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Mat Williamson- The Ending of a Brilliant Beginning

Gary Heeman Photo

A dream almost came true for Mat Williamson in 2015, it would have been a moment that would have been talked about forever. There he was, in position to win what amounts to a Super Bowl for the world of north east modified racing. Tucked securely in the top five at the legendary Moody Mile during the 200 lap finale of Super Dirt Week with the laps winding down, Williamson had a car that was fast, and had driven a perfectly patient race. A task that many veteran drivers at Syracuse had never really managed, to be in a position to win in the last fifty laps.

To those who’d seen him grow through the ranks as an up and coming modified driver, it was only a question of when and not if this time would come.  And just like that, the dream was over. And if you were following along, it was truly heartbreaking.

“We were riding around saving fuel and not pushing the envelope,” Williamson remarked. “We knew we had 40 laps left. Chad Brachmann had come down and was my crew chief that weekend and his brother Cory was my spotter and he just kept telling me to settle down and save fuel. We actually had two extra gallons at the time so we could have pushed the issue. It was heartbreaking, that’s one race that I’ll never forget. Knowing that we were good enough to be top three car or even win and to have it taken away by a simple part failure. It was nothing crazy, nothing that you think could go wrong, but sure enough it did and I’ll never forget.  You know the most heartbreaking part about it, is not being able to go back and redeem yourself.

Williamson’s afternoon was dealt a fatal blow by mechanical failure.  And the most agonizing part, is that it was the last time he’d have a chance to win on the biggest stage on the most storied racing venue in the northeast.  It was  no way to end a season. Especially not this one. But 2015 was for Williamson was more than a season, it was a progression, an ending of a brilliant beginning that saw him elevate his status from a regional success to a travelling success, and finally to the brink of the upper echelon of the sport.  And he’s only twenty five.

Pat Miller Photo

Having just returned from a night at his shop, where even though he could have everything he’d ever need to race at a high level completely fabricated for him by virtue of his relationship with the brain trust of the Bicknell Race Products family, Williamson muses on all the work he puts in on his own cars, and what it means to him.

“I’ve never come back for the week and not wanted to work on the race car,” Williamson states with a great deal of pride and respect.  “I put at least 70 hours a week into this race car and it’s takes determination to get it better and better every week. Even when we’re building cars at Bicknell throughout the winter, there’s always stuff I like to do different on my car just to try and get that little advantage and that’s what keeps me doing it. You can spend so much time doing it and it’s one of these sports that shows off what you do behind the scenes. If you work on your race car throughout the week and you put more effort in than the next guy you’re probably going to win come Friday or Saturday.”

That level of determination is part of the equation that has propelled him to great things. A brilliant beginning the likes of which he’s achieved, comes only as a result of hard work and commitment, no matter what a driver’s circumstances are. Whether they’ve got great equipment or not,  whether they’ve had advantages or not, it comes down to outworking the competition, and honestly evaluating performance and determining how best to get better. It’s a relentless pursuit to be sure. And over the years, countless drivers who’ve had great equipment have never lived up to what it could do because of their lack of willingness.

Gary Heeman Photo

“It’s a lot of time, effort and money,” Williamson said. “This whole deal certainly wouldn’t be as good as it is without Pete, Bob or my dad and what they put into it. It’s nice to have Bicknell right there because you’ve got everything right there, anything we need.  We have a lot of good people behind us and we couldn’t do it without them.

And it’s not only got to do with the car, but with driving preparation as well. Williamson’s got those chops too, as the mechanical side down pat and then some.  To watch him race, is a study in precision, patience, and well timed aggressiveness which never seems to hint at contact, but directs to an exact moment when he feels it’s best to make his forward charge, and he feels that moment better than just about anybody you can think of.

“Teddy Renshaw has helped me out from day one. He used to race an old coupe back in the 60’s and 70’s and raced competitively all the way through 1999 and he’s been with me since day one.  He’s always pounded in my head that if I’m not making any gains, try somewhere else and to not be afraid to go from the bottom to the top and to not stick to one lane if I’m not passing anybody. He’s always said that to me and now it just comes natural.  Back when I was a kid I kept coming back from the races and he’d always tell me I should have switched lanes and eventually I listened.”

