Wagner Rossi has never been afraid of a challenge. As a youngster, Rossi proved to be a driver to beat in go-karts. Then, he advanced to cars. From there, it was airplanes. Now, it's managing WR International, while importing and distributing MG Tires. He's always had a burning desire to be one of the best and that, along with a tireless work-ethic, has led to his success in the karting industry.
A native of Brazil, Rossi began racing go-karts at age 14. It didn't take him long to claim three championship titles. In 1979, he advanced to Formula Ford 1600 cars, winning an award from Ford as the "most combative" driver of the Brazilian Formula Ford season. That fall, he traveled to Europe to compete in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch where he was hit from behind -- while running fourth in the semi-final -- ending his bid.
A few years later, Rossi began flying turbine helicopters and soon advanced to piloting a Boeing 727 commercial airliner for TransBrazil Airlines. He flew for the airline for four years. "Flying helicopter was my passion," he says,"but the job was very hard for a young guy who was just married! Flying big jets such as the 727 was probably the last era of real flight. Today everything is computerized. I was fortunate to fly commercial at that time! Real Flight!"
While flying was his career, Rossi continued racing as a hobby. In 1992, he and his wife Junia decided to make a major change and move to the United States from Brazil to open WR International. Settling in Florida they focused on importing and distributing racing accessories and airline parts. During the transition, Rossi continued to travel back-and-forth between Florida and Brazil. It was during one of these ventures he recalls meeting Mr. Antonio Ventre -- the founder of MG Tires -- at the Brazilian Karting Championship. That experience left an indelible mark on the young entrepreneur.
"Antonio [Ventre] was giving away his tire, which was recently homologated, to all the teams and drivers," Rossi recalls. "That really impressed me because he was so aggressive and confident in his product."
With that experience, and a mindset similar to Ventre's, it took little convincing when Rossi's good friend Nelson Piquet paid him a visit in 1994 suggesting he start importing MG Tires into the North American karting community. Later that year, Rossi met with Antonio's sons Marcello and Giafranco about becoming the exclusive importer of MG Tires. The bond was formed and MG Tires entered the U.S. market.
At the time, the tire rules were fairly wide open in the U.S., but Dunlop and Bridgestone were the dominant choice. Very few racers, if any, had ever heard of MG Tires in North America. Rossi didn't care. He and Junia settled into a small office, without a warehouse, and began handling the tire sales. At the time, each box -- mostly consisting of the popular harder compound -- housed 24 tires and weighed approximately 80 lbs. "It was a very tough beginning," Rossi says. "It was difficult to handle the boxes by hand and we were also adapting to a new language, culture, and trying to market an unknown brand."
Rossi took to the track to help market MG Tires. Driving a 100cc Yamaha armed with MG rubber, Rossi won his first race in the Miami Karting Championship. Little by little word spread. Later that year, with the assistance of National Karting News magazine's Curt Paluzzi, Rossi oversaw the mainstream premier of MG Tires at the Elkhart Grand Prix. The race boasted close to a 1,000 entries.
Miami Motos was the first company to start selling MGs and soon thereafter Rodney Berryhill of Champion Racing became the first distributor outside of Florida. In 1999, Rossi began to work with the World Karting Association and SKUSA to increase exposure to racers in North America. In order to be successful, however, Rossi knew he would need to be even more proactive.
"From 2000 on, we had to drastically change our approach in the American market," he said. "We realized we had to be 10 times more aggressive to stay alive in the most competitive market on the planet."
WR International hired Luis Ruibal -- a good friend of Rossi's -- to help oversee the company and assist while Rossi traveled back to Brazil to consult with MG Tires. "As part of our aggressiveness, we created an attractive prize for drivers," Rossi says. "We started offering a Formula 3 test weekend with one of the best teams from Brazil, Amir Nasr Racing, and later we created a six-driver Team USA squad to compete in the Brazilian Granja 500 [endurance race]. Every year, MG Tires takes six North American drivers from different series and pays the whole package to have a top team racing among the F1 and IndyCar drivers [also participating] in the prestigious race in southern Brazil."
MG Tires continues to develop its tires and market them as a grippy, long-lasting, racing tire and Rossi plays an important role in the development of the tires, which he says is always based on driver feedback. "My relationship with MG Tires (dating back almost two decades) goes beyond being the exclusive importer and representative for North America," Rossi says. "Our level of partnership today means constant feedback for better products and research in new technologies for the factory. Our relationship has a very deep foundation based on trust, professionalism, and focus to have a better product on every homologation!"
Today MG Tires are used in more than 40 countries and WR International assists more than 60 dealers in the North American market alone. Brazilian driver Andre Nicastro serves as one of the test drivers for MG Tires and helps the company develop its compounds. Today, WR International consists of four direct and two indirect employees, including Wagner and Junia. While MG Tires and WR International have proven successful, Rossi is quick to thank everyone who has assisted him along the way, including series' organizers, distributors, race teams, investors, and especially drivers.
"We’ve made several very important partnerships over the past 20 years in North America such as the WKA, SKUSA, Florida Winter Tour, Lone Star Grand Prix, Rock Island Grand Prix, USPKS, Route 66, Florida Pro Kart Series and F Series," Rossi says. "Without these partnerships we wouldn’t be where we are at today!
"We still have many plans ahead and will always focus on the drivers," he says. "Our plan is to keep growing and focus on club races, tracks, driver sponsorship, and to focus on the karting roots where we came from. With the MG spirit , we don't hold board meetings to decide a change! We just do it… if it's for the better. If it's for the drivers!"
Guest contributor: Ryan Stringfield is the publisher of JuniorOpenWheelTalent.com -- a site devoted to covering today's up-and-coming drivers. Follow him on Twitter @JOWT.