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‘It’s a Big Rush’: Grantham Resident Shines on Modified Circuit

  • The evening before race day, Mike Willis, left, Lisa Willis, second from left, crew member Rick Anderson, second from right, and Mike Willis Sr., right, take a rest from checking over the car in their Grantham, N.H. garage, Thursday, July 6, 2017. Friday night Willis Jr. will drive at Claremont Speedway in a Valenti Modified Racing Series race. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mike Willis Jr., 25, has been racing since age 9 and now works as an auto mechanic at his father's shop. "A lot of people don't know how much work it is to get (a car) to the track," said Willis Jr. "It's like having a second job." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Modified racing driver Mike Willis Jr., left, hands a wrench to his father and crew chief Mike Willis Sr., of Grantham, while doing a weekly check of every bolt in their car Thursday, July 6, 2017. Friday night Willis Jr. will drive in the Valenti Modified Racing Series race at the Claremont Speedway. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Crew chief Mike Willis Sr., of Grantham, prepares the Modified car driven by his son, Mike Willis Jr., for race day at the Claremont Speedway Thursday, July 6, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 07, 2017

Grantham — Auto racing runs in the family for Lebanon High graduate and Grantham resident Mike Willis Jr.

His father, Mike Sr., raced dirt cars at Canaan Fair Speedway in the 1980s and ’90s and owns a service auto body shop, Willis Auto Repair, in Grantham. The younger Willis works there during the day and returns home at night to make tweaks to his new No. 83 race car.

On weekends, the 25-year-old driver is on the road competing in the Valenti Modified Racing Series, a five-month, 12-race circuit that began on May 19 at Stafford Motor Speedway in Stafford Springs, Conn., and ends on Oct. 13-14, at Thompson (Conn.) Motorsports Park.

Willis has started making a name for himself. He’s ranked third out of 36 racers ahead of tonight’s series race at Claremont Motor Speedway, the only time the series heads to the Upper Valley and Willis’ first time back at Claremont since last year.

But third place, he said, isn’t good enough. Last year, Willis finished second in the points chase; this year, he trails the leader, Connecticut’s Anthony Nocella, by 71 points with seven races remaining.

“I feel like we’re more competitive than normal,” Willis said on Thursday in his family garage. “We’ve made big gains on the car to go better throughout the race and be more competitive. … It takes a long time going to the different tracks, to build up a good notebook to go back on and remember what didn’t work, what did work.”

Each race, he said, requires a different set of modifications to his car and a different driving strategy depending on the course. It took Willis — in his seventh year driving in the series and his third season competing in it full time — a while to get used to the race tracks and his competition. At first, he admitted, he felt like an outsider.

“Going back to these tracks over and over again, you learn what not to do,” he said.

A sense of comfort has launched Willis near the top of the series standings. Now, Willis said, he’s searching to take that final step into first place.

“There’s just that one step ahead of us,” said Willis, a 2011 Lebanon High grad. “We’re just trying to get to that next step. They’re already there. I don’t want to say we’re one step behind, but we’re right there.”

Claremont Speedway holds a special place in Willis’ heart. It’s the hometown track, after all.

“It’s different. It’s hard to drive,” he said. “All four corners are different. It takes more of a driver to get around there, rather than just having a really good car.”

Willis started racing when he was 9, a passion he picked up from his father. He spent time driving go-karts, winning three track titles at Weare, N.H.’s Sugar Hill Speedway before he was 13, before taking up Modifieds, where he won three track championships in four years.

He was named rookie of the year in 2015, his first full season with the Valenti Series. Now that’s he’s got his feet wet, Willis said he’s now got something to prove.

“It’s pretty addicting,” Willis said of his love for racing. “It’s a big rush.”

Tonight’s race, a 100-lapper, is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Should rain intervene, as it has the last three Fridays at Claremont, the MRS race would take place on Saturday night.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.