Williamson took the culmination of hard work, great equipment, and  natural driving skill beyond his normal Friday and Saturday night shows at Ransomville and Merrittville Speedway, the two most prominent 358 modified tracks in the Niagara frontier where he’d cut his teeth against the likes of Pete Bicknell and other greats, by virtue of making the decision to go big block racing three years ago. It was a move that paid off.  He found himself at Lernerville Speedway on a mid season Friday night in 2012, and it opened his eyes to possibilities.

“Gary (Risch Jr.) and I have always been friends and I had a lot of friends down there already, and Gary always wanted me to come down there and we wanted to dip our feet into the big block stuff so we figured that we’d come down in the middle of summer and see what it was like. And we had a lot of fun. It was a four hour ride, but they treated us like it was home. So we called it home with a new big block the following year and were lucky enough to win a championship. Then the year after that we had motor problems and we had to stop coming down every Friday and it kind of put a lull in our season but this year we got to win another title and we had a lot of fun and we met a lot of great people coming down every Friday.”

He took to the red clay surface at the western Pennsylvania speedway like a duck to water, and was competitive immediately. But more than that, he provided moments of delight for fans in attendance as over the next three seasons as he and modified legend Brian Swartzlander developed a respectful rivalry, not with any kind of dubious driving, but with both battling for the win side by side, lap after lap, both switching lanes on restarts several times a race.  The features they battled for the victory in became the stuff of legend, and kept fans on the edge of their seats. Williamson’s appearance ushered in a new era at Lernerville, and made the talent range deeper and more competitive.

“At Merrittville the track is so tight and it’s so tough to pass there. If you start 12th every night it’s a challenge to come from the back to the front, you’re lucky to get up to third if you start 12th. Lernerville is so wide and racy that you can go from 12th to fourth in one lap just from picking the right line and your car is running good on the bottom and everybody else goes up top. It’s so easy to pass at Lernerville racetrack wise. The competitors at both are very similar. Your Pete Bicknell’s are kind of like Rex King Jr or Brian Swartzlander. You’ve still got the good guys that are up there and you’ve still got the guys that show up every week and they put up as much effort as anybody else and they’re still learning but you get that at every track. A lot of people tell me that I go down to Lernerville and cherry pick or whatever because we won as many races as we did this year, but you also see Erick Rudolph come down there and he runs just as good as I do up here if not better and he still hasn’t won down there. Everybody says it’s easy to win down there, but I’d love to see everybody come and try.”

Home track success was one thing, but touring success is an entirely different set of circumstances. Williamson progressively worked his way from the 358 DIRTcar touring ranks where he’d eventually become an annual contender for the championship, to the Super DIRTcar Series over the last three seasons, running more big block events every year until 2015 when he ran almost all of them.  It was in the SDS tour shows, that his confidence began to soar, and fans outside his geography could feel it much more than they could in previous seasons. 2015 marked the first season that Williamson would score consistent results on the big stage with impact.  That confidence in his abilities was demonstrated during the high point of his season when he bested the best names in the business just a few miles from his home at the annual Bob St Amand Memorial race at Merrittville.

“It was awesome, for getting that first series win it’s like getting a monkey off your back.  It felt great, especially to do it at home was just icing on the cake. You always want to win on the road with all the miles we put on and all the travelling we do, but to get to come home after doing all those races and to win it at home, fifteen minutes from our house, is awesome.”

Pat Miller Photo

The win verified that Williamson was ready for the prime time, but more than that, his performance in several other top 10 finishes during the SDS touring season represented much more than just flashes of brilliance,  they gave the look of consistent runs against experienced, professional drivers. But the success aside, Williamson strives to get better, even if that means having to test the waters at another home track in the upcoming season.

“We’ll race every single SDS race, that’s a for sure deal. We’re going to come to Lernerville again and we’re going to add Canandaigua to our adventures.  Cananidagua has a lot of great drivers  with Sheppard, Steve Paine, Justin Haers, Gary Tomkins and others. There’s a lot of SDS guys there and a lot of seasoned veterans. So we’re going to go there and hopefully learn a few things.   Between the new track we’re going to see next year at Eldora and Williams Grove, it’s going to be exciting.”

No matter how 2016 turns out for him, and there’s every reason to expect him to improve on an outstanding season prior, 2015 will be a year that saw the first chapter of a promising, long career come to an end. In the second chapter, one can already envision him mixing it up with the likes of Stew Friesen and Matt Sheppard for SDS titles, and that time will come sooner rather than later. And it will be because he puts as much time, effort and passion into his operation and to his own personal improvement as either of them do.

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