Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NC trend: Roy Carroll revs his engines at Le Mans

Roy Carroll takes to the streets of France’s Le Mans to promote his Greensboro storage business. 

The sun has set, and ahead stretches a ribbon of darkness. In the Ferrari 488’s cockpit, web-belted into a cocoonish seat, Felipe Fraga, his helmeted face lighted by dozens of glowing instruments, chatters in his Brazilian accent with Roy Carroll and his crew in the pits. 

Engine screaming, the $400,000 Ferrari streaks down the 3.7-mile Mulsanne Straight, the world’s most famous stretch of racing pavement, where cars exceed 200 mph. Except for this special week every June, culminating in this once-around-the-clock race for 62 of the world’s fastest cars, it’s merely part of France’s public road system.

Tonight, only the lightning streak of Fraga’s taillights is visible, not the piercing shape of the Ferrari or, on its side, a feisty cartoon bee with the lettering, “Bee Safe Racing.”

▲ The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world’s oldest active endurance racing event.

It’s 4,000 miles to Greensboro, headquarters for Carroll, whose Carroll Cos. has made him one of the state’s largest real-estate developers. His latest venture is the 40-location Bee Safe Storage and Wine Cellar chain, and this, he says, is marketing at its best.

“We’re getting far, far more exposure than the several million dollars we put into Le Mans,” he says. Building, crewing and fielding a typical Le Mans pro entry might cost $20 million, but he says it’s impossible to put a value on its boost to the team spirit of his company’s 500 employees.

Nor Carroll’s need for speed. 

Though his Le Mans entry was driven by pro Fraga, alternating with Brit Sam Bird and New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen, Carroll, 59, is a successful amateur racer, trained at Ferrari’s Italian driving school and competing in the Ferrari Challenge series, racing mainly against other business executives.

Roy Carroll has assembled a large real-estate portfolio.

For the 24 Hours of Le Mans, arguably the world’s most famous race, he teamed with his friend Bill Riley. Mooresville-based Riley Motorsports sells racing technology such as a Formula 1 race car steering wheel that controls 25 functions and exceeds $100,000. It has fielded winning cars for marques like Mercedes and Ferrari in events such as the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, America’s premier sports-car race.

Carroll got plenty of exposure for his money in June, drawing worldwide laurels. The Bee Safe car finished fifth in the GTE-Pro class, the second-fastest competition at Le Mans. It was impressive for a “privateer,” the racing term for cars that are not financially backed by automakers. The class was won by a factory-sponsored Porsche that covered 2,951 miles in 24 hours. The overall race was won by a Toyota in a class called Hypercar that covered more than 3,100 miles.

Carroll says his team “did excellent, but we just didn’t have a fast car. We just didn’t have the horsepower.”

The Greensboro native and 1985 graduate of UNC Greensboro rarely lacks horsepower. In 1989, he bought the business his father started six years earlier and has since amassed more than $4 billion in assets.

His portfolio includes more than 8,000 apartments, 2,000 single-family homes, business parks, office buildings and now, storage centers. The Bee Safe brand is growing particularly in the Southeast, he says, one of the nation’s most avid racing regions. 

Carroll and Riley developed a racing team in the Ferrari Challenge series, which includes a half dozen U.S. races and one in Italy. It isn’t a high-stakes competition. “We’re racing for basically a $100 plastic trophy,” Carroll laughs. Nevertheless, his performance there attracted corporate Ferrari, resulting in its suggestion and support for the Bee Safe Le Mans entry. 

“People ask me, ‘Is this on your bucket list?’ I say, ‘Absolutely not.’ It fell into our lap and I talked it over with my wife, Vanessa, and said this will be part of history. It’s far-fetched, like a sports team that gets asked to go to a championship. In my mind, there’s no bigger race. But that was the easy part.”

The hard part included recruiting top drivers, like Bird, Fraga and van Gisbergen, and “going squarely head-to-head” with General Motors’ Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari.

While North Carolina has long been known mainly as ground zero for NASCAR, its presence in top-level international racing has been growing for two decades. 

At Haas Formula in Kannapolis, California industrial tools magnate Gene Haas has pumped more than $1 billion into a Formula 1 team, considered the world pinnacle of racing. Mooresville-based Penske Racing is a leading owner in global sports car and open-cockpit racing.

“There is a lot of other motorsports in North Carolina, other than NASCAR,” says Carroll. “In Le Mans, I met a lot of Rick Hendrick people who tell me Rick plans to have a car there next year.” Hendrick Motorsports, based in Charlotte, is one of NASCAR’s most successful owners.

The lure of speed and the marketing potential of racing will remain pervasive, Carroll says. “People say you’re not a real athlete, but I run a couple of laps and get out, just drained, exhausted, from working the car, the brakes, the steering.”

Carroll says the closed Ferraris, with roll cages and other safety technology, minimize the obvious risk. 

“I tell people I know a lot more people who’ve been injured playing golf than racing Ferraris,” he says.

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