Danny Willis, Jr. has been a mainstay in local short track racing for the last 19 years but as he enters his 20th season he feels like he’s being squeezed out by a number of rule changes and technology creeping in from the upper levels of NASCAR.
Willis isn’t ready to end his storied career in short track racing but with continuing rule changes in the Late Model Stock Car division, the 42-year-old driver might take a step back to Limited Late Models to stay on the track.
“Inside me, I don’t want to quit,” Willis told RACE22.com. “I’ve always loved to do it. I take nothing away from the guys like Lee (Pulliam) and (Peyton) Sellers and the guys who can work on these cars for a living but I can’t do that and I want to keep racing but it’s getting harder to afford it.”
Willis says sponsorship is his biggest concern right now with several sponsors not returning or having not decided or expecting to be done at the end of this year.
“Sponsorship in Late Model racing is tough. I’ve been racing a long time, this is my 20th year of racing and I’ve had to do it on my own and find people who have backed me for many years. I’ve had a lot of backers and it’s time for some of them to get out and do something else.”
Two of Willis’ longtime sponsors are Gardner Marsh and Meeler Insurance. Gardner Marsh is in its final season with Willis since coming on board with him in 2010, which is an extension since they were expected to quit at the end of 2018. They decided to return to Willis and try and end their tenure together on a good note after a bad season last year.
Meeler Insurance is Willis’ longest-tenured sponsor having been on board of his car since 2006. This would be their 13th season together but right now Meeler is on the fence as to whether they can come back for another season. This leaves Willis in a spot where he has to decide whether to try and stick with Late Model Stock Cars or drop back to Limiteds.
“I’d love to stay in Late Models,” commented Willis. “I left Limiteds after 2015 and I felt like I’d done all I could do there. It’s more of a challenge to run Late Models but there’s still great competition in the Limiteds.
Willis knows that even if he drops back to Limiteds, he won’t be able to just win races without competition.
“I’m not falling back to cherry pick. It’s a tough field with guys like Trey Crews, BooBoo Dalton and Jessica Dana running in Limiteds. There’s a lot of good cars in Limiteds and drivers at every level with ones who are coming up and will be moving on and guys who have been running it for a long time. It’s tough competition.”
Willis had originally decided to quit racing at the end of 2015 before off-season rule and purse changes enticed him to buy another car and go Late Model Stock Car racing.
“I had sold my car because I was getting out,” said Willis. “Then they changed the tire deal and I could run a Late Model for what I could run a Limited before. So I bought another car and we went Late Model racing. 2016 was a really good year, 2017 was a little tougher and last year was probably the worst of my career.”
To stay in Late Models Willis is going to need a new engine because he feels the Chevrolet 604 Crate engine has been left behind.
“To stay in Late Models I’m going to have to get a Harrington or something else because the crate engine is about 30 to 40 horsepower down to the Upgrade, the Ford and the Harrington. The Chevrolet Upgrade got more power this year, the Harrington got more power last season and the Ford got new parts to get up to speed and the 604 got left behind. And it’s the cheapest engine available.”
Willis feels that in 2016 before the Chevrolet Upgrade was forced on competitors that the engine packages were pretty even and he didn’t see a need for a change. Since then we’ve got the Harrington Enforcer and an upgrade for the Ford this off-season.
The veteran driver is clear that his biggest challenges of staying in Late Model Stock Cars is having a new engine to stay competitive, staying up to date on bump stops using a pull-down rig and finding sponsors to pay for it. He feels finding sponsors is the hardest part right now.
“Racing is almost getting to be a dying sport,” continued Willis. “NASCAR says they’re doing us money all the time but it costs us money every time they change a rule. They have trouble filling the stands and when you lose fans, you lose sponsors. At South Boston, the biggest challenge is that there are so many local drivers that the sponsor just takes the cheapest one.”
Another challenge for Willis is that the payout for running top five in Late Models at South Boston is about the same as winning in Limiteds and the cost to win in Limiteds is substantially less.
“The best we did last year was top five in Late Models and we can contend for wins in the Limiteds every week I think. It won’t be easy but we’ll have a lot better shot and when you buy fewer tires and spend less money to race, you come out a lot better winning $800 in Limiteds versus the same for finishing top five in Late Models.”
Willis feels that the step back to Limiteds will also help him to be able to afford to travel more versus the cost of racing Late Models. He’d like to run more at Ace and Orange County and have the freedom to go other places. The rule change at South Boston to allow the 604 also makes the move back easier.
Willis is still looking for sponsors to stay in Late Models or to help run more Limited races but either way he’s planning to race and keeping a guy like him running short tracks is good for business.