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In March 1981, nine-year-old Zak Brown’s parents, although not auto-racing fans, took him to see the Formula One United States Grand Prix West in Long Beach, California. Michael Andretti’s father, Mario, was there that day as well, qualifying sixth and finishing fourth, in what would turn out to be the only highlight of his lone season racing for Alfa Romeo.

Finishing right behind Mario was fellow American Eddie Cheever, who Brown remembers getting to meet that day, and the young Californian was immediately hooked on the sport.

In the next few years Brown got his father to take him to numerous local events and returned to Long Beach with a friend’s family in 1987, with the event now featuring Indy cars. Mario Andretti would win this time, and was joined in the race by son Michael, who finished fourth.

The friend’s family had a connection, and Brown ended up having dinner with the elder Andretti and got his advice on starting his own racing career. Starting in karting with money he got from selling two watches he won on “Wheel of Fortune”, he would get as close to sharing a track with the Andrettis at a single Indy Lights race at Laguna Seca in 1995.

It turned out that while Brown’s passion was motor racing, his talents were more in making financial deals, and it didn’t take long to find the formula to combine the two. While he wasn’t regularly finding himself at the front of the field as a driver, he immediately had success in an area many of his competitors found more challenging – finding sponsorship.

In the same year as his Lights race at Laguna, Brown founded his company Just Marketing International, and while sponsors weren’t lining up for what was then a split-plagued IndyCar series, he immediately found success working with drivers in the surging NASCAR series. By 2001, Brown had stopped his own racing to focus on JMI.

In 2001, Michael Andretti had left his long-time home at Newman Haas to join Team Green, where he could return to compete in the Indy 500 after having been kept away since 1995 by IRL-CART politics. Andretti was also thinking about how he could stay in the sport when he was done driving and had mentioned to team owner Barry Green about his interest in running his own team in the future.

One year later, Andretti bought a majority interest in Green’s organization, becoming CEO of the newly renamed Andretti-Green racing. He ran full-time for the team in 2002 but decided that the 2003 Indy 500 would end his time as a full-time driver, as he found splitting his attention between ownership and driving was not an effective formula for either.

Despite being driven to micro-manage every detail of his growing company, Brown found enough time to return to the cockpit on occasion in 2006, although in lower-level and amateur competitions. In a Ferrari Challenge event, he won the first of two races after leading start to finish, and placed on the podium in the second event, finishing both races ahead of future Aston Martin boss Lawrence Stroll.

Zak Brown is determined to make his Arrow McLaren SP Racing team a powerhouse in IndyCar racing. Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher/IndyCar.

As for JMI, Brown negotiated a deal to become a full-time consultant for the Indy Racing League, which although still struggling had now clearly defeated CART, which was less than a year away from ceasing operations. Brown’s company also was having success making deals within Formula One, and had added offices in the U.K. and Hong Kong to their headquarters in Indianapolis.

His success gave him the resources to found United Autosports, a sports car racing team, and he signed numerous big-name drivers to compete in events. This list included Eddie Cheever, who Brown had met back on that first day in Long Beach (Brown and Cheever would later have a falling-out, leading Brown to sell a Cheever-driven Indy Car he owned).

The connections both in the business world and the racing world continued to pile up, one of whom was F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, who became a close friend.

Michael Andretti looks to continue expanding his Andretti Autosport empire. Next up could be Formula One. Photo: Joe Skibinski / IndyCar.

Andretti meanwhile was making a smooth transition from athlete to owner. Never realizing his goal of winning the Indy 500 behind the wheel, he would win both the 500 and the series championship as an owner in 2005 with Dan Wheldon, and repeated the feat in 2007 with Dario Franchitti.

The team also expanded into sports car racing in the America Le Mans series in 2007, and in 2008 ventured to Europe to enter the A1 Grand Prix series, an attempt at having a F1-like racing series similar to the World Cup of soccer.

Neither effort lasted long, as the team exited ALMS when partner Acura dissolved the relationship following 2008, and the A1 series folded following the 2009 season. While the team was briefly consolidating its activity, it also consolidated ownership, as Andretti bought out his partners to become sole owner of the rechristened Andretti Autosport by 2010.

In 2016, legendary F1 team McLaren was at a low point. They had brought back Fernando Alonso who along with teammate Jenson Button gave them two championship winning drivers, but a switch to Honda engines proved to be a disaster and the team was nowhere near competing with the series front-runners.

