When I enjoyed my first conversation of the 2012 season with AIM Autosport of Woodbridge team principal Ian Willis, it was in February at the Canadian Motorsports Expo and he was telling me how thrilled he was to be running full-time in the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series with – wait for it – a Ferrari.
Willis and AIM are no strangers when it comes to big-league sports car racing, having campaigned a Daytona Prototype for years with drivers like Mark Wilkins, Bruno Junqueira and Burt and Brian Frisselle.
But the Ferrari deal came out of the blue when an old friend, Grand Am driver Nick Longhi, telephoned Willis to chat.
"I’ve known Nick since he was an instructor at the Bridgestone Racing School," Willis said. "He called to say that he and others were working on a deal to run a Ferrari in the GT class of the Rolex series.
"Nick operated the Ferrari driving experience up at Mont Tremblant and is very well connected within the Ferrari network. He thought of us because he knows we’re capable of winning in the Grand Am series (two Daytona Prototype victories in 2008, for example) and he figured we would be a great fit.
Willis said it wasn’t a slam-dunk, though; that other teams were in the mix. In the end, it was the municipality where their business is located that might very well have sealed the deal for them.
"Ferrari is Italy’s team, it’s Italy’s brand," he said. "Woodbridge, where we're based, is 50 per cent Italian-speaking and that really opened the door for us."
He said he and the drivers went to Italy to get the car and they did a shakedown test at Fiorano, the official Ferrari test track.
"It’s hallowed ground," Willis said. "Emil (Assentato) sent me a note afterward and said it was like a country priest visiting the Vatican. Me? I just kept pinching myself."
So that was in February. The next time I talked to Willis was a month or so ago on Bayview Ave. in midtown Toronto. He and his sweetheart were out for a stroll with their young pup dog in tow, or the dog had them in tow, I’m not sure which. In any event, we talked about the season to date.
"Our goal is to win the championship," he said at the time (as of today, with two races remaining, both in September, Segal and Assentato are in first place in the GT driver standings, AIM is in first place among teams and Ferrari leads all manufacturers ).
"We’re on a one-year contract and our long-range plan is to grow to two cars for 2013. We’re working toward a Canadian sister car for the one we have now, which has an all-American lineup (Assentato is from New York and Segal is from Miami and Philadelphia).
"The nice thing about being Canadian is there are a lot of good Canadian drivers to choose from. Daniel Morad drove for us. There’s also Robbie Wickens, James Hinchcliffe, Andrew Ranger, Jacques Villeneuve, Mark Wilkins. They’re all good drivers.
"But right now, that’s pretty far way. Our focus is to get a championship for this car and our drivers. That’s our priority. Hopefully, the rest will fall into place."
The last race of the Rolex season is at Lime Rock, Conn., the weekend of Sept. 28-29. After that, Wilkins might know more about next year.
I’ll phone him up then and find out. And I’ll bring you up to date, too.