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Aaron Willison racing his winged sprint car during the 2021 Pink Lady Classic at Idaho’s Meridian Speedway - DAVID SINK PHOTO

AARON WILLISON: Getting of the Island

Vancouver Island in British Columbia is a hotbed for pavement sprint car activity. Many great drivers have come from this area and more continue to hone their skills there.

Much of the pavement sprint car activity on the island goes unnoticed due to the distance and isolation from the rest of Canada and the United States. In fact, the only way to enter the island is by ferry. Even though the capitol city of Victoria is only 100 miles from Seattle, many U.S. teams show little interest in competing on the island due to the hassle of crossing the border and boarding the ferry.

Most of the teams are local to the island and compete at tracks in Victoria and Black Creek. Most teams never leave the island. Teams have the option of racing with the WILROC non-winged steel-block series or the 360 winged Northwest Sprint Tour.

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Willison leads Tony Main (74) during the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway. – DAVID SINK PHOTO

Even though the drivers may be unfamiliar to anyone outside Vancouver Island, they are highly popular with the locals.

There are a handful of teams that occasionally venture to the U.S. to compete. Aaron Willison is one of those drivers and he is catching the attention of many. Although Willison doesn’t live on the island, he competes at most every race there.

Willison lives in Langley, B.C., which is about 76 miles from Victoria, but it requires a ferry ride to compete. This is certainly challenging to say the least. Willison has dominated the competition in recent seasons. Qualifying is one of his strengths and he seems to set track records wherever he races.
The 34-year-old grew up watching his father Dave Willison race pavement late models.

“My dad had a late model,” explained Willison. “I wanna say 2007, we would split time behind the wheel. I’d run one week and he’d run the other. We always just ran our own equipment. I never ran any high-end late models to an extent. I won a couple of races here and there. No huge success. The late models we were running were more of a limited late model, or pro late model, compared to the super late models. We raced mostly with the WESCAR Late Model Touring Series and at Sun Valley Speedway in Vernon, B.C., before it closed.”

Willison began working in an engine shop and it exposed him to sprint cars.

“After high school I ended up working at a few mechanic shops,” Willison said. “I ended up working at an engine shop, Richmond Engines, for about four or five years as a machinist. He was doing a lot of work for guys with 360s and 410s. It exposed me to sprint car guys that were running down at Skagit Speedway and WILROC on Vancouver Island.

“That’s really what exposed me to sprint car racing at first. The mechanical injection, the way sprint cars are built, the way engines are built. There are just no compromises, no extra stuff and no extra crap. That’s what drew me to it. Then I started going with guys who we built motors for to the races
here and there.

“There was a new Focus midget series that started running Agassiz Speedway. It is a pavement quarter-mile track about 45 minutes from my house,” Willison continued. “There were a group of guys running pavement Focus midgets there. I filled in for a guy that was away at a wedding and a month later I drove another car for a guy who was away for another reason. I thought the cars were a lot of fun.

“The whole Focus midget deal was an economical reason to go racing. They’re fast, cheap and easy on tires. I ended up buying a car over the winter of 2012. The first year out we won rookie of the year and the Agassiz track championship. We won three features that year as well.”

The Focus midgets changed Willison’s attitude about racing.

“One of the reasons I made the jump to the Focus midgets was that I got bored with the style of racing the late models provided,” he said. “Getting into a car with no radios, no mirrors, no spotters, none of that stuff, was really refreshing. When you’re in a late model, you stick your nose out, and have a look at a guy, and he’s throwing a block on you going down the straightaway.

“In a sprint car you don’t know that there’s a guy there until he shows you a wheel. It’s just a different style of racing. I found open-wheel racing refreshing in that sense. Part of it was economics. The late model racing around here just doesn’t pay very well.”

After three years in the Focus Midgets that included two Agassiz Speedway track championships, Willison was looking for a change of course.

“I was kind of looking at what’s next after running the midget for a few years. I really didn’t want to go back late model racing,” Willison said. “I started looking at the pavement sprint car deal, particularly NSRA. There seemed like there were lots of cars and had a good payout structure. They operated on a deal where there was a minimum payout based on how far you traveled getting to each race. The way the sprint car payout was, it was gonna be double what the late model payout would be. I also felt the cost of operating a competitive late model was gonna be the same as a sprint car. That’s what sent me in that direction.”

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Willison in his sprint car at the
Little 500. – DAVID SINK PHOTO

Willison said he talked his fiancé, Brittany, into buying an old Stealth chassis sprint car in 2015.

