Grantham man wins first modified series championship

  • Mike Willis Jr. (83), of Grantham, tucks inside of Glenn Griswold (6), of Vernon, Conn., during a Valenti Modified Racing Series event at Claremont Motorsports Park in Claremont, N.H., on May 26, 2019. Willis won the race en route to claiming his first VMRS series championship earlier this month. (Courtesy Mod Squad Racing Media) MOD SQUAD RACING MEDIA

  • Mike Willis Jr. (83), of Grantham, competes in the Valenti Modified Racing Series event at Claremont Motorsports Park in Claremont, N.H., on May 26, 2019. Willis won the race en route to claiming his first VMRS series championship earlier this month. (Courtesy Mod Squad Racing Media) MOD SQUAD RACING MEDIA

  • Mike Willis Jr. (83), of Grantham, is caught between two competitors during a Valenti Modified Racing Series event at Claremont Motorsports Park on May 26, 2019. Willis won the race en route to claiming his first VMRS tour championship earlier this month. (Courtesy Mod Squad Racing Media) MOD SQUAD RACING MEDIA

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 10/28/2019 10:02:31 PM
Modified: 10/29/2019 10:16:47 PM

Mike Willis Jr. was halfway through a potential championship-clinching race in the middle of last year’s Valenti Modified Racing Series when disaster struck: a collision into his left rear tire left the car he was driving — and his first-ever Modified title — stranded on the track.

That left Willis, 27, with a plan to come back the next season just as strong, and take care of some unfinished business.

Willis, the former VMRS rookie of the year from Grantham, clinched his first Modified series championship following the series’ final race at Thompson Motorsports Park in Thompson, Conn., on Oct. 12. His milestone-filled season included his first race victory, in front of family friends at his home track at Claremont Motorsports Park. He finished the season with 427 points, 54 more than second-place finisher Ronnie Williams. Willis’ team has never finished a season outside of the top 10 in the point standings.

“We were halfway through the race and we got wrecked,” Willis Jr. said of his season-ending crash last year. “We were definitely mad and disappointed. I thought I was playing it safe, but I got in a bad spot.

“(Finally winning), it feels great. Especially after being so close last year.”

This past season, by comparison, came and went like a dream.

Crew chief Dennis Harty was added to the squad, and spotter Brandon Wilkinson was brought back for his third season, turning a championship-caliber team into a experienced, confident and well-oiled machine. That formula turned into Willis Jr.’s first Modified racing victory five races into the series.

“It was awesome,” Willis said. “To do it in front of the home crowd, where everybody there knows you, it was special.

“We started out strong this year, had momentum all year. We just did what we could do, and it paid off.”

Getting the first win out of the way, said Wilkinson, was the first clue at just how good the team was.

“After the first win at Claremont, we were ticking on every cylinder,” Wilkinson said. “We had hired a crew chief, Dennis Harty, to take a little bit of the load off of Mike’s father (Mike Willis Sr.). We kind of just sat back and let it roll. Morale was up.

“Harty, in my opinion, was the key to our championship,” he added. “Mikey’s mother, Lisa, called me on the phone, told me they had hired a crew chief. I kind of knew things were serious. We were set on kill mode the entire year. I don’t think we finished a single race outside the top 10. … We capitalized on other people’s mistakes and practically made no mistakes all year.”

Willis joined the series in 2014 and has since developed into one of the series’ best drivers.

Wilkinson, in his 14th year as a spotter, has been impressed with the way the Grantham native has grown into a more-than-capable driver.

“He’s a jack-of-all-trades,” Wilkinson said. “He looks past the steering wheel; that can be a driver’s biggest mistake, getting tunnel vision. Mikey sees wrecks before I do. As a spotter you have to look behind your driver, see what you can do to help. … One word to describe Willis is he’s smooth. No matter what happens, he doesn’t make mistakes.”

Next up for Willis are bigger series and bigger races. He’s been to Florida the last few years, chasing larger purses at larger shows.

The team, he said, is building a different car this winter and plans to race locally at the Claremont next year.

With a championship in his back pocket now, he’s certainly working with a little bit more confidence.

“We feel like we can run competitive wherever we go,” he said. “We’re not really the underdog anymore.”




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