The racing team that Michael Jordan built
Everyone knows Michael Jordan’s story: NBA champion, movie star, CEO. His fans can recite every statistic, name every sneaker, and identify even the most obscure memorabilia. But something few truly know about, even his most fervent fans, is his passion for motorsports.
Jordan’s love of motorsports began before he entered the NBA, but when he signed his first contract he agreed to stop riding, as it was too much of a liability. But his passion remained, and he still found time to get on a bike when he thought he could get away with it. He loved the sport and wanted to stay close to it, so in 2004 Jordan linked up with Pete Mauhar, a racing team manager with a decade of experience, to pull together a team as quickly as possible. If Jordan couldn’t be on a bike himself, at least his name could be.
“I got a call from James Casmay, someone I didn’t know, who was asking about whether we’d want to help Michael Jordan go into racing. Which was a pretty bizarre call, really,” Mauhar says. “Honestly, I thought it was some of my friends messing around with me.”
No one was messing around with him.
In about five weeks, Mauhar and his team helped Jordan pull together a team, a task that usually takes the better part of a year. They also did it right before Daytona, the first race of the year, so most equipment, riders and staff were already tied to other teams. Jordan, Mauhar and their crew grabbed whatever and whoever they could.
While Mauhar got the team together, Jordan put in a call to Mark Smith, senior creative director of innovation at Nike. Jordan tried to rope Smith into designing some gear for the team but left out an important point: that the team even existed. Jordan simply said he needed a racing suit, so Smith worked on one to Jordan’s personal specs.
After a back and forth about the design, Jordan finally admitted to Smith: “I have a team and they’re going to be racing in three weeks, so we need to kind of get this done.” Smith was momentarily surprised – and then excited – and made it happen.
When the team rolled up to Daytona a few weeks later, totally unannounced, they were still a work in progress. The first season’s performance was respectable, giving them the boost they needed to build toward something special.
Mauhar managed the team and the logistics, while Smith designed the looks for the bikes, suits and anything else that touched the team – even creating the Jordan team sneakers. Traditionally those two roles wouldn’t overlap much, but on Team Jordan, Smith and Mauhar worked closely together. “Working with Mark Smith was very challenging for me because of his creativity and how good he is with design,” Mauhar says. “He pushed us to improve to make his vision come true of what everything should look like.”
Of course, the third partner in all this was Jordan, whose presence never waned. “He was there a lot,” says Mauhar. “He made himself very available to all the people in the paddock: the insiders and the riders and teams. It was neat.
“He was great to be around. I think with him around, everyone subconsciously tried to step up their game a bit. Just knowing the excellence of everything Michael does. That was good for everyone,” Mauhar says.
Jordan meant something slightly different to Mauhar and the team, though. Coming from outside the world of motorsports meant Jordan started out a bit of a stranger. “Most racers grew up racing and didn’t follow a lot of ‘stick and ball sports.’ A lot of the racers won’t know who a lot of athletes are, but for sure everybody knows who Michael Jordan is,” Mauhar says.
However, he explains: “Many of the racers who grew up in the sport probably didn’t watch a lot of basketball ever in their lives. Maybe they saw Michael on a commercial or something, so of course they knew who he was, but it probably didn’t hit them how big it was.” What mattered was that Jordan showed up: he was active in the development of the team, getting to know every rider, every distinct style, every bike. Jordan made himself a part of every aspect of the team. The celebrity didn’t matter. What mattered was the sport.
As a designer at Nike, adding sneakers to the racing kits was a natural move for Smith. After all, each season he designed the bikes to pair with the latest Jordan game shoe. These shoes have carried with them a considerable allure, thanks to the unique colorways and limited runs, since Smith only made them for the motorsports team. But that cultural interest was never a goal for Smith.
“We weren’t doing it to create any heat in the market with sneakerheads,” Smith explains. “What I was doing was making something specific for the race team. And it’s appropriate, it matches up with the bike and it matches up in the paddock. I look at things as a photograph. There was nothing better than a pair of sneakers on a motorcycle. That was enough of a reason to do it.”
After designing a handful of team sneakers, in 2006 Smith unveiled a pair of Jordan IVs in a black, white and royal blue colorway that remains one of the most sought after Jordan sneakers for serious collectors.
Jordan’s motorsports team stopped racing in 2014, but its archive of bikes and equipment sits safely in Beaverton, a unique part of Nike and Jordan Brand history. But that doesn’t mean the team has been relegated to the history books just yet. This season, Jordan is making that highly sought after pair of Jordan IVs available to the public, along with a second pair with its own twist.
They may have been created for a very small, very elite group, but this year Jordan is bringing them back for everyone.
The AJ 4 ‘Motorsports’ will be available 3/25 via retailers and jordan.com