One look around Jim Derhaag’s Shakopee office inside Derhaag Motorsports tells a visitor that this is a man who is not averse to expensive and eccentric hobbies.
The boldest clue does not come from anything related to the costly world of racing cars. Rather, it comes from the animals mounted on his walls — large creatures he killed himself during various trips to Africa.
If there was a more perfect choice than Derhaag to help rescue Trans-Am racing from nothingness, it is hard to imagine who that person was. Derhaag once raced Trans Ams. Then the series went from dying to dead for a few years in the 2000s. But Derhaag took it over and brought it back from the brink. The now-thriving series will bring at least 40 cars to Brainerd International Raceway for races over the Fourth of July holiday (see brainerdraceway.com for more details).
Derhaag’s team is bringing two of those cars, which they loaded into a trailer over the course of a busy Wednesday morning. How did Derhaag and others passionate about Trans Ams save the series? By understanding, for starters, that the world of racing has changed and by extension the nature of the competitors Trans-Am racing could attract has changed as well.
“When I made a living racing cars, there were probably 300 people in the country making a decent living racing cars,” said Derhaag, 64, who got his start racing more than 40 years ago. “Now there are less than a hundred. NASCAR has become WWF … and everything else is pretty much loud golf.”
By that, he means almost every other form of American racing — Trans Am included — is populated by a handful of professionals doing it to make a living and many others with the skill and the means to finance racing as an expensive hobby.
Derhaag described them all as very capable drivers — the best of the amateurs and some professionals — but because the constituency has changed so has the approach of the series. Trans Am treats its drivers as customers who are looking to have a great experience for their money — the cars cost more than $300,000 and take six months to build, Derhaag said — and it is succeeding as a result.
“Everybody else is losing cars and we’re gaining cars,” Derhaag said.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Trans Ams are classic American sports cars that drivers love to race.
“These are the purest purebred race cars in the country,” Derhaag said. “All the guys who have ever driven them will tell you that.”