On the track where she claimed her first victory in the series last year, Sheena Monk fought her way up the order in a tense and wet Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Road America, before fuel drama forced the duo to a late splash&go. Learning weekend for TCR championship leader Taylor Hagler.
Ahead of the seventh round of the 2021 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, Taylor Hagler was coming off her first win in the championship and had taken over the lead of the TCR class together with co-driver Michael Lewis. Hagler's campaign so far has been remarkable: in her second year in the series, she secured one victory, one second place, three P3 finishes and a fourth at the season opener at Daytona.
“Getting my first professional win was a career highlight, but the focus remains on the championship,” said Hagler prior to the Elkhart Lake event. “Each outing is pivotal to earning points and we know that with the BHA team behind us we have the car and capability to win each weekend."
"Road America is a fun track to drive and the Hyundai Veloster N TCR will perform well especially in the faster sections of the course. Michael [Lewis] and I are in a great position, but it is up to us to continue this success.” - she added.
But Hagler, who is also combining her IMSA program with her first season in GT3 machinery in the SRO GT World Challenge America, is not the only female on the grid: the equally competitive Sheena Monk, who built her experience in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo, is also at her second year in the Michelin Pilot Challenge and, together with former Indycar racer Spencer Pigot, she is having a really positive run in the #3 McLaren 570S GT4 in the GS class.
Monk's previous race weekend at Lime Rock Park ended in the early stages after a contact, but the Motorsports In Action duo targeted a strong result at Road America to get back in the top three, having dropped from second to fifth in the championship standings.
Sheena thus returned to the circuit that gave her the first IMSA win last year, after a stellar drive.
Unfortunately, troubles for Taylor Hagler started way before the green flag on Saturday: during the opening practice on Friday, the #77 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR experienced mechanical issues within the first laps of the weekend. The mechanical gremlins required an engine change for the Hyundai, and prevented participation in both practice sessions.
“While it is disappointing not being able to get any practice laps in, the team addressed these issues so we can race without worry” - said Hagler. “Right away during the first practice Michael had alarms going off that at first we couldn’t find the source of. The BHA crew quickly diagnosed the problem and got to work changing out the engine. We will regroup and do what we can to continue hunting for championship points.”
Fitted with a new engine, the #77 Hyundai completed its first laps on Saturday in qualifying and Taylor Hagler was 12th fastest, thus gaining a slot on the grid from the sixth row for the afternoon's race. Monk and Pigot also had a troubled build-up to their races and struggled for pace. They would line up on P18 in both the overall and GS class.
Under menacing skies and increasing rain, every team fitted the wet-weather tyres and when the green flag fell, Scott Machavern (#95 Turner Motorsports BMW) led the field ahead of Gallagher (#23 Notlad Racing Aston Martin) and Hardwick (#16 Wright Motorsports Porsche). Both Taylor Hagler and Sheena Monk took on driving duties for the opening stint and tackled the extremely tricky conditions with both care and determination. Hagler gained a couple of places, while Monk moved into 15th before the first Full Course Yellow, six minutes into the race - triggered by the accident of the #93 Audi driven by Siegel. At the restart, the drivers tried to explore the grip level, with rain having seemingly decreased. The Aston Martin of Gallagher surprised everyone and moved into the lead with a bold move at the Kink. Monk was also on the move and looked very comfortable in the #3 McLaren: she passed Kvamme (#18 CB Motorsports Mercedes) for 11th place and went on to catch the McLaren ahead. Meanwhile, Russel Ward (#4 Winward Mercedes) closed the gap on the leading duo - but a big save on the final corner's kerb suggested that the rain had made its way back onto the Elkhart Lake circuit. Soon after, in fact, the #16 Wright Motorsport Porsche of Hardwick spun into the wall and the #51 Copeland Motorsports Hyundai Veloster of Muss in the TCR category picked up rear damage from a contact. Sheena Monk had moved into tenth place and Taylor Hagler slotted in ninth (TCR), both continuing a solid run in difficult conditions. Fearing a neutralization, teams pitted as soon as the pit window opened: Sheena Monk dived into the pitlane and handed over to Spencer Pigot - as did most of the GS field. The Full Course Yellow flag did eventually come out and, once everyone had pitted for the mandatory pit stop, it was Dontje in the #4 Winward Mercedes to emerge in the lead, followed by Auberlen (#95 Turner BMW) and McAleer (#23 Notland Racing Aston Martin), effectively reversing the top three order. Taylor Hagler initially stayed out and moved into seventh place - 14th overall - and, once the conditions slightly improved again, pitted for a tyre gamble. At the restart, Bill Auberlen cleared Donje into Turn 1, followed by McAleer in second. Pigot's strategy had paid off and he found himself P7 once the #56 Murillo Mercedes of Foss spun into Turn 5. Monk's teammate Pigot charged through and climbed to fifth place - now again in the pouring rain. Some of the TCR entries that had gambled on slicks were forced to pit again for wets. Michael Lewis initially tried to stick to the strategy, but eventually had to pit again from ninth place and dropped to P11 in TCR.
