October 10, 2018
Ethan Wilson’s first year in Trans Am’s TA2 class, in his own words.
In the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli’s hyper-competitive TA2 class, Ethan Wilson is having himself a year. A Rookie of the Year, year, to be more precise.
Wilson’s TA2 debut came, like many current Trans Am competitors, at Sebring International Raceway— the birthplace of the Trans Am Series, now fittingly the birthplace of so many Trans Am careers. But unlike many rookies, Wilson hit the ground running, turning fast times in practice that led to Series driver development coaches simply writing “big engine?" on their notes.
Now, with only two races remaining, Wilson has Rookie of the Year honors for the No. 49 Berryman/ Prefix Dodge Challenger all but locked up. But he’s gone much further than simply rookie of the year honors, he’s mixed it up with some of TA2’s best; and better yet, he’s living a life long dream of pro racing-- one that spans back decades.
“I’ve been interested and involved in racing for over 30 years,” said Wilson. “My father raced Formula Fords on the pro circuit back when I was a kid. I always had interest and when we’d go to races, I’d play with Hot Wheels in the dirt. A friend of my father had a son about my age, so we started working on a race team as gofers in the pits. I enjoyed that. Eventually, my friend got kart. So I’d go watch him race a go-kart; and I’d think, well I can beat him.’”
“So, I told my dad I wanted a go-kart. And my dad says, ‘Alright son, we’ll get you a go-kart and if you get all As and Bs, do you chores and respect your mother we’ll go racing.’ And that was the deal. I started back in 1984 racing go karts, and I did that for 33 years, and most of that was with my dad, especially when I was younger.”
Wilson’s years in karting continued, with plenty of accolades and success; but it wasn’t until a trip to Circuit of The Americas to watch F1 that the idea of stepping up to race cars finally entered his mind.
“I actually did really well racing go-karts; I was a national champion multiple times and won a bunch of pro tour races. So I got sponsors and my team together, and I was off doing this on my own. My dad wasn’t really going with me any more. But we’d make a habit of traveling to Formula 1 races, and we went to COTA for the Formula 1 race in 2014.”
“In the past my father and I had done some track days with our Ferrari street cars; that was pretty much the ‘racing’ time we were spending together. But we got to talking and said ‘We need to drive a Ferrari race car here at COTA.’ So we went and found a 430 Challenge car in March of 2015; that was really my first foray into racing cars on circuits.”
Wilson spent the rest of the season testing and working on the 430 getting the machine, and its driver, up to speed.
“We practiced all through 2015, and we had some challenges with the car—probably why they call them 'Challenge cars.’ So we kept working through all of those and at the end of 2015 we did our first race at Circuit of The Americas in the Challenge car. We had some struggles with it mechanically on the first day, so we pulled an all-nighter, and on the second day started last on the grid there were maybe 16, 17 cars on the grid. And I was able to, in the rain with very little time on track, finish second.”
Between the rigors of the weekend, and, ultimately, the following triumph Wilson was hooked.
“It was an amazing experience. After staying up all night, pulling a gearbox change, changing the clutch, having a lightning hold and falling asleep on grid during the hold from just being exhausted (I even fell asleep with the cool suit on; so it killed the battery and wouldn’t start on grid so they had to push me off). I just made some moves, used the rain line I’d learned from karting and finished second to the series champion. It was an exciting, emotional result, to see all that effort come to together to make a dream come true.”
What followed was a full season of Ferrari Challenge racing, a championship and, thanks to Wilson’s then crew chief Anthony Honeywell (now a fellow TA2 driver and teammate at Stevens-Miller Racing) a search for the next step.
“Anthony was with me all through the 2017 season, he was my crew chief, and we won a championship and we wanted to find what was next. The series we were running in was folding; and I’d done enough with that car and we wanted to do something else.”
“Anthony, bless his heart, had done a lot of research as to where was the best racing bang for your dollar and he came across Trans Am’s TA2 class. The car costs were reasonable, the cost controls well placed to keep the playing field even, and the competition was really a step up fromn the gentleman racing we were doing.”
Honeywell would be the first to take the plunge into the prospects of TA2 racing. What followed was yet another trip to COTA to feel out the lay of the land.
“Before we went Trans Am racing, Anthony ended up buying a TA2 car. I went and looked at it, and thought this is really pretty cool. So we went to COTA in 2017 to watch the Trans Am race there. We walked around and visited with drivers and teams to get a feel for the culture and how the people were— and I liked what I saw. It struck me as a really good group of people."
“I didn’t talk to Stevens-Miller at that time, but Anthony definitely did— we had split our resources there to cover as much ground as possible. But we had settled on Trans Am. I wasn’t sure if I just wanted to flat out buy a race car again. I had just owned one, sold it, went through a bunch of trouble with it. I live on the West Coast, a lot of races are on the East – it just wasn’t practical for us to own a race car and try and transport it. I wanted to find an arrive and drive program, and that’s just what Stevens-Miller is.”
