AIM Vasser Sullivan’s special Canadian connection

July 5, 2019

AIM Vasser Sullivan’s special Canadian connection

July 5, 2019

When thinking of Canadian teams in the IMSA paddock, it may be easy to inadvertently overlook AIM Vasser Sullivan.

After all, the team was established in Charlotte to be nearer to Lexus and Toyota Racing Development’s base of operations. Indianapolis 500-winning car owners Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan have carved out a successful pedigree Stateside throughout their careers as co-owners.

But the AIM component – the trio of brothers Ian and Keith Willis and fellow team partner Andrew Bordin – ensures the Canadian portion and heritage of this team is well-established.

Heistand (left) with Vasser, Sullivan, Bordin and Hawksworth after Heistand’s pole at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Michelin North America

And as Ian Willis related, Vasser’s formative years in racing came not just in the U.S., but also in Canada.

We’ve touched on the fusion of partners – among Lexus, AIM, Vasser Sullivan and Michelin – that have led the Lexus RC F GT3 program to a great start in 2019. But this weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park provides a great opportunity to dig a little deeper into this team’s Canadian roots.

“CAN-AM” TEAM BUT WITH CTMP ROOTS

Long before the track was known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the track formerly known as Mosport was the site of Ian and Keith Willis’ upbringing. Ian related how special the track has been to their life and racing career.

“The interesting thing about our histories is my brother Keith and I, we literally grew up at Mosport!” Ian Willis told Michelin Racing USA. “Our father was secretary/treasurer of the British Empire Motorsports Club, and Dempsey was the club that built Mosport. So as kids, we came up here.

“We came up here for the first ever race – which tells my age. As a kid growing up, I rode dirt bikes. It’s very much a home.

“In Canada, obviously we have a lot of hockey as a major sport. Kids are called ‘rink rats’ if they grew up around the rink. Well, we are ‘track rats.’ We grew up around the race track.”

Fast forwarding to 2019, and the fusion of AIM Vasser Sullivan saw the team set up in Charlotte but with the plan to bring the operation to the AIM Autosport’s Woodbridge, Ontario facility, as Willis explained.

No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Frank Montecalvo, Townsend Bell, Aaron Telitz, Jeff Segal. Ian Willis is second from left. Photo: Levitt/LAT

“I guess we’re a Can-Am team!” he said. “So when we started the program we were in Charlotte, closer to TRD, and we took over a program (from a prior service provider). There was a very short time to get it up and running. That allowed us to get up to speed quicker. That was advantageous.

“The plan all along was to move everything back to our shop in Woodbridge, outside Toronto, and we did that after the Sebring race. As a company, AVS is a Canadian American entity.”

JIMMY V AND CANADA: A YOUNG RACE CAR DRIVER STORY
No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, Townsend Bell, Frankie Montecalvo. Photo: Michelin North America

The 1996 Indy car series champion, Jimmy Vasser spent the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s in a most unlikely place: a Canadian pro F2000 series called the Export A F2000 series. With significant prize money and television packages at the time, it was a great spot to launch a career.

“Jimmy was one of the strong guys there,” Willis laughed. “We were running with Ron Fellows, Dave Empringham, Jimmy Vasser, and the number of drivers that came out of those series is quite impressive.”

No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3, GTD: Jimmy Vasser. Photo: Levitt/LAT

Vasser, who raced regularly in Canada from that series through his junior upbringing in Formula Atlantic and into Indy Car, carries the story forward.

“It was very competitive,” Vasser told Michelin Racing USA. “There were not a lot of tracks, but we hit every track twice in a season. So that would be Mosport, Shannonville, Mont-Tremblant and Sanair. That little oval we used to run. We did two seasons of that and did really well. We didn’t win the championship with weird failures, but we won a lot of races.

Additionally, Vasser and the series had one supporter from a theoretical galaxy far, far away: George Lucas, of Star Wars and Lucasfilm Ltd. fame.

“Yeah, we had Lucasfilm as a sponsor!” Vasser recalled. “George Lucas was into it. It was based in Sonoma, in Northern California. And Ken Murillo was my teammate…”

Murillo, incidentally, is now in the same paddock as Vasser nearly 30 years later. The Murillo Racing team runs a two-car Mercedes-AMG GT4 entry in the IMSA MICHELIN Pilot Challenge series.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER FAST

With Lexus’ two years of development on the RC F GT3, AIM’s renowned reputation for turning new race programs into winning outfits, quickly, and Vasser Sullivan’s ability to generate a consistent aesthetic, look and feel of a program, the pieces were all there to succeed.

The challenge was doing all of this in just over 60 days between the end of the 2018 Motul Petit Le Mans and the 2019 ROAR Before the Rolex 24 test in Daytona.