“It had been sitting there for a while,” Willison said. “We really couldn’t afford it at the time, but I kinda talked her into it. We could afford the car, but not a ton else. We were going to be on a real shoestring budget. I’m just a working Joe. I was fortunate. Brittany trusts me and puts a lot of faith in me. She enjoys going racing.”

Willison felt right at home in the winged pavement sprint cars.

“The biggest thing right out of the gate I noticed is how fast the cars would stop and how fast you could drive them into the corners,” Willison noted. “I just had an entry-level car with an open-headed 360. It was a steel-block motor with aluminum heads and comparable to an ASCS motor.”

He learned a lot during his first season racing sprint cars.

“I learned all the basic lessons that first year. The mechanics of the car, fuel system and the motor,” he explained. “I figured out where I was at, and where I needed to update things, to be more competitive.”

By the end of 2016, people were noticing Willison. He finished second in an NSRA show at Stateline Speedway in Post Falls, Idaho. NSRA is considered the premier winged pavement sprint car series in the Pacific Northwest. But his 2016 season was cut short when he blew his only engine after setting fast time for the King of the Wings event at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway.

“Setting quick time was huge in only my second year in a sprint car. On about lap 15, we broke the motor in the main,” he said. “It was just me and my fiancé. We only had one motor, one chassis and one set of wings. There just weren’t any spares. We could afford to go racing, or we could afford to have spares. We sat out the rest of 2016 because I couldn’t afford to get the motor back before the end of the season.”

The following season was his breakout year. His first sprint car victory came in the prestigious Rory Price Memorial at Washington’s Evergreen Speedway. Two weeks later, he claimed the Daffodil Cup at Western Speedway in Victoria, B.C. The Daffodil Cup is the Northwest’s oldest pavement sprint car race.

Willison won the NSRA cham-pionship.

“Right before the Rory Price Memorial some things clicked,” Willison said. “I figured some small stuff I had been lacking with my shock and spring package. I finally hit on some things my shock program was missing. I do everything myself. Everything just came together. It was nice. It felt like I had finally arrived. It was an incredible feeling to achieve something that you’ve worked so hard for.”

When Willison pushes off to qualify, other crew members and drivers drop what they’re doing. Willison is fast and exciting when it comes to qualifying, and regularly sets track records. At the 2021 Pink Lady Classic at Meridian Speedway, Willison set quick time as the only driver in the 10-second bracket.

“I did something by accident. I made an adjustment the wrong way on the car. I figured out something I needed to be able to drive the car wide open in the corners,” he recalled. “You can’t race like that. But I can flat foot it anywhere for two laps.

“In the spring of 2018, NSRA wanted bigger inverts for better shows. That season was based on passing points,” Willison added. “To win the championship you need to set fast time every night and pass cars in the feature. I catered my program to qualifying, since that’s what would win championships. I now have four shocks and springs I put on the car just for qualifying, and they get pulled right off and placed in the drawer afterward.”

Willison was approached by Rod and Gord Rendle to drive for the Rendle Brothers Racing Team.

“I closed out 2017 driving for them. It was a huge relief to drive for someone else and not have the financial burden,” he said. “I’m not a paid driver. It’s all recreational. We go racing with a second car now. When I was in my own stuff, I had one shot at it. I’m surrounded by good people. They treat me
like their own son.”

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Willison at the Little 500. – DAVID SINK PHOTO

After three NSRA championships, two Rory Price Memorial wins and a slew of other victories, Willison sought a new challenge this year, competing in the Little 500.

“I’m predominately a winged racer just because that’s what’s going on in the Northwest,” explained Willison. “The Little 500 is the biggest pavement sprint car race in North America. For us, it’s a new challenge.”

Willison and his RBR team began preparations for the 2022 Little 500 in 2021. They put a non-winged car together and ran six races with WILROC, a cast iron block carbureted non-winged series that races on Vancouver Island. Willison won four of the six races.

He set a modest goal to simply finish his first Little 500. He did, coming home 13th.

“I wanted to be realistic. I wanted to make the race and finish it,” he said. “We’re super happy to go all the way out there and finish under the checkered flag.”

Willison is driven by new challenges.

“Every day is a new challenge,” Willison said. “Honestly, particularly in the northwest, the racing is more difficult than it has been. The challenge is now to try and figure out how to be better, wherever that may be.”End Bug

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