John Willman: The Ultimate Underdog | TehBen at the races

On a beautiful late spring evening in Delmar, DE, some of the biggest names in east coast dirt modified racing descended on Delaware International Speedway for the annual running of the Diamond State 50. Conducted under the promotion of Brett Deyo’s Short Track Super Series, premier races up and down the Mid-Atlantic bring a diverse and talented crop of “Big Block” style modifieds representing dozens of home tracks and scores of unique backgrounds. TehBen.com was lucky enough to speak with two drivers during the running of the 2021 Diamond State 50 who, while both talented racers, come from vastly different places in the racing community. What started as two separate ideas has unintentionally come together to illustrate the level of the playing field in this brand of racing, no matter what path it took to get there. Please enjoy part 1…

John Willman of Birdsboro, PA has the sort of race team that catches your eye immediately as you walk through the pits. In an era of double stacker trailers, luxury suites and toolboxes that stretch for miles, Willman’s operation is one of pure minimalism. Hauling with an open trailer the modified veteran driver works with a skeleton crew, a lot of the time just he and his wife, sometimes even by himself. Despite what looks to the casual observer as an insurmountable disadvantage from the start, Willman competes not only in the Short Track Super Series, but regularly at one of the most competitive dirt tracks in the nation, the Grandview Speedway in Bectelsville, PA…and scores feature wins against hall of fame caliber drivers with far greater budgets. Willman explains, “it’s a small team, even on the 20 hour trip to Louisiana (STSS Cajun Swing) it was just my wife and I, but I don’t let that hold me back. One motor, one car, pretty much one of everything. That one I have is good, there’s just not a lot of it.” The one engine factor creates an even bigger disadvantage at these professional grade STSS events, as his PA Legal Spec 358 CI Small Block Modified is underpowered compared to the “open small blocks” and/or beefy traditional Big Block 472 CI engines that make up most of the field. “Early on it’s a big disadvantage,” continues Willman. “With a heavy track that’s fast, we get a little boost on the restarts, but even with the weight break it’s still hard.”

Despite this disadvantage, even after starting towards the rear of the field, Willman qualified for the Diamond State 50 through his heat race. By beating out potential feature winning contenders, the 74w gave his fans yet another anecdote to his well earned nickname: The Ultimate Underdog.

Photo Credit: Chad Shalaway

Very few drivers ever look to make themselves known as an underdog, and Willman’s nickname was thrust upon him. “One night at Big Diamond the announcer made a reference to me being an underdog, and the next night announcer Ernie Saxton at Grandview calls me “THE ULTIMATE UNDERDOG” and it just kind of went from there! We put the sticker on the car the next year and it’s been that way ever since, but it’s never bothered me, it makes sense.”

An independent spirit is admirable, but with Willman it’s not from a lack of cooperation. At various times throughout his career Willman has worked with other drivers and owners securing rides, notably winning a memorable Delaware State Big Block Championship race. And even then, that victory came the day after picking up the car for the first time, winning in true underdog fashion. If the right opportunity comes along, he’s open to driving a funded ride. “I’m working on something with my father, hoping to get a better motor for these types of races. But yeah I’d love to be in a place where there was a car for every track instead of working all night after a race to get the same car ready for the next one.” Working a day job with any racing career makes things difficult, but Willman’s job in outside sales for Freightliner of Philadelphia allows a level of freedom that keeps the 74w on track. “Most of my work can be over the phone or remotely, so I’m able to make more races.”

Making more races means thinking outside of the box. This style of dirt modified racing is increasing in popularity, even on display at Bristol Motor Speedway over the previous weekend. While Willman did not compete in that event, he made note of the future of northeast modifieds. “People who’ve never seen these cars saw the great racing at Bristol and they’re asking why Modifieds aren’t racing more places. [STSS Promoter] Brett Deyo’s at a point where he could pack up a dozen of us, take us out to Illinois or somewhere…and create a following, just like he did down in Louisiana.” Racing in more places is great for the sport, but it challenges guys like The Ultimate Underdog in new ways, as expenses for transport and accommodations increase with the travel. To that point, Willman’s operation thought up new methods of fundraising, accepting small donations from fans. “Anyone who wanted to help, 5, 10 dollars…I ended up paying my whole fuel bill to Louisiana from that alone.” Off season expenses bring challenges as well. Selling the previous season’s car can be a chore, but rather than face the dreaded hassles and hagglers, Willman decided instead to hold a “raffle.” Selling a specific number of entries and holding a drawing to award the car made for a smoother process, “a lot better than dealing with tire kickers coming to your house. If I end up selling this car at the end of the year, that’s how I’m gonna sell that one too.”

Car wash between races during the Louisiana trip.

Still, even with all the disadvantages: the lower power, the skeleton crew, the long hours where just making it to the track on time can feel like a win, the Underdog charm can create opportunity. “I had one guy in Louisiana on the second night come up to me and say, ‘you’re the only guy here with an open trailer’ and he handed me $100. If fans can do stuff like that, the underdogs really appreciate it.” The underdog as a concept may not be the first guy to take the flag or make the headlines. But with the passion and drive of John Willman and the results carved from it, The Ultimate Underdog just might be the first to make a memory.

John Willman qualified for the feature race of 2021 Diamond State 50. After completing all 50 laps and finishing 17th, Willman and the 74w collected a cash bonus for being the highest finishing “spec” engined small block.

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Special thanks to John Willman for taking the time to answer our questions and agree to this interview.

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