Crew, shop, car, equipment, look… all to assemble in 60 days. Photo: Michelin North America (Hardy)

“I went into it with a high level of trepidation when we took the program over,” Vasser admitted. “Our fiscal calendar started November 1, so two weeks after Petit. I had set up a shop in Charlotte. I knew it’d be imperative to be there the first six months at least and there is value there. It’s a satellite shop as the core of our team is based (here).”

Willis added, “I think we made the right strategic decisions. We’ve benefited from the Lexus RC F GT3’s development the last two years. We have had other cars where we did the development. In this case, that’s been done. The package was competitive right away thanks to TRD’s notes, and their work with the previous team. That’s helped accelerate our level of performance.”

With the plan to shift operations primarily to the Woodbridge, Ontario shop, rather than the Charlotte one, for the meat of the IMSA season it has meant this team has two bases rather than one.

LEXUS SUCCESS ON TRACK WITH LARGELY NEW DRIVER LINEUP

For this program, the one constant in the team’s four-driver full-season lineup is Jack Hawksworth, with all of Richard Heistand, Townsend Bell and Frankie Montecalvo new to the combined effort. Bell, though, had worked with AIM before with a different GT car and Hawksworth has provided the car’s baseline pace and aided significantly in its development.

Hawksworth and Heistand won their first race at Mid-Ohio, and repeated in Detroit. Photo: Levitt/LAT

An all-American podium kicked off the year at Daytona. Then a pair of wins at Mid-Ohio and Detroit were proof in the pudding that the wins can just keep on coming. As Willis joked, winning at Mid-Ohio kept alive the team’s unofficial goal of reaching victory lane by the third race of a new program.

Fittingly, this weekend at the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix, is a milestone anniversary for the car. Sage Karam delivered the first pole worldwide for the Lexus RC F GT3 in 2017, beating his then-Michigan roommate Hawksworth. Hawksworth scored last year’s pole, so the car has a chance for a three-peat in today’s qualifying session.

In what both Willis and Vasser described as close to a “dream start,” Lexus Motorsports Manager Jeff Bal agrees the transition has been seamless from the previous team to the AIM Vasser Sullivan outfit.

“I don’t think you could have scripted a better first half of the season,” Bal told Michelin Racing USA.

“It a was convenient beginning of season. They had a temporary shop setup. So the first three to four races, AIM had a shop closer to Salisbury, N.C., nearer to where the TRD offices are in Carolina. They’re now permanently back up here in Canada, but the communication is as constant as it’s been.”

A CHANCE TO EXCEL WITH MICHELIN
Pit stop for No. 12 Lexus at Watkins Glen. Photo: Levitt/LAT

Vasser hadn’t had the chance to race or work with Michelin prior to 2019 as Indy car has had another exclusive tire partner for 20 years. So this year has been a chance for him to discover Michelin’s motorsport program fully.

“Michelin is the best tire on the planet, and it always has been,” Vasser said. “We were excited to have Michelin, primarily because we had a tire degradation problem (last year) and we figured with Michelin it’d suit our car better. The staff has been second to none.

“I had never raced with Michelin or worked with them before this year… but now I can say I have worked with the best. This and Bridgestone Firestone (Indy car exclusive partner) are the best two racing tire companies out there.”

Going back to Willis, he said his formative years at CTMP – and elsewhere – provided many chances to work with Michelin. This year has marked the AIM team’s return.

“It’s great to be with Lexus and with the TRD support of this program. And being on Michelin tires again – we raced a lot with Michelin in junior formula – we love racing with Michelin tires. The bar is set, so expectations are set.”

Bal concurred, noting driver feedback had been positive after Friday’s first practice session of the weekend at CTMP.

LEXUS EXTENDING ITS IMSA LEGACY

Lexus and IMSA have a long and successful history throughout IMSA’s 50 years. Bal noted that now, thanks to IMSA’s new television partner NBC Sports, even more people are aware of Lexus’ presence in the series.

“There have been 50 years of IMSA and this isn’t year three for Lexus Racing,” he said. “There’s a lot of success throughout and perhaps it isn’t as commonly known because hasn’t been as televised as it is now. With NBC, there is a lot more press now than there has been.

“We’ve been IMSA fans for as long we’ve been running, which is more than a decade with Lexus, and longer with Toyota. We haven’t got the GTD championship yet. But we haven’t got this good this early without a lot of planning; we like where we are.”

BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME

Willis and Vasser made sure to pay tribute to Canada, both the CTMP track and the always hearty, always devoted, diehard Canadian race fans.

“Canadian motorsport fans are great. They’ve always been some of the most enthusiastic around the world,” Vasser said.

Willis added, “Really, it’s all of us. Jimmy has a great history here in Canada. Andrew started with us in the mid-’90s, when he ran with us. That’s how we started AIM.

“Although as a group we are ‘Can-Am’ based, Mosport, Canada always holds a special place for us, and CTMP is always home.”

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