything you can go to the store and buy."

Gentilozzi, 53, won Trans-Am titles in 1998, '99 and 2001. He is running five of its 11 races this year and is not pursuing a fourth championship, though he would like his team to win the manufacturers' championship for Jaguar. He has driven in the series since 1987.

He was street racing in Lansing, Mich., before his parents knew about it. It was all he dreamed of. While other children were reading Superman and Archie, he was reading Car Craft and Hot Rod.

At 16, he had a yellow '65 Cutlass convertible with a 455 engine. But not until he got to the races did he pull the racing slicks out of the trunk, uncap the headers and smear a shoe-polish number on the windows.

At 17, after a race, he was at a McDonald's, the number visible, a trophy on the front seat. "My parents took my younger brother and sister to a drive-in," Gentilozzi said. "They rolled through McDonald's and saw me sitting there. After that I wasn't a closet racer anymore. They took the car away from me for a month."

Fast-forward to Michigan State. Gentilozzi was a student. So was Debbie Barratt. They were 19.

"She was bent over a drinking fountain. I said, 'Wow! Great legs!"' Debbie Barratt confirmed the exclamation. "I checked her out for a few days, then I asked her out."

She found out about his passion -- fast. "He came over to pick me up and there was all this noise outside," she said. "I said, 'What kind of car is that?' My father said, 'Who is this guy?' He was that hot-rod, motorcycle, rebel kind of guy that every girl wanted."

Their third date. A James Dean moment. Another hot-rodder threw down the gauntlet. They drove to an abandoned road.

"You have to get out of the car,"' Gentilozzi said.

"What do you mean, I have to get out of the car?"

"You're too much weight."

She got out. He won, pocketed $20, went back and picked Debbie up. Two years later, 32 years ago, they were married. They travel to races together. "You can't be gone 30 weeks a year and not have your wife be part of it," Gentilozzi said.

It's a racing family. Their younger son, John, 22, is the data engineer on their CART team, as he was on the Trans-Am team. Tony, 26, has been his father's engine builder for six years. And Betty, Paul said, makes great cookies, about 12 dozen for the team at each race.

He started Rocketsports 20 years ago. He had quit racing and was in real estate development but the road-racing itch was getting to him.

Ted Lucas, a neighbor, was chief engineer at Oldsmobile in Lansing. Gentilozzi kept bugging him for help. Lucas said he could give him some engine blocks and cylinder heads. But there was the matter of the cash he needed to get started.

"Ted told me, 'I can't write a check in your name. This is General Motors. You've got to have a company."' Twelve dollars later Gentilozzi got his DBA ("doing business as ... "). But what to call the company? "Ted said, 'Well, we're Oldsmobile. We've got the Rocket V8 engine. Call it Rocketsports. It'll look official.'

"I've been trying to get people to give me a check ever since."

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