Waiting For The Next Race – Bryan Willman

The American Le Mans Series offers a unique blend of prototype and GT racing. Mixed in with the factory backed prototype teams are the perpetual underdogs- the privateers. Privateers race in the ALMS because they love the sport, the series, and competing against the best teams on their own terms. Bryan Willman is a man that lives his life on his own terms, making him a perfect fit for the top sports car series in North America.

Mecca of Speed: After the race at Mosport in 2008, Autocon Motorsports switched from the Creation CA07-002 to the Lola B06/10 chassis. How has the Lola performed from a driver’s point of view?

Bryan Willman: It’s a much more workable and consistent car. The Creation was okay at some tracks and horrid at others. We can always get the Lola to work and it’s much more drivable on cold tires. The AER twin turbo also has tremendous power. I’m happy with the Lola.

Its not as aero-sophisticated as the Acura because it’s an older chassis, but we do have a horsepower advantage. At a track like Road America, we can run pretty close to the Acura teams. At a place like Mid-Ohio there is no way we are going to get close.

Mecca of Speed: The Acura is a more advanced car with continuous factory-backed development.

Bryan Willman: And they have Simon Pagenaud and I’m driving our car. I consider Simon faster then I am, that’s no great shock, right? The Lola has been a move forward and I’m happy with it.

Mecca of Speed: You have been racing in the ALMS for almost 10 years now. Looking back, how did you get started in racing?

Bryan Willman: I worked for a small software company in Redmond, Washington called Microsoft. You may have heard of them? In 1992 we all went to the Jim Russell Racing School at Laguna Seca before a conference. In 1993 we went to another school, then I started racing in the school racing division.

From there we went to the Star Mazda Pro Series, which still races at many events with the ALMS. Eventually Jeff Bucknum and I founded Team Bucknum Racing. In 2001 we took up sports cars and have been racing them ever since.

Chris McMurry and I are fourth or fifth on the all time list of starts together. The Audi drives were up there, but a few years back they shuffled their lineup and we have been moving up the list.

Mecca of Speed: What attracted you to sports cars from the open wheel series?

Bryan Willman: The races are longer. I spent a lot of time in Formula Mazda. I would qualify in 24th and race my way up to 10th. Then two cars would be disqualified and another car wouldn’t be running for points, then a week later another car would be disqualified. I would joke, if you wait long enough I would be declared the winner of the race.

The races that really attracted me to sports cars were Sebring, which I’ve been thinking about for decades and Le Mans. Road America is a wonderful place to race, however at 2:45 it’s a bit of a sprint race.

Long Beach is 100 minutes, which anyone of us could drive solo, but we do a driver change because it’s required in the rules.

Sports cars also have a lot of technical variations. We have more kinds of engines and fuel here than the rest of professional motorsports. In fact, we have more different kinds of engines then Formula One, NASCAR, IRL combined.

I don’t know any other series that is more open to different types of fuel. If you had a new fuel and wanted to try it, the ALMS would entertain that conversation. You don’t see diesel vs. ethanol in any other series.

If you go to an IRL race, the cars are special in the that they are formula cars. Hopefully about 20 will be on the grid and they are all alike. You come here and there are 12-15 prototypes and rarely more then two that are the same. There is the opportunity to make different bets on the direction to develop a car or team. Sometimes those bets don’t work out and sometimes they do. That is part of racing in the ALMS.

Another thing for me is that it’s a team sport. We all go racing together. The drivers, engineers, crew, caters, night watchman at the shop, we all go racing together.

Mecca of Speed: What are the key elements that a potential new fan should take in at their first ALMS event?

Bryan Willman: Events are very visceral and very fast. All the technology bears a closer relationship to real things you care about then anything you see in NASCAR. All the GT2 cars are more “stock” then a Sprint Cup car. The Sprint Cup car has a welded tube frame chassis. Go to your local Ford dealer and try and find a welded tube frame Taurus.

If you look at the Corvettes, you can take a Corvette off the line and work on it, build it into a racecar. The racecar will still show it came off the line.

Now the prototypes, despite their appearance are also related to streetcars.  The engine, turbo, vehicle control and power steering technology is either related to high-end cars or is going to be on future cars.

If you think the types of fuel street cars use is going to change, you need to pay attention because diesel and ethanol are in this series. This is true sports car racing, not a spec series. There is more innovation and interaction with the rest of the automotive world here than anywhere else.

What relationship do Formula One cars have to the real world? I love to watch them but they don’t relate to the real world. In terms of racing that is related to your life or related to things you might understand, this is the series that is most relevant.

Because of the history in sports car racing, there are a lot of colorful characters here. We have a fair number of gentleman drivers and semi-professional drivers so there is less corporate speak, less of a stage production.

Mecca of Speed: You don’t have to fit 12 sponsors in anytime you have an interview.

Bryan Willman: Well we can talk about how the JeanRichard, Redline Oil, Hella, Cyclo, Dunlop and three people who’s names I forgot ran good today and how great the crew were but who really wants to hear that?

JeanRichard is painted on the car in letters 8 feet high. How many orange cars are there with JeanRichard painted on the side? If you haven’t figured out that JeanRichard helps support us, you are not paying attention.

The people who run the series have always intended the series to be fan friendly and promoter friendly. A lot of the teams have also always focused on being fan friendly.

Mecca of Speed: What are your current endeavors?

Bryan Willman: Understand that I pay to do this. I’m an independent eligible bachelor with comfortable independent means. I spent two decades in the Microsoft empire and that was enough. Now I devote a lot of time to racing. It’s a full time job in the sense of how much time I spend on it, but I don’t get paid to do it. I’m here for the love of the sport.

There are a lot of people who are here for the love of it. I’ve got a lot of other projects going on, but the reality is I think about racecars, I drive racecars, I drive karts, go to the gym, ride my bike, take care of my dog and wait for the next race.

Mecca of Speed: You have a very distinct helmet.  Where did your design come from?

Bryan Willman: I used to live with a woman named Jenny Swang. We raced against each other in Formula Mazda, it must have been 100 times, and she beat me many times. She was very fast. So the guys who complain about their spouses who don’t like them racing I don’t know what to tell them. She is the only woman I ever lived with and we went to the races together. It was interesting watching a race with her on TV because she would see all the things I see.

In 1995 we were in a race at Willow Springs. She raced a school car. It was wreaked in a very weird accident not of her making at one event. She was out of a car and didn’t have anything to do, so she went to a store and bought multi-colored racer tape and drew an eyeball on the nose of my car. In the race that followed, every car I caught, some disaster befell them. They had a flat tire, the radiator hose came off, engine blew up, went off in the gravel trap. That eye brought me luck.

After that I had my helmet painted with the two eyes on the front and the teeth. There are three or four copies of that helmet. Then the painter decided I needed an eye in the back.  You don’t see it in sportscars, but in Formula Mazda you could see the eye on the back through the roll hoop.

I’ve worn the three eye helmet for years. They photograph your helmet in Tech and the pit bosses have a sheet so they can tell who is in the car by looking at the helmet because you don’t see anything else. If I ever do something profoundly bad I’ll get my helmet painted in another color.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time and good luck.

Bryan Willman: Thank you
Content credit Bryan Willman and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.

2/4/2010