Sheik of Speed; How the Brash Son of an Arab Tycoon Has Turned His Passion for Racing into a Billion-Dollar Business

Article excerpt

Byline: William Underhill

Starting out in business can be tough, even for the children of Arab tycoons. Just ask His Highness Sheik Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum, nephew of the crown prince of Dubai and son of the boss of the billion-dollar Al Fajer conglomerate. When he first proposed turning his lifelong passion for motor sports into a global business, "The entire planet thought I was mad," he remembers, "even my family."

No longer. Last month saw the inaugural race of his World Cup of Motorsport, the product of three years' labor. As cars from 25 nations hit the pavement at Britain's Brands Hatch circuit, the 28-year-old sheik spoke breezily of an enterprise that could be as lucrative as any gulf gusher. Deals with TV broadcasters now bring the series to 290 million homes in 50 countries. "By the end of year one, this is going to be a billion-dollar company--easily," said Maktoum. "I have gone from being called a madman to a visionary."

Behind that evolution lies a bold business model. The sheik--"Mac" to friends in America, where he studied for an M.B.A. at Suffolk University in Boston--has re-invented international motor sports, adding a rich dash of patriotic rivalry. His A1 Grand Prix pits national teams against each other in an annual series of 12 races. The emphasis is on nationality, not NASCAR-style celebrity. Few Americans will recognize their team driver, Scott Speed, a newcomer from California. All teams run identical cars, highlighting the skills of the driver, rather than mechanics.

That's a timely move, now that European fans show signs of tiring of Formula One. Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher has picked up five straight world titles, killing suspense. Imagine instead the high-octane passion when, say, the Pakistani driver pulls out to overtake his Indian rival on the last lap. Not that Maktoum is challenging F1 directly: his mix of circuit and street races falls in Formula One's off-season.

The series runs on a rich blend of competition and cash. Formula One is thought to generate $1 billion a year in television rights and worldwide sponsorships. Maktoum himself has laid out tens of millions of dollars to establish the traveling show. "This [venture] takes boldness and a pocketbook, and [the sheik] has both," says Rick Weidinger, the communications tycoon behind the American team. …