GT World Challenge America: first female victory in GT3 - Erin Vogel makes history
What a weekend it was for the women of GT World Challenge America: DXDT Racing's Erin Vogel became the first woman to win a GT WC GT3 race, while Taylor Hagler added another podium to her tally after a stunning second race at VIR.
It was already destined to become a memorable weekend when it was announced that the public was allowed back into the track and paddock for the first time since April 2020, but the third round of the SRO GT World Challenge America at VIRginia International Raceway will also go into the history books of the series for recording the first ever female victory in GT3 machinery.
Erin Vogel, American driver at her first season in the championship and in GT3 cars after a competitive debut last year in the SRO-sanctioned GT4 America Sprint-X championship, clinched the historic achievement in the first race of the weekend, sharing the DXDT Racing Mercedes AMG GT3 with teammate Michael Cooper in the Pro-Am class.
The North Carolina-based team underwent significant expansion ahead of the 2021 season and was surely feeling strong having completed a successful testing program in preparation of its home race at VIR – a racetrack that is widely considered as one of the most exciting and respected in North America. With its fast sections, elevation changes, flowing corners and esses, alongside the limited room for error make the spectacular Virginia Raceway somehow comparable to Spa Francorchamps – a track that has gained legend status in Europe.
"I love VIR. It's a challenging track that rewards patience, thoughtfulness, and confidence." – commented Vogel prior to the race weekend. "Driving the car flat out up the esses and into the braking zone for Turn 10 lap, after lap, after lap, is a little bit insane, and combined with the more technical corners, it's just a track that has incredible rhythm."
"In early May, we had a very successful test at VIR and so we're feeling very strong as a team coming into the race weekend."
Vogel is joined on the grid of this year's GT World Challenge America by Taylor Hagler, 26 year old from Texas. Hagler is also at her racing debut in GT3 cars, but as part of the HPD Driver Academy, her transition from touring cars has been really seamless so far: in the first rounds of the season at Sonoma, she was able to score two class podiums in the Racers Edge Motorsports' Acura NSX.
It was Taylor's fourth start at VIR – albeit her first on the GT3 platform.
“VIR is one of the more technical tracks that we go to and the Acura NSX will be well suited here,” said Hagler. “The Racers Edge Motorsports team has had success at VIR, so we know the car will start out with a good baseline and will excel from there. I’m looking forward to getting our championship hunt back on track.”
“We are happy to welcome back fans to the track,” she added. “It had been over a year of no fans and I have missed that element of the race weekend. We are going to do our best to put on a good race event for them and hopefully welcome a few more faces as Acura fans.”
Following a shortened qualifying in the morning, the K-PAX Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper secured pole position ahead of the Winward Mercedes of Russell Ward and Mikael Grenier – the latter making his series debut. They preceded the second K-PAX Lamborghini, with Corey Lewis and Giovanni Venturini enduring a difficult weekend that also included a practice crash for the Italian driver.
Taylor Hagler was ninth on the grid and fifth among the Pro-Am field. Hagler, who is sharing driving duties with fellow HPD members Dakota Dickerson and Jacob Abel, had Abel back in the driving seat for the VIR weekend.
Vogel and Cooper were eleventh overall and seventh in Pro-Am. Both Erin and Taylor got behind the wheel for the first stint on Saturday.
At the start of Race 1, Caldarelli got away perfectly and maintained the lead, while Dinan – who also had a good getaway in the Turner Motorsports' BMW M6 GT3 – was onto the grass as he tried to pass Lewis in the green Lamborghini, but had to back off.
It was a difficult start for both Vogel and Hagler, who dropped a couple of positions in the first chaotic moments and then settled in P14 and P11 respectively.
Just like Grenier, it was an impressive debut in the series for fellow Canadian Michael Di Meo, who went on to put pressure on Fred Poordad for the Pro-Am lead at his very first GT3 race. With a great first part of the stint in the #77 Compass Racing Acura NSX, Di Meo attacked the Wright Motorsport's Porsche but made a mistake and made contact with the tyre barriers. He managed to limp back to the pits with damages to the rear-end of the car and he was sent out again with a two-lap deficit, but when the Acura started to lose pieces of bodywork around the track, Di Meo was unfortunately forced to retire.
There was also more drama for the K-PAX Lamborghini of Corey Lewis, which slowed down on the third lap and pulled back into the pits.
Meanwhile, the leader Caldarelli had extended his margin to over 6 seconds on Rusell Ward, the closest of his pursuers.
Taylor Hagler had a remarkable stint in the #88 Racers Edge Motorsports' Acura: she passed Ziad Ghandour in the #9 TR3 Racing Lamborghini and immediately closed in on Burton. When she also completed the pass on the Rearden Lamborghini, it was time to chase the DXDT Mercedes of George Kurtz – who she passed a few moments later, advancing to third place in Pro-Am.
