Bryan Willman – Answering The Call

dailysportscar.comI spoke with Bryan Willman at Sebring, before the Bucknum team’s great drive was brought to a premature halt. I’ve had the chance on a few occasions to have a casual conversation with Bryan, but had never really spoke with him in depth until this year’s Sebring. Let me tell you, it was probably one of the most entertaining and engaging conversations that I have ever had the pleasure of. It was all over the place! That it took so long to get this article pulled together is my fault, and is a reflection on the conversation that we had. There were many times that I forgot to jot down what we were discussing, as I was so engrossed in what Bryan had to say. I thank Bryan for being so patient with me…
Gary Horrocks

Mild mannered Software Engineer during the week and a race car driver on the weekends? And quite possibly full time comic. Most of this works, but I’m sorry, I don’t think mild mannered quite fits with the name Bryan Willman of Team Bucknum. Nope, there is no way that anyone who has ever met him can excuse Bryan of being mild mannered.

Bryan got started in racing by participating in a drivers’ school in 1993, eventually moving to Formula Mazda, where the connection with his current teammates came together. Currently Bryan and his teammates at Bucknum, Chris McMurry and Jeff Bucknum, are quite happy to be in LMP2, away from the Lola MGs and racing on a more level playing field.

dailysportscar.com“We were making about 410 horsepower with our three liter, and there we were racing against the AER turbo that was making 530 hp (when it wasn’t blowing up). Thankfully they did blow up some, which allowed us to come through and get those three wins in 2002. That season was quite an adventure. In the first three races of the season, we had a rather forgettable DNF at Sebring, followed by a DNS at Sears Point (left). What I once told somebody was ‘we boiled two cars at Sebring, and blew two up at Sears Pt, so we’re thinking maybe we should go turnip farming or something…. and then we win at Mid-Ohio.’ What a change.”

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Another change for the Bucknum team this year is not just a sponsor change, but a change in sponsorship concepts. “It really isn’t a sponsorship package that we are selling any more. What we are offering now is in reality an incentive package. We sell a “square” on our car for $5000 and each square gives the opportunity for the “sponsor” to be eligible to participate in a day of fun at the Derek Daly Driving School in Las Vegas, get Team Bucknum merchandise, access to the team paddock and hospitality area and also a chance to win prizes, like a ride in the team race car. This package allows us to talk to many more people or companies than traditional sponsorship would allow. So far, we are on schedule, having about 75 on the car. We still have room, but the program is progressing quite well.

“When looking at racing in a financial sense, you have to look at the return of the investment and that return can be in many different ways. In F1, Mercedes pumps money into the series, but in sportscars, Porsche, taking a different direction, is able to make money on their racing programs. To me, the ALMS offers a good value for the investment. Look at what Chevy has had to pay for all that attention that they have gotten from all the success of the Corvette program. It probably isn’t all that much. While it may be perceived as an expensive series to run in, the reality is that the ALMS is an inexpensive series to be involved in, if you want it to be. Our budget is about 1.5 million dollars, after the cost of the car, and I figure we spend about 25% of that budget on travel and to keep it on road. What’s NASCAR cost?

“Our partnership with Fairy Tale Brownies was in many ways too successful. They were great to us and it really was a hit with the fans. Unfortunately, we ran into trouble at Sears Point and at Trios Rivieres for giving away the brownies, but that is something all together different. I guess there was concern that we were cutting into the profits of the vendors. You just never know sometimes. As I said, it was a success for both of us, but we had done our job for them and it was time for them step away from racing. It might have been too big of a step for them, but we ended our partnership on good feelings.

dailysportscar.com"We hooked up with Dark Dog for last season, and looking back, it was a mistake, but I guess it did give us the incentive to develop our new program. We approached them with the thought that ‘we can make you famous’. Maybe we helped, but we didn’t get anything at all in return. It was not a direct sponsorship program, but it was tied more to increases in market share and such. Well, I take it back on getting nothing out of it. We do have a few cases of past pull date Dark Dog back at the shop. We were supposed to get supplies of the drink to distribute in order to make some money, but the supply was never there for us to succeed. When we ran into Franz Konrad at Le Mans, the conversation turned to money and Dark Dog. Well, let’s just say that we were not the only ones not getting paid. I will say that Dark Dog does taste better than its competitors.”