One overtake after the other, Spencer Pigot passed Dontje for third place and, once the Mercedes driver came under pressure from the #21 Toyota Supra GT4 of Andrews, he could pull away from a train of six cars battling for P4. Andrews and Donje made contact and the former retired. The battle at the top of the TCR field was just as heated, with the #5 KMW Alfa Romeo Giulietta being chased and passed by the #98 BHA Hyundai Elantra of Chase with 28 minutes left on the clock. Wilkins (#33 BHA Hyundai) joined the leaders and attacked Lewis - as the leading trio continued to trade positions throughout the final 30 minutes. Ultimately, the #5 Alfa Romeo made it back into the lead after a trip to the grass by Chase. When the overall second-placed Aston Martin of McAleer slowed down with a left-rear puncture, Pigot moved into second place and hunted down the leading BMW of Bill Auberlen - who was starting to worry about fuel in the absence of a Full Course Yellow. Unfortunately, Monk/Pigot's podium chances vanished when the #3 Motorsports In Action McLaren had to be brought back for refuelling with 10 minutes to go, dropping Pigot in 10th place. With most of the GS field also running on fumes, Pigot tried to climb back and eventually crossed the finish line in sixth place. “I’m really happy with the way we fought back this weekend after Lime Rock,” said Monk. “I felt J.G. Wentworth, McLaren and Motorsports In Action all deserved a strong result, so I had to dig deep." “Come race time, I put my head down. I was actually kind of happy to see the rain, I know the car is really strong in the wet and I’m pretty comfortable myself with it." - Sheena added. "I’ve grown to become comfortable with it recently, so I felt like it was a big advantage for me to move through the field like that." Auberlen massively slowed down on the final lap and almost came to a halt, but the #95 Turner Motorsports BMW M6 GT4 just about took the chequered flag to win the Road America 120, ahead of Udell/Ward in the #57 Winward Mercedes and the #4 sister car of Dontje/Ward. Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis were 11th at the finish line in a very challenging round for the TCR championship leaders. “It was a difficult weekend for us,” said Hagler. “We were pushed and challenged like we haven’t been before, but we learned a lot because of it." "Our biggest issue today was the weather." - she explained. "We made the gamble to go to the dry tyres but when it began to rain we weren’t able to keep the pace we had. It’s the game you play in racing and today we didn’t win. Michael [Lewis] and I will take what we learned and look ahead to our ultimate goal which is the championship.” Sheena Monk shares similar views in terms of the championship fight: “In terms of the championship, I’m not going to stop saying it – we’re so in this" - she said. “I think that everything is on the table right now and it’s all to play for until the very last round. I’m really optimistic, just trying to keep my head in a good place and maximize every round.” Hagler continues to lead the points-standings, with Sheena Monk now fourth in GS. The series will return to the track on September 11th at Laguna Seca.