Ian Willis can now exhale. The hat trick is complete and the dream season has been realized. It was close — a mere seven points — but in the end it was enough.
Heading into last weekend’s season finale of the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series season at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn., Willis’ AIM Autosport team, based out of Woodbridge, Ont., had already clinched the drivers and team championships in the Grand Touring (GT) class. But there was still one more accolade left to fight for: the manufacturers’ title.
On the strength of three wins and eight podium finishes through the first 12 races, AIM’s Ferrari 458 Italia-powered team held the lead. But Chevrolet and Mazda were within striking distance. A victory wasn’t required to clinch the title for Ferrari, but the marque would have to finish high in the running order, especially if its closest pursuer won the race.
In an interview with Wheels prior to the final race in Connecticut, Willis — who co-owns AIM with partners Keith Willis (his brother) and Andrew Bordin — said the season wouldn’t be complete without the manufacturers’ title.
Failing to clinch it would not only stymie a sweep of top honours in the class, it would have also forced Willis to send a rather awkward email to Ferrari SpA chairman Luca di Montezemolo explaining the situation, a circumstance Willis was keen to avoid.
Sensing AIM might need some assistance, Ferrari entered a second car at Lime Rock (Scuderia Corse, entered by Ferrari of Beverly Hills) to help even up the odds.
This move proved to be prescient, as AIM had a bit of an off day and finished eighth in class. Fortunately for Willis, however, Scuderia Corse came through with a fourth-place finish and earned enough points for Ferrari to edge out Chevrolet (which won the race) 397-390 in the final standings. With Ferrari’s most coveted title now in hand, Willis’ email to di Montezemolo suddenly became a lot easier to write.
“I think we’ve exceeded (Ferrari’s) expectations,” Willis said, summing up the season. “Our expectations are always high. When we were in Daytona Prototype (in 2010), we were leading the championship at one point. So our expectation is always to win championships in whatever we do and certainly win races.
“This year has been one of those years where everything just has gone right. You get those years in racing, and certainly you want to savour them when you have them.
With all its success in 2012, it might surprise some to learn this was AIM’s first season competing in the GT class. For several years the team had fielded cars in the premier Daytona Prototype class with a roster of accomplished drivers, among them Torontonians Mark Wilkins and David Empringham.
In addition to Grand Am competition, AIM has fielded cars in several racing series since 1995, when it began as a single-car operation in the Canadian Formula Ford Championship with Bordin as its driver.
It then expanded into U.S. Formula 2000, Formula BMW, Fran Am 2000 and Star Mazda and began to develop up-and-coming young drivers, many of them homegrown. Among its more famous alumni are Sam Hornish Jr. (U.S. Formula 2000), Andrew Ranger (Fran Am 2000), James Hinchcliffe (Formula BMW and Star Mazda), Daniel Morad (Formula BMW), Kyle Marcelli (Star Mazda) and David Ostella (Star Mazda).
While AIM has fielded cars in Star Mazda every year since 2005, it’s the Grand Am Daytona Prototype program that has become most closely identified with the team over the past few years. With its long-time driver combination of Wilkins and American Burt Frisselle, the team has collected many podium finishes over the years and posted back-to-back wins in 2008 en route to finishing fifth in the championship.
After a lack of funding forced AIM to run only part-time seasons in the Daytona Prototype class in the previous two seasons, the opportunity to compete in GT came about somewhat by accident.
“It was about this time last year that I got a phone call from Nick Longhi. Nick used to work at the Bridgestone (Racing Academy), and I used to race against him in the 1980s. Nick’s been racing in Grand Am Series for a bunch of years in the Continental GS (support series for the Rolex Series) and doing some GT endurance races,” he said.
“He asked if we’re doing Daytona Prototype again next year. I said we’re struggling to get a full program together and we’re open to different things, what do you have in mind? His answer was that he’s trying to get a GT program put together using a Ferrari but it’s a little too early to say much. And I said, well, that sounds very interesting, we’d be very interested in that.”
Things proceeded rather quickly after that. By late October 2011, a deal had been signed and about month later a new Ferrari 458 Italia was sitting in AIM’s shop.
Despite feeling confident heading into the 2012 season, Willis couldn’t have predicted such success in the first season in a very competitive class with a new car.
“It certainly has been an extremely good year, and a lot of it comes back to chemistry. Nick put the program together, but (drivers) Jeff (Segal) and Emil (Assentato) and the team, we’ve all hit it off really well,” he said.
Willis has a long history in racing. His father was lifetime member of BEMC (British Empire Motor Club), and both he and his brother grew up immersed in the sport, attending many races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport) and Harewood Acres. In the 1980s he was a racer himself.
Given his impressive resumé, Wheels wanted to know where his first Grand Am championship ranks among his team’s many achievements.
“It’s hard to put one year over another. We’ve had some awesome years. Andrew (Bordin) won the Formula Ford championship in his rookie year (1995) driving a car that Keith and I designed and built. That certainly was a big highlight then, and this is just as big a highlight now because it shows how far we’ve come,” he said.