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How Sergio Perez rode his lifelong sponsorship to Formula One success


This article was first published on ESPN Deportes.

Sergio Perez’s ties to the Mexico-based Escudería Telmex racing team cover most of his three decades, stretching back to well before his days as a competitive driver. The relationship has afforded several opportunities to Formula One driver, who won his first race in the circuit last month before jumping to Red Bull.

So how exactly did this relationship between Perez and Telmex develop? An understanding of it requires revisiting “Checo” Perez’s origin story – which got underway with an early green flag.

Perez, who turned 31 on Jan. 26, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, to a family with racing blood already coursing through its veins. So much so that Antonio Perez Garibay – himself a former driver and an agent – moved up his son’s scheduled arrival by a week.

Checo’s original due date coincided with 1990’s 24 Hours of Daytona on Feb. 3. “Toño,” as the elder Perez is known, planned to accompany fellow Mexican driver Tomas Lopez Rocha to the race, so he convinced the doctor to deliver via Caesarean – even if doing so meant enduring wife Marilu’s post-surgery ire.

When the dust settled, the couple welcomed their third child, Sergio Michel Perez Mendoza, who would soon be on his path to becoming Mexico’s fifth F1 driver.

A father’s prophecy

Checo’s arrival spelled the end of Toño’s days behind the wheel, as the elder Perez sought a more stable way to provide for his family. He set about representing Mexican drivers, thus ensuring Checo’s lifelong bond with the sport. Toño’s work with Lopez, who raced on the IMSA circuit, led him to represent legendary Mexican IndyCar driver Adrian Fernandez.

All the while, Toño nudged his two boys – Sergio and older brother Antonio – into go-kart racing, where Checo would meet eventual mentor and sponsor Carlos Slim Domit, son of billionaire Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helu. Toño, seeking sponsorship opportunities for Fernandez, first invited the younger Slim to the 1996 Michigan 500. Slim told ESPN that the Michigan race, in which Brazlian driver Emerson Fittipaldi emerged from a fiery crash with a broken neck, was the first time he saw Fernandez on the track.

“I invited Carlos and flew him commercial” Toño said by telephone. “That’s where we began trying to get Telmex to sponsor Adrian Fernandez on the CART Series.”

The Slim family was already sponsoring teams in Mexico’s Sección Amarilla and Copa Marlboro circuits (Philip Morris Mexico was among the family’s Grupo Carso holdings), but it was Toño who took them international.

A personal relationship grew out of the business partnership. Checo, then 6, met the younger Slim at racetrack in the town of Toluquilla near Guadalajara, site of an Indy Lights Panamericana race. Toño told Slim the same thing he would tell anyone who knew Checo – that his son was the best of the rookie go-kart drivers.

“Checo is a better driver than [Michael] Schumacher,” Toño said. “He’ll race in Formula One one day.”

The father’s prediction would take a while to materialize, though Slim recognized Checo’s talent immediately. A couple of years later at a go-karts event in Acapulco, Fernandez left his go-kart shifter for Checo to use in his race against adult drivers.

“[Mexican driver] Jimmy Morales told me that day that Checo’s talent was special,” Slim said. “That’s how we decided to keep tabs so we could sponsor him later on.”

At the time, Toño said he was working to secure a sponsorship – originally slated for CART driver Carlos Guerrero – for Fernandez from telecommunications giant Telmex, which the Slims had acquired from the Mexican government. As he did with Fernandez, he was able to sway the Slims to throw their support behind his sons.

Years later, while enjoying pool time in Miami, one of Slim’s friends urged him in front of Toño to sponsor the young Perez drivers.

“Carlos told him no, because I was too crazy,” Toño said. “And I told him, ‘I’ll hand them over to you, birth certificate and all.”

‘Never Give Up’

When Checo Perez was 14, he was kept from racing in the lead-up go-kart event to the CART Grand Prix race at Mexico City’s Hermanos Rodriguez racetrack. Reports surfaced that internal politics and contact with another driver prevented him from participating. Checo considered throwing in the towel, but Slim and Telmex came through when he most needed them.

After reading newspaper reports of Perez’s predicament, Slim gave the teenage driver a call. He offered his support but in return requested that Perez not race in Mexico again. It was a tough call for Perez, who eventually accepted the terms.

“Mexican auto racing wouldn’t be where it is today if not for Adrian Fernandez, but I threw in my two cents on some things and so I’m proud to have invited Carlos to that race in Michigan,” Toño said. “Because if it all hadn’t started there, he would’ve never sponsored Checo. Without Carlos, nothing is possible.”

Perez shifted to in Skip Barber Racing in the U.S, teaming with Rolando Quintanilla. Telmex’s philosophy was to cover the basics – cars and complete seasons – while pushing its younger drivers to seek personal sponsorships that would handle travel expenses.

It could be assumed that the Slim name is enough to keep drivers flush with cash regardless of talent, but nothing is further from reality. It’s nevertheless a topic Slim prefers not to address. He takes offense, considers it absurd, that Perez has been tagged with the label of pay driver. Yet nobody heads to Red Bull with pockets lined. The team seeks the best talent to meet its purposes, and in this case, it happened to be Perez.

Checo would travel with familial resources, all the while understanding that the road to stardom was not paved with roses.

“With our guidance, we have always given drivers freedom to present pitches to other brands and so they learn to do the work outside of the car, which is just as important, even more so, than what they do inside of it,” Slim said. Toño said Checo and his crew would sleep in the rental they would use to transport themselves to racetracks and eat fast food when they couldn’t secure their end of the sponsorship. “Sacrifices that we look back on proudly, because they were real,” the elder Perez said.

Checo’s success and resilience in Skip Barber, coupled with Telmex’s support, earned him a spot with Germany’s Formula BMW circuit. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, even if it meant heading overseas alone at 15 and without a return ticket home.

As Perez himself has mentioned, his time in Germany was difficult but rewarding. Oftentimes he considered quitting, but the hard times tempered a personal philosophy: “Never Give Up.”

“If anything has set Checo apart from other drivers who have tried to make it to F1, it’s his attitude,” Slim said. “Not just his talent. That attitude that he himself has adopted is real, ‘Never Give Up.’ He has never given up and has always performed well. Always. Nobody has given him anything.”

The rest of Checo’s story is more or less known. He moved on to the British F3, the GP2 Series, and then F1 in 2011. Perez has spent 17 years under the tutelage of Slim and Telmex, a partnership that continues to be a beacon for Mexican auto racing.

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