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After running Formula Mazda for a while, Bryan decided it was time to look elsewhere for another series, and he and the team decided to try sportscars. “We ran at Petit in 2001 with Chris, Bret Arsenault and myself in the car. Jeff had been in a Pilbeam at Daytona that season and he had also tried the Lola, but he felt that the Pilbeam was a much better package. Our engine was a three liter, built by Hooker, that was based upon the Nissan V6. After many problems with the motors, including instances of fresh motors leaking oil, and the disastrous results that we had at Sebring, we fired them. So, we hired IES and Graham Dale-Jones to build our motors. We did not have a good start with him, as faulty oil temperature sensors caused us to blow our motors at Sears Point. Obviously, things went better through the season as we were able to get three class wins that year.

“As the racing season went on in 2002, it became apparent that we would be short on power to compete in LMP 675 against the MG Lolas. We decided to go with a concept that Graham had for a while, which displaced 3.4 liters. While it probably wasn’t going to be able to make any additional power than any other normal V-6 of the same displacement, being a 120 degree V-6, it did offer a much lower center of gravity. Through a complicated deal, I eventually formed a company that joined with IES to build the motor, giving me the badging rights.

“2003 was what not we had hoped for, results wise, as we ended up doing our testing in front of crowds. While we rarely blew the motor, we did have rear seal issues and some cracked blocks. New blocks and additional bracing has taken care of most of the problems and now our motor is making 70-100 hp more than our 3 liter was and with development, we will be on par with the Judd V-8. By Laguna, we were as fast as we had ever been and the speed was such that the MG teams were looking at what we were doing, wondering if we had the wrong restrictors. That felt good. Sort of some reward for all of our hard work.

“In that time we had gone to Le Mans, and boy was it a disaster. Our car just was not the correct spec to run there; it was perfectly legal, but we were not as quick as we would have hoped and on top of that, we had some very high oil temperatures. Would I do it again? Are you kidding? Yes I would, but not that way.

Willman is not just the name on the 3.4 liter 120 degree V-6 engine, but he is also a part owner of Team Bucknum Racing. “We all have our place with the team. Jeff, who is a co-owner of the team, calls the shots. He runs the company and facility on a daily basis. Chris has brought a great deal to the program, not just in driving and his leadership in sponsorship, but in perspective, life experience, and general wisdom. I have helped pay for development of the car and also help pay for our new facility. Or at least I think I helped pay for the facility. I haven’t been there, but I trust that the guys did use the money for the new facility. It is a team effort and all of us contribute in the best ways that we can.

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“But racing is something that I want to do. I don’t make a living at it. In fact, I consider it an anti-living. It is a passion and adventure and a great contest. It should be fun, and while Don Panoz feels that the racing is “for the fans”, I feel that the participants are fans too. You have to be mad to be doing this. I look at the typical weekend being the following: air travel, rental car, talking on the phone, hotels and sitting and waiting. In the overall scheme of things, the time spent driving the car is way down on the list. So if driving and competing weren't super joyful things, nobody would do it.

“My personal life has taken many interesting twists, but these ten years that I have been racing have been great joys of my life. We have a fun team and when I walk away from this, I will have some great stories. When the race is over, I go back to Microsoft and work on non-ending problems. But racing is different. It is interesting and intense. If you win, you were good enough, but there are times where you feel that being on the podium is good enough.

"I keep going because, well, I'm just not very bright. It's expensive and dangerous. But it's addictive. Like heroin. I have no choice but to answer the call of the throttle."

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