By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
The ARCA Racing Series opener at Daytona International Speedway was a chaotic war of attrition.
But for Willie Mullins and his volunteer-based Mullins Racing, it was the night an offseason of effort proved worthwhile – when trash was turned into Daytona treasure.
Mullins dodged the race’s seven crashes and held his position through the final one-lap sprint to the checkered flag to claim a second-place finish in the Feb. 10 Lucas Oil 200. The result was Mullins’ first top five in 12-career ARCA starts, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he didn’t think he’d even be in the race months earlier.
“It’s a win for us,” Mullins told Motorsports Tribune. “Everybody was elated. Everyone was cheering and shouting because we knew that second place was a win for a small team like us at Daytona.
“I mean, it’s ‘The World Center of Speed’. We got to be out front, and that’s all we could ask for in life.”
Mullins, 37, isn’t a full-time driver.
He has a history in motorsports, but little of it has come on ovals. Mullins began his driving career as a drag racer in the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League, but spent the majority of his time on road courses, once winning both SCCA Rookie of the Year honors and a V8 Grand National championship in 2006. The few ARCA starts he had prior to his Daytona debut in 2016 all came at New Jersey Motorsports Park – a road course.
Instead of racing full-time, Mullins owns and operates an auto repair center – Bugsy’s Auto Repair, named after his father – based out of his hometown Fredericksburg, Virginia. The company spends most of their time fixing trucks for a local trash company named County Waste.
The endeavor isn’t glamorous, but it generates enough revenue for Mullins to manage a modest racing budget, which he uses to chase big races such as Daytona.
“We sit down during the winter time and try to pick up the races that we want to do,” he said. “We choose races we can afford. Then we work and save up all winter.”
Going into the fall it didn’t appear ARCA would be an affordable option for 2018. With the added expense of the tour’s new auto bodies, Mullins was pushed out of the market on his own dime. He needed a sponsor to make his Daytona dreams come true.
Thankfully one came aboard.
“At the end of November it looked like we were going to miss Daytona because of the new body change, and the expense of the new body,” Mullins said. “But we were able to get with CW Metals and Grant (Vanwyngeeren), the owner of the company, and they were able to step up and help us purchase the body.”
He missed November’s open test at Talladega Superspeedway, but Mullins had his No. 3 Crow Wing Recycling/Bugsy’s Auto Ford prepared when January’s Daytona test came around. There was some nervousness going into the weekend, but Mullins’ fears were eased when his machine showed speed.
“It was one of those things that all came together at the last minute,” Mullins said of the deal. “We were able to show up at the Daytona test and have a fast car, and knew when we went back that we were going to be pretty competitive.”
Mullins started off the race weekend well, qualifying ninth for the 80-lap event and proving the speed from January’s test to be more than a fluke.
When the race began, the Virginian dropped to the back of the field. The move wasn’t one of desperation, but rather a necessary evil to survive. The ARCA races at Daytona and Talladega are known for their high attrition rates, with unproven drivers attempting to master the art of drafting that even Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars often fail to show.
In traditional fashion, a host of competitors fell by the wayside over the course of the event.
The field made it 20 laps before the first caution, but afterward they failed to go more than nine laps caution-free until the checkered flag flew. Most early crashes took out only a handful of contenders or less, but in the late stages the grid began to fall victim to a host of massive crashes.
Five drivers were involved in a Lap 63 wreck. The caution that followed on Lap 71 was for just one car, but the chaos the ensuing restart led to another five-car pileup, forcing a red flag and pushing the race beyond the scheduled 80-lap distance.
At that point Mullins found himself in 11th, in contention for a top 10 and a decent afternoon.
There was little reason to believe he would be in the battle for the race win. In fact Mullins was more worried than optimistic – fearful he’d ran over debris and cut his tire during the previous wreck.
“I was sitting there on the back straightaway and I think we were eleventh at the time,” Mullins said. “I thought we had waited way too long to go. I thought I had played it a little too conservative, and I thought we were going to possibly get a top 10 and go home with just an okay weekend.”
Then came bedlam.
The field roared to life for what they hoped would be a one-lap shootout on Lap 86, but any hopes of a quick finish were quickly undone when the battle for the lead between Sheldon Creed, Chase Purdy, Sean Corr and Travis Braden devolved into another massive accident, involving 10 cars in the process. The majority of the top 10 found themselves among the wreckage.
Mullins emerged unscathed, rising from 11th to second in the process.
“I came out the other side, looked up, and there was only one car in front of me,” Mullins said. “I couldn’t believe how the seas had parted and we got the car to the front. We were sitting on the back straightaway again with one lap to go, and it was me and Michael Self.”
The crash led to another lengthy red flag, leaving Mullins time to ponder his position.
First came the emotions.
“It was a very big range of emotions,” he said. “I’m sitting there on the back straightaway and I’m thinking of my wife down in the pits, and what she must be going through. My mom. My dad. It’s just a surreal feeling.”
Next up was strategy.
Mullins was in a great position to contend for the win, but he had no drafting help. Joining him at the front of the field were a host of Venturini Motorsports teammates – Self, Tom Hessert and Natalie Decker. The odds of any of the three choosing to push Mullins at the risk of costing the team a race win were slim.
Mullins made the most out of the ensuing restart, but without drafting partners he could only watch as Self drove off to his first Daytona victory. A strong push from the charging Creed helped Mullins hold on to second place as he streaked across the start-finish line for the final time.
The run marked the second top-10 result for Mullins in three Daytona starts, following an eighth-place showing in his 2016 debut.
His 2018 plans remain unchanged, though the Daytona pace has Mullins confident in a spring trip to Talladega.
“If we can put some sponsorship together we’d like to go to Talladega, just because we know we have a good car,” he said. “We’re definitely going to be doing Elko (Speedway), because that’s in our sponsor’s back yard. They’re going to be the associate sponsor of that race. So we’re excited to go to Minnesota and field two cars there.”
But while his 2018 scheduled may be unaltered, Mullins believes a second strong run on the 2.5-mile Daytona oval will garner him one thing.
“When we go back next year it’s going to give us a little more value or stock,” he said. “People will take us a little more serious.
“The good thing is we laid the groundwork down in the past few years. We’ve always qualified top 10 in the restrictor-plate races. We’ve always had good cars. We got caught up in a wreck early last year, unfortunately, but the year before we finished eighth.
“We’ve always had good equipment for building these cars out of a little garage here in Virginia.