“I spent a lot of time researching and talking with Joe (Stevens), but ultimately I decided this was the way to go. The way to step up to pro level racing.”
A test at Sebring in Honeywell’s car followed, and immediately the differences between Wilson’s 430 and the TA2 machine emerged— for the better.
“It was pretty amazing actually. The first time I drove a Trans Am car was Anthony’s at Sebring. Anthony had wanted to go for a test at Sebring at the end of 2017, since the season started there in 2018. So I flew out there and met him. I got into the car and the first thing that really stood out to me was just how raw it was. How powerful the sound was, then I realized I actually had to shift it and really get to the brakes— again, it was just so raw and basic. I thought it was really cool. I pull it out of the pits and really stood on it, and go ‘wow, there’s really some horsepower in it.’ Right away, the TA2 car was really a piece of work.”
“I really enjoyed how the car worked. You could feel it moving around underneath you, and feel it understeer or power slide— of course I wanted to be careful with it because it was Anthony’s car— but I really enjoyed the experience; throwing the gears, working the controls. I immediately wanted to go forward and run the Series.”
As for arriving at Trans Am, Wilson is quick to credit his teammate, former crew chief and fellow rookie, Anthony Honeywell.
“Anthony is really the guy who got me here. We had raced go-karts together forever, and really became close friends. And here we are racing together in Trans Am! It’s been to neat to follow the dream of doing this and doing it with him.”
With the exhilaration and enthusiasm of starting something new set aside, like many racers Wilson remains a competitor. He wants to win, he wants to succeed; but with the foray into TA2 racing underway, along with it came something else new: expectations.
“With Kart racing I’ve done it for nearly thirty years and had a lot of success. Whenever you go racing in a new division or new series you want to set realistic expectations. I watched all the races on YouTube, and thought, ‘wow, there’s some really good guys here.’ But I had a lot of success in karting that kind of balances my expectation for winning and competing for a podium, as opposed to being brand new in a series with pro drivers who have raced Indycar, have won 24 hours of Daytona, or running here for years. That’s tough.”
“I went in thinking if I can run in the top ten in this Series I’d be meeting my expectations and I’d be really pleased with the goal.”
Wilson’s first race was quick to meet those expectations, seventh on the qualifying grid followed by an eighth place finish.
“I was stunned when I did as well as I did at Sebring. To qualify seventh, was amazing. I was out there in practice trying to learn the track and be careful, but seeing the aggression level of the guys who had done it for awhile… it was a wow factor. I remember going out in qualifying and we were gridded by practice times and I was faster than Jordan Bupp, and I knew he had been doing this for a while. We went out there and I was hanging out for a while and he just went and passed me, with purpose, and I knew I just needed to go. That whole weekend I was trying to be careful and stay out of trouble; the start was a little crazy there were so many things happening. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I was able to settle down and find a groove. I brought home a solid eighth place finish in my first race; I was ready to go do it again. Absolutely.”
Even with some early success, Wilson kept a rookie mindset, hungry to learn and assimilate as much information as possible. From iRacing, to in-car footage on YouTube to a track map on his desk at work, Wilson remained eager to learn and grow, particularly with a schedule full of new tracks.
“When I was doing Ferrari Challenge, I had a friend who lived down Long Beach who had a simulator. So I was flying down there pretty regularly, getting laps in on the simulator. My wife encouraged me, if I was going to be serious about it, to get my own simulator. So I did, and I’ve been watching a lot of on-board from years past— I watched a ton of Cameron Lawrence’s videos. Joe makes in-car video available to his drivers as well, and I’ve always got a track map on desk for weeks before the race.”
One of those new tracks was the Belle Isle circuit at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, a circuit unlike any other on the Trans Am schedule and a challenge Wilson was not sure he was ready to tackle only with only three career Trans Am races under his belt.
“Detroit was amazing. I’ve got to admit, when we were talking about running the Series and the season I wasn’t sure how much I’d do. I wasn’t sure what my talent level was or how I’d do and what my budget would carry. And of course with Detroit there’s no room for error at all, so at the beginning of the season I had decided I wasn’t going to do Detroit because I wanted to make sure I was comfortable with the car before I put myself in that circumstance.”
“But what was ironic was in karting my favorite races were always the street races. I had done a ton of them and just loved them. So as I ran the first few TA2 races, and had some decent results and felt competitive, I decided to pull the trigger— let’s do Detroit.”
“And wow what a great experience it was. To be out there with the Indy cars and all the fans, the autograph session and to finish sixth at Detroit, it was a super proud moment and a real accomplishment. My best finish to date had been eighth, first place out of the money; so to finish sixth, on a TV race, and to get a check for finishing in the money was a really special result for me.”
Following Detroit came an appearance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a glimpse at just how competitive Wilson and the No. 49 could be.