The first and only Full Course Yellow of the race was deployed when Jeff Burton parked the #91 Lamborghini in the grass – its engine up in flames due to a fuel pump issue.
It was bad news for Andrea Caldarelli, who had extended his lead to over 15 seconds. With a few minutes left before the pit window opening, everything was still to play for.
The action resumed with 50 minutes to go, just as the pit window opened. At the restart, Caldarelli was again unchallenged and managed to pull away, but it was Hagler to turn heads for an amazing pass on Kurtz; making the best used of the lapped Ferrari of Saada, she re-claimed the position on the #4 Mercedes, with Erin Vogel also close behind and up to ninth overall.
One lap later, the leader dived into the pitlane, followed by most of the field. Jordan Pepper got behind the wheel of the leading K-PAX Lamborghini, but it was chaos on pit road, with cars stopping in the wrong pit boxes and traffic re-shuffling the order.
The big winners were the #19 DXDT crew of Vogel and Cooper, who had the perfect stop: both Vogel and the team were flawless and Cooper headed back out on track fourth overall, just ahead of Jacob Abel in the #88 Racers Edge Motorsports' Acura.
Meanwhile, Ward had stayed out and attempted an overtcut – a strategy that indeed worked out and placed the Winward Mercedes on top of the leaderboard after the round of pit stops. In a dramatic turn of events, Grenier – who had taken over from Ward – received a drive through penalty for a pit stop infringement, handing back first place to Jordan Pepper in the #3 K-Pax Lamborghini.
When the dust had settled, Michael Cooper found himself third overall and leading the Pro-Am field, ahead of Jacob Abel and Drew Stavely. Jan Heylen (Wright Motorsports' Porsche) made his way up the Pro-Am order and passed the Aston Martin of Stavely, before finding a way around Abel and advancing to second in class. These battles, though, gave Cooper the opportunity to extend his class lead to almost 20 seconds.
Having taken over from Taylor Hagler in third, Abel struggled in the second part of his stint and had to defend hard also from the return of Colin Braun in the #4 DXDT Mercedes.
With three minutes left on the clock, Braun made a move stick and took the final step of the podium in Pro-Am, making a little contact with the Acura – now sixth down to sixth overall.
A transmission issue, though, would drop Hagler-Abel further down the order on the very final lap: they were classified ninth overall, sixth in class.
Jordan Pepper took the overall victory for K-PAX, six seconds clear of Robby Foley in the #96 Turner Motorsports' BMW M6. But all the eyes were on Michael Cooper, who crossed the finish line on the overall podium and claimed an outstanding class victory for DXDT.
Erin Vogel became the first woman to win in GT3 in the SRO GT World Challenge championships – a breakthrough performance that proved what the duo is capable of when not held up by misfortune.
"Michael and I have been working hard towards this for a long time, and today the whole team stepped up with a perfect car, perfect pit stop, and two consistent stints from Michael Cooper and myself. I'm still in disbelief. What a moment." – wrote Vogel after the truly historic moment.
The hot temperatures that characterized the first race returned for Race 2, with tyre wear always a big talking point coming into Sunday's round.
Having been denied a potential race win in Race 1, Mikael Grenier started from pole position in the Winward Racing Mercedes ahead of Jan Heylen (Wright Motorsports Porsche) and Sandy Mitchell (TR3 Racing Lamborghini).
At the race start, Jordan Pepper – fourth on the starting grid – was immediately up to third in the K-PAX Lamborghini. Ollie Millroy (Inception Racing McLaren) picked up damage on the first lap and was soon out of contention, as both Michael Cooper and Jacob Abel both lost a couple of positions during the opening laps as well. They would slot into tenth (P6 in Pro-Am) and 13th positions (9th in class) respectively.
Millroy's McLaren scattered debris around the track and the Safety Car was deployed to recover a tyre carcass left by the Inception Racing entry. This would prove costly for the #88 Acura of Abel/Hagler, as they picked up a puncture caused by debris.
At the restart on lap 4, Braun and Mitchell made light contact as they battled for fourth and both Cooper and Abel were also elbows out in the midfield.
Pepper went off in the grass and dropped all the way down to 12th place, while Grenier and Heylen pulled away from the rest of the pursuing group, led by Braun two seconds adrift.
The third-place DXDT Racing driver, though, slowed down dramatically with right-rear suspension damage and retired into the pits, leaving Foley into third place in the Turner Motorsports' BMW.