In November, the team decided after 35 years to replace team boss Ron Dennis. In addition to lack of success on track the team had another issue – the team was light on big time sponsors as compared to its rivals. Team owners Mansour Ojjeh and Shaikh Mohammed bin Essa Al-Khalifa thought Brown was the perfect fit to take over.

Realizing that JMI was becoming too big to be a one-man operation, Brown had sold the company in 2013, and though he initially stayed on as CEO, he left in 2016, deciding he wanted to focus more on racing. While there was talk that Brown would be taking a role with new Formula One ownership group Liberty Media, the McLaren owners arranged a meeting with Brown, determined to not leave until he agreed to take over their operation. He was announced as McLaren’s new executive director in November.

While Brown put together a long-term plan to revive the team, superstar driver Fernando Alonso was in a bit more of a hurry. He immediately had a good relationship with Brown, but having to drive an unreliable, non-competitive car at this point in his career was making him unhappy.

A solution for Alonso came from what seemed to be a joking remark Brown had made early in the season -- “One of these days we should do Indy together” -- and as the season wore on both men began taking the idea more seriously. It was announced that in 2017 Alonso would do what would never have been considered under the iron-fisted Ron Dennis: skip the Monaco Grand Prix to race in Indianapolis.

As Brown had said, they were going to do it together, along with Honda, McLaren’s engine supplier and supplier to half of the IndyCar field. For one car in one race in May of 2017, the McLaren-Honda-Andretti team was born.

After engine failure ended a race that had seen them lead for 27 laps, McLaren and Alonso returned to Monaco in 2018. But Andretti and Brown continued their partnership – in Australia, where Andretti Autosport and Brown’s United Autosports bought into the Walkinshaw Racing Supercars team, which became Walkinshaw Andretti United. Andretti had already been finding ways to expand his interests worldwide, joining the Global RallyCross Championship and the brand-new Formula E series in 2014.

Alonso had decided to take a break from Formula One in 2019 and return to Indy, but the implosion of McLaren’s relationship with Honda meant their partnership with Andretti could not be repeated.

While the team’s attempt at Indy that year ended in a disastrous failure to qualify, rumors were starting to be floated of a full-time entry into the American series. IndyCar was generally off the radar of most of F1 management (who have a strong tendency to be insular in their views), but Brown was starting to think that an IndyCar entry could be a way to expand McLaren’s visibility in the largely untapped American market.

In an interview, he stated that IndyCar was more a question of “when” than of “if” for the team, and “when” turned out to be 2020, when they joined with Sam Schmidt to form the Arrow McLaren SP team.

In 2022, it’s Andretti’s turn to try to join Brown in Formula One. Not surprisingly, the McLaren boss has been Andretti's biggest supporter. While F1’s top teams fret about adding another entrant who will split their existing series payouts, Brown recognizes that even now the sport has more room to grow and expand, and Andretti will bring in more American dollars which will benefit all the teams in the long run.

"Are we trying to grow the sport? Or are we doing what racing teams have a bad tendency to do, which is think about today and not the future" Brown said in an interview early this year.

Brown and Andretti clearly share a vision of the sport, as both continue to expand into new technologies and new markets. The new Extreme E in 2021, an electric rallycross series, saw their partnership Andretti United with one entry, while the McLaren team entered a second. McLaren also will be joining Andretti as a participant in Formula E in 2023.

Zak Brown and Michael Andretti aren’t the typical loud, brash Americans. But the Pennsylvanian from one of auto racing’s royal families and the Californian who got a friend to take him to watch Indy Cars at Long Beach are perhaps making more noise than anyone else in the sport today.

What they have most in common is a love not just of Formula One or IndyCar, but of auto racing as a whole, and a drive to keep bringing in new fans and making the sport bigger. While they’re not usually seen together at work, the bond is undeniable. If you don’t think so, ask Michael’s father Mario, who Brown plans on giving a chance to drive a recent vintage McLaren Formula One Car at Texas later this year.

That the McLaren F1 cars covered in sponsor logos are a good indication that Brown has a long future with the team, but if that relationship ever ends, don’t be shocked if Andretti United F1 appears on the grid one day, along with whatever future series the sport might come up with.