“Indianapolis was almost unbearable with the heat. In a way, I’m still kicking myself for Indy; I’d actually out-qualified Jordan Bupp, the eventual race winner, and I was running in front of him when I dropped a wheel and got out in the grass and lost some spots. Still, to finish sixth place and bring it home at Indianapolis… I’d been there many times, I’d been to the Indy 500 in 1995 and I’d been to a bunch of the grand prix races there, but to actually have such a great result there has been a really special part of my Trans Am experience.”
Wilson is also quick to credit his crew and team with his Rookie success, a relationship with Stevens-Miller Racing that continues to grow.
“I’m really pleased with Stevens-Miller Racing. Joe, he’s a young man, with a real vision, determination and commitment to his team and his crew. What really stood out to me is the real passion he has; his shop is on his property next to his house and he’s always there. Joe puts in the hours, and I’ve spent more time working with him, Tate the crew chief, Kevin the car chief, Nick, Steven and Josh the mechanics; we’ve got enough people to make it really work. They work so seamlessly together. They accept I’m a rookie and my feedback isn’t really that great; I’ve ripped fenders off, they’ve fixed things and kept the car going. Now that I know a bit more they take my input— they are a great group of people and I’ve really enjoyed working with them. All you have to do is show up with your helmet and a good attitude.”
Now with the 2018 season coming to a close, Wilson also has the opportunity to look back on his Rookie experience and reflect on his journey so far.
“It’s been a great experience here, even as a rookie. The sanctioning body makes you feel welcome, helps you learn and become a contributing participant. All the competitors have been really friendly. I had watched Tony Buffomante, Gar Robinson, Shane Lewis and Jordan Bupp race on track and to all of the sudden be out there with them— it’s actually amazing you can go and do this and be a part of a pro racing series. I really recommend it; if you’ve ever wanted to take the leap, this is an amazing place to do it. With these competitors, their experience, it adds a lot of gratification. You’re doing it with top notch guys; there’s amazing competition. I mean, one of my highlights was out-qualifying Paul Tracy at Indianapolis. I told all my friends, it was really a special thing. That’s what TA2 gives you. If you have skill, experience and put work into it, you can go out there and race with some pro guys; and if you’ve got the goods, you stand a chance.”
“This year had been possible due to some special people, first and foremost, my wife Dea Wilson. She’s been a supporter and encourager to chase this Trans Am dream. I have to thank my marketing and sales guy Steve Sharp, who’s brought the Berryman sponsorship to Trans Am. Steve is a friend who I raced go-karts with back in the day, and we always talked about racing Trans Am. I also have to thank, USAAutomotiveSupply.com Beau with Berryman Products— a family business that’s really excited about what we’re doing here; they have supported Stevens-Miller and sponsored the Indy race. Western Grinding Service, Liqui Moly, Lifograph, Production Graphics, Prefix, Pagid, Howe Racing Enterprises, Woodruff Wilson Design, Sterling Racing, they’re all people and companies that contribute financially or with product or personally that make this journey possible. ”
“What’s really been special has been spending time with my dad, David Wilson. He’s my life coach, my driving coach— he goes out there and watches and comes in and says ‘you might want to think about this or that.’ He always has some love and a hug; and he’s always so proud. We’ve been traveling and racing together, and it’s been a really special life experience to share it with him.”
“But that’s a key part about the family environment I’ve discovered Trans Am to be. If you’re not sure, I’d encourage you to come and experience it. Everyone has been super welcoming— to go hang out with Jordan Bupp, to stop and chat with Rafa Matos and Lawrence Loshak - when I got my simulator and posted a picture Lawrence reached out and said, ‘hey let’s race.’ So I’ve been racing with him on iRacing; that’s pretty cool.”
“It’s just been a great experience to go pro racing— and while racing is never cheap— for the bang for the buck against your budget, TA2 is really where you should go to see if you’ve got the goods or not.”
The interview with Wilson was conducted at Watkins Glen International, the ninth contest of the the 2018 TA2 championship, and with eight races of experience behind him, Wilson’s goals, like his results, have progressed.
“I gotta admit my expectations and goals have changed a bit; when I got into this, it was top-ten and not crash the car. Now that I’ve reached that goal, I’m slightly optimistic that if everything comes together and in a unique way, which it can in racing, I might have a shot at the podium. I’m looking for that top-five and to win the Rookie of the Year— these races that are an hour or hour fifteen, it takes a different mentality to keep that focus with the competition when there are so many things going on— I’ve adapted. But now, while I may not be the fastest guy, my expectations have evolved, and I’m gunning for that top-five finish.”
The next day Wilson would finish fourth at Watkins Glen, two weeks later he doubled down with a fifth place at VIRginia International Raceway.
Now Wilson, and the rest of the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli, head south to Circuit of The Americas on November 2-4, fittingly where Wilson’s foray into pro racing, and Trans Am, began. And maybe, just maybe, a podium place awaits.
Follow Wilson and the rest of Trans Am throughout the weekend at www.gotransam.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/gotransam and on Twitter at @gotransam.