From my driveway, I couldn’t help but hear a very distinct, high-pitched sound. Though it had been many years, one never forgets the perfect song of a well-tuned, Ferrari V-12. So, I ran to my front lawn as more than a dozen Ferraris rolled to a stop in front of the house at the end of my street. I had no doubt that someone important was either visiting or living in our Gwinnett neighborhood, but I wouldn’t find out until a couple of weeks later.
Every year during the late summer, all the folks in our housing development hold an informal street party for kids and grown ups alike. This event always occurs right in front of our house, and as usual, I was leaned back in a comfortable lawn chair sipping a cool one and stuffing down a cheeseburger when I heard that sound again. Within seconds, a beautiful, classic, titanium-colored Ferrari Testarosa drove up, and out stepped a gentleman with a broad smile.
“Hello, I’m Brian Willis,” he said. “I hear that you used to drive race cars in Europe thirty years ago, and that you now fish for a living.”
Though I had never met this man before, he had certainly done his homework about me. I quickly learned, however, that Brian Willis was always well-informed about most subjects, and from that moment on, we would be fast friends.
The first time I walked through Brian’s house, I knew that he was special. The walls were lined with autographed photos of most of the great racing cars of the past twenty years, and every nook and cranny was filled with exact models of cars, motorcycles, trains, military tanks, airplanes, and much more. He even had several displays of exotic rocks from all over the world. Then, he showed me the model and photo of the Williams BMW that had won the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1999. Brian had been the project’s chief design engineer, and along with a team of coworkers, had developed this winning car from concept.
Raised with two brothers in Connecticut on Long Island Sound, most of his childhood was spent doing watersports like swimming and sailing. His real joy, however, came from erector sets, tinker toys, Lincoln Logs, Tonka Toys, or anything he could use his imagination to put together.
In high school, Brian became interested in cars and dreamed about owning one. He and most of his close friends seemed to talk about cars and racing constantly. Then, a friend introduced him to the Italian Alfa Romeo, and eventually Brian purchased a 1972 Alfa GTV 2000, which stoked his passion for Italian cars.
At 16 years old, Brian was introduced to racing when he became aware of the Skip Barber Racing School at Lime Rock racetrack. The next weekend, Brian drove up to the track and watched students learning to drive racing cars. By the time he returned home, he had already decided that racing was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
To make a long story short, Brian saved his money from a summer job, enrolled in the racing school, and received his license. In the process, he met Skip Barber, who offered him a job for the following summer. Therefore, until Brian went away to college, he had a steady job with the Skip Barber Racing School in Connecticut and Florida.
Even before receiving his BS in both mechanical and aerospace engineering at Texas A & M University, Brian hooked up with Bob Sharp Racing in Connecticut. He soon became both mechanic and engineer, building winning Nissans for SCCA racing, whose top driver was actor, Paul Newman.
Following college, Brian received a one year fellowship from Grumman Aircraft to attend the Academy of Aeronautics in Queens, New York. He then spent two years as an aero engineer with Sikorsky Aircraft doing wind tunnel tests on the S-76B helicopter.
In the next two years, Brian Willis received his masters degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. During that period, he rebuilt and ran the University’s wind tunnel and helped to build test models of submarines for the General Dynamics Corporation.
After the M.I.T. experience, Brian worked for a couple of years as a design engineer for AAI Inc. developing advanced weapon systems for the military before returning to his real love….racing. The rest of his career sounds like a Who’s Who in every facet of international motorsports. He has been one of the top engineers with Dan Gurneys All American Racers, Inc. on GTP cars, worked with Nissan Performance Technology, Inc. on their GTP program, helped develop both a wind tunnel and a formula Atlantic car for Swift Race Cars, was a design engineer on Indy cars for Rahal/Hogan Indy Car Racing, and then spent two years designing the winning Williams/BMW for LeMans.
Brian Willis came to Atlanta in 2000 to work on numerous projects with Elan Tech Motorsports Group (EMTG) and Panoz Motorsports, but left them in 2003 to work on his own. Today, he is a design engineer and consultant for numerous confidential clients in all parts of the racing business, including NASCAR. However, over the past couple of years Brian’s primary focus has been developing the Audi R8 LMP LeMans Car for Team GOH International sponsored by Audi Sport of Japan, which won the 2004 24 Hours of LeMans. During this off season, however, Brian has been giving engineering help on the Ford Focus Daytona Prototype program for the Multimatic Corporation in Toronto, Canada.
In addition to all of the paid work, Brian Willis has been a great friend to me and has given lots of free, technical advice to many of us who just do club racing on a local level with the Atlanta Region of SCCA. He even painted my trademark yellow nose on my #21 Spec Miata in his garage at home!
Having raced professionally in Europe for ten years as a young man, being able to live modern international racing through Brian’s eyes has been almost as exciting as being there. Like me, he has always followed his passions for life and the things he most enjoys, including cars. He may have fallen in love with an Italian Alfa Romeo when he was young, but today, his tastes are more refined. Look into his garage now and you’ll find a classic Ferrari Testarosa and a modern Ferrari 360, plus a couple of fast motorcycles, not to mention enough tools and equipment to build most anything. Brian Willis is truly a racing engineer extraordinaire and the most eligible bachelor in the racing fraternity!