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Team's AIM is a championship

Mark Applebaum, director of strategy and marketing for Telus, explained that the communications giant has partnered with AIM because the race team epitomizes immediate, real-time needs of communication and is the perfect vehicle for Telus to promote the new feature.

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I tell people that motorsport reporting is 10 per cent journalism and 90 per cent PR, and that explains what I was doing at the Vaughan headquarters of AIM Autosport on Wednesday.

Mind you, when all you hear about the sport these days is moan and groan, it was refreshing to receive an invitation to a press conference where a major Canadian corporation used auto racing to demonstrate the sophistication of the latest smartphone, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Curve 8350i.

The company was Telus and the Curve 8350i is described as a “communications powerhouse” with a direct-connect feature called “push to talk,” available in Canada only on the Telus Mike Network.

What does this have to do with auto racing?

Mark Applebaum, director of strategy and marketing for Telus, explained that the communications giant has partnered with AIM because the race team “epitomizes immediate, real-time needs of communication” and is the perfect vehicle for Telus to promote the new feature.

“Push to talk is like a walkie-talkie,” Applebaum said. “It’s a long-range, digital, two-way radio. In AIM’s case, if you’re at a race and there’s an issue with the car, you need to be able to communicate instantly with the crew and potentially back to head office. The Mike network is perfect for that.”

I asked AIM Autosport founder Ian Willis if this is true.

“Absolutely,” he said. “One time, I was in Mexico and my brother was in Virginia – and cellphone service is spotty in both places. We used the push-to-talk feature and it was just like we were standing next to each other.”

So it was a nice win-win presentation on Wednesday, with a Canadian corporation supporting Canadian auto racing and racers. Would it be that more would step up to the plate like Telus?

Afterwards, I talked to several members of the AIM organization about their performance at last weekend’s 24 Hours of Daytona (in which they dropped out with an engine failure), starting with John Farano, one of the drivers of the No. 61 Ford-Riley.

“I’ve only been racing for three years,” said Farano, who owns two Toronto businesses, Tower Events and Tower Scaffold Services. “I’m 49. The irony is I got into motor racing at the vintage level and now I’m at the professional level. Usually, it’s the other way around.

“A couple of years ago I won the Zippo Historics race at Watkins Glen. That was the highlight for me, so far, but I expect to have a lot more,” he said. “Before I finish, I want to win the 24 Hours of Daytona, I would like to finish on the podium this year in one of the sprint (shorter) races and also I’d like to run at Le Mans.

“Just to run at Le Mans, just to make it there, would be a dream come true.”

Next, I caught up with Willis, who started AIM with a Formula Ford and partners back in 1995. Last year, with Mark Wilkins as lead driver, they won two races in the Rolex Sports Car Series – Montreal and Watkins Glen.

How big was that Montreal victory?

“Montreal was a breakthrough race for us,” he said. “This sport is so tough to win in … we came from the junior open wheel ranks where it’s more of an amateur, semi-pro type thing, and now we’re in the pro big leagues where we’re competing against Ganassi and Penske, the big names.

“And we’re the little team that could and we’ve won twice. At Montreal, it was fuel strategy but at Watkins Glen, we dominated. We beat everybody on sheer pace. To me, that was probably the bigger victory because that really proved that our team could do it.”

Willis said it was a big learning experience when the team started in the Rolex series three years ago.

“In our first Daytona 24, we finished fifth and we walked away from that thinking, `Jeez, that wasn’t so hard. What’s all the fuss about?’ Then the last two years, we haven’t finished the race,” he said.

“Last year, we blew a tire; this year, we had an engine failure – an absolute fluke. You live and learn.”

Willis said AIM will run two Daytona Prototype cars in the Rolex series this year – the No. 61 car with Wilkins and Burt Frisselle driving and the No. 51 with Farano and Alex Figge.

“And we plan to run two cars in the Star Mazda series. Keith (Willis) is down testing at Sebring – one Canada driver and one Venezuelan – and we hope to add a third car on the strength of us winning the championship in that series last year with John Edwards driving.”

Surprisingly, for an “open wheel guy at heart,” Willis admits to being hooked on endurance racing.

“It’s tough racing,” he said. “When I first got into it, I thought, `Ah, endurance racing. It’s not about the fastest car, it’s about finishing’ – but my whole concept of that has changed. It’s now the fastest car that can run for 24 hours that wins.

“I’m very happy in the Rolex series. It’s a top level professional series and if we can beat top teams like Penske and Ganassi, then I’ve achieved more than anybody in racing can really expect.”

That happened twice last year – but not last weekend when, at 2 a.m., and the car humming along in fourth place, disaster struck:

“I was going 185 miles an hour on the high banks,” said Wilkins.

“I’d just passed the GAINSCO car (Jon Fogarty, Alex Gurney, Jimmie Johnson and Jimmy Vasser, drivers) and we were flying. We were on a mission. We’d just done the two fastest laps of the race for our car, the tires were just coming in … and then the car just shut off. Two green lights on the dash and no more drive. I coasted right into the pits. What are you going to do?”

Last week notwithstanding, I reminded Wilkins that Willis had said earlier the team was going to win races again this year. Did he agree?

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve won races, we know we can win races and we want to win a championship.

“Last year we had some adversity, we had some trouble early in the year and we still finished fifth overall so we can be there. I really believe we can be there.”

Norris McDonald writes about motorsport each week in Wheels. nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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