Ryal Dalziel (DXDT Racing) was also on the move and passed Mitchell for third in Pro-Am, sixth overall. The battles for Pro-Am were thoroughly entertaining: Staveley was briefly on the grass and lost four places; the two Lamborghini of Snow and Mitchell swapped positions for sixth overall, as Cooper and Abel both gained positions, moving up to sixth and seventh in class.
The pit window opened and Giovanni Venturini was the first of the leading cars to pit, handing over to Corey Lewis in fourth. Grenier and Heylen stayed out and were separated by only half a second, having pulled away from Foley in third. On lap 25, Heylen launched his attack and went into the lead of the race when his Canadian rival made a miron mistake into the final corner.
Michael Cooper caught up with the Acura of Matt McMurry before pitting with 42 minutes to go. Erin Vogel got behind the wheel of the #19 Mercedes AMG GT3 and rejoined in eighth position. After the round of pit stops, Taylor Hagler was back ahead of Vogel, but Erin passed her competitor on track and moved up into fourth in class.
In the overall lead, Fred Poordad found himself ahead of Russell Ward, but the latter quickly overtook the Wright Motorsports' driver and reversed the positions. K-PAX also managed to undercut Michael Dinan and Corey Lewis gained the third spot.
Hagler fought back and claimed back the position on Erin Vogel, advancing to sixth overall – fourth in Pro-Am, after Poordad was handed a drive through for a pit lane infringement.
Vogel, who was battling with her car after a first lap incident had left the Mercedes out of alignment, spun and rejoined sixth.
The Pro-Am competition was again on fire: David Askew, Michael Di Meo and Fred Poordad battled for the class lead and the rookie Acura driver made a move stick to get ahead, opening a small gap. Askew spun and was off the track, handing third place in class to Taylor Hagler with 17 minutes to go.
After a mistake by Harward, Vogel was all over the back of the #88 Zelus Motorsport's Lamborghini, but she couldn't find a way past.
Up ahead, the #33 Winward Mercedes of Russell Ward had checked out and led the K-PAX Lamborghini of Corey Lewis by over 15 seconds. A distant third was Michael Dinan, who experienced drama unfolding with three minutes to go: his BMW M6 GT3 stopped on track and he dropped all the way down to sixth overall, but kept third in the Pro standings.
Askew went off again and allowed past both Harward and Vogel – the latter recovering to fifth in class despite the evident balance issues on her Mercedes.
"Sunday wasn't quite the same kind of race for us that Saturday was, but we still brought it home P5." – said Vogel. "DXDT Racing gave us the car, we had the pace, and the crew pulled off another great pit stop, but an incident on the first lap caused damage to a tire and knocked the setup out of alignment."
"Michael Cooper had a great drive despite the damage and we were P4 and in podium contention when I got in the car. But with the damage to the left rear in the brutal heat and humidity I had my hands full keeping a decent pace - the car didn't really want to turn right, which is a bit of a challenge on a clockwise circuit - so P5 still felt like something to be proud of."
At his series debut, Mikael Grenier shared victory with Russell Ward in the #33 Mercedes. They preceded Lewis/Venturini and Di Meo/McMurry, who took the top honors in Pro-Am.
Taylor Hagler had another perfect stint and clinched her third podium of the year.
“What an up and down weekend for us in the Acura NSX,” commented Hagler.
“But it’s great to close out on a high like this and take the podium with Jacob [Abel]. This is an incredible place to race, and I had a lot of fun out there. It was great to have Dane [Cameron] and Ryan [Eversley] here this weekend and all of the support from HPD.”
“I’m super proud,” – added Jon Mirachi, owner of Racers Edge Motorsport, as he summed up Hagler's performance. “That pass in the Esses was just awesome. She did a terrific job. Not just the pass, but to catch all those people and reel them in. That third place when she came in was all due to her.”
With a race win and a podium in the latest round, both Vogel and Hagler are evidently making progress in a very competitive series that has seen tremendous talent in GT racing.
Having made their transition from GT4 and touring cars to GT3, both are looking more comfortable than ever in their current machines.
"It was slick out there, but DXDT Racing gave us a really great car." – observed Vogel.
"It’s probably the best Mercedes-AMG GT3 we’ve had yet this season. We also had one of the best pit stops we’ve had so far and came out third best out of the whole field in race one."
"This weekend was truly a team effort. Michael was really consistent in the car and stayed out there in the lead, kept that gap, and preserved it all race. I knew from the beginning that the Mercedes-AMG GT3 was going to be a good fit. I’m hoping this is the start of more races like this. It takes a couple of races for everything to gel, and this felt like this was the first race that it has."
GT World Challenge America is now set to take a break until the next double-header, scheduled for August 27-29 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Hagler and Vogel are currently tied on points in the Pro-Am standings, third with 59 points.