GTWC America: Erin Vogel and Ashton Harrison on the ProAm podium at Watkins Glen
More female podiums in GT World Challenge America: both Erin Vogel and Ashton Harrison scored big points at Watkins Glen, as they finished P3 and P2 in ProAm over the weekend at the iconic American track.
GT World Challenge America reached its half-way mark at Watkins Glen International – one of the most historic and respected road courses in North America – for the seventh and eighth rounds of the season. After a remarkable first part of the season - marked by a class win and podiums - Ashton Harrison had a difficult weekend at VIR, when a mistake while in the lead denied the Racers Edge Motorsports' driver her second ProAm win of the season. The HPD graduate, though, has proved consistently to be often on the same pace as the Pro entries and, together with experienced Acura driver Mario Farnbacher, they continue to be a strong front runner for the class victory. Erin Vogel - ar her second year in the championship - spent the first half of the season learning and adapting the machinery, having switched from the Mercedes AMG GT3 to the Acura NSX GT3. In a one-car entry for RealTime Racing, Vogel is partnering long-time collaborator Michael Cooper, with whom Erin has shared the wheel since her first season in SRO in GT4. At the venue of their first ProAm win last year - and the first ever win for a woman in SRO GT3 - Vogel and Cooper had their third top five finish this year, which confirmed their positive trend. In Race 2, though, the #43 Acura had a brake failure in Cooper's stint and unfortunately hit another car, which resulted in a 10-place grid penalty for the following round. Despite the penalty, the team was confident to build on the gains made in the first half of the season. “I only drove Watkins Glen for the first time last year, and already it is one of my all-time favorite tracks", explained Vogel before the race. "It has very hilly terrain and it takes guts to flow speed around a lot of fast corners that have blind exits as well as changing camber. It's a track that suits my driving style and Michael's." RealTime Racing's crew successfully rebuilt the car after the damages sustained and Vogel/Cooper had the opportunity to shake down the car prior to the Watkins Glen round. “We were fortunate to have an opportunity a few days ago to shake down the rebuilt car, so while you can never say that there won't be any gremlins, at least we got the car out and put around a hundred miles on it without issue" – Erin continued. "But I think we all just want to have a clean weekend and hopefully see some better results in qualifying and see if we can score some decent points to put us back on track for the second half of the season.” Following Friday practice, drivers Erin Vogel and Ashton Harrison hit the track for the two qualifying sessions that would set the grid for the race. Both Vogel and Cooper were eighth in their respective sessions – but the carry-over penalty from the previous round meant that Vogel would have to start from the back of the grid in Race 1. Harrison would finish fourth in ProAm in Q1, while Mario Farnbacher was fifth in the following session.
At lights out, polesitter Michele Beretta (#1 KPAX Lamborghini) battled for the lead with Steven Aghakhani (#6 US RaceTronics Mercedes), but it would be Michael Dinan to sneak ahead of the Mercedes, as the Turner Motorsports' BMW M4 GT3 gained three places at the start. With an equally remarkable launch, both Ashton Harrison and Erin Vogel gained 3 places overall and slotted into second and eighth in ProAm. From last on the grid, Vogel was particularly impressive and navigated through the field with confidence in the early stages. The action was soon interrupted by a Full Course Yellow when Jeff Burton (#91 Zelus Motorsport Lamborghini) spun but later continued. At the restart, Dinan chased Beretta for the overall lead and Ashton Harrison attacked Chandler Hull for first place in ProAm at the chicane; she would make the move stick one lap later, before the second neutralization triggered by the limping #3 Lamborghini of Misha Goikhberg, who eventually made it to pit road and, after evaluation from the KPAX crew, was forced to retire for engine troubles. The battle at the top of the leaderboard resumed at the green flag; an unsuccessful attack by Dinan allowed Aghakhani and Ward to close in, while Beretta opened a small gap. Harrison was also ready to pick up the pieces from these scraps, as she initially lapped on the pace of the Pro cars. Erin Vogel continued her outstanding recovery drive and moved into fifth place in class; she would hunt down the DXDT Racing Mercedes of David Askew, but had to initially back off. A big hit by the #91 Lamborghini of Jeff Burton brought out another Safety Car but the race went back to green with 52 minutes to go. Dinan went for the move at the Bus Stop chicane but both the Turner Motorsport BMW and the KPAX Lamborghini driven by Michele Beretta ran wide into the grass, allowing past Russel Ward who took the lead in the #33 Winward Mercedes. Beretta would be deemed at fault and received a 60 second stop and go penalty for running wide Michael Dinan – who was also passed by Ashton Harrison for fourth overall. Erin Vogel, meanwhile, had found a way past Askew and moved into fourth place in ProAm just before the pit window, completing one of her strongest stints in the series.
On lap 19, most of the drivers dived into pit lane for their pit stop and driver change. Chaos reigned, as Beretta completed a drive through – rather than a stop & go, which he would be forced to serve later – and lost all chances of fighting back; a slow stop for the #33 Winward Mercedes meant that Loris Spinelli – who had taken over from Aghakhani – was now in the overall lead in the US Racetronics Mercedes, ahead of Philip Ellis. A smooth pit stop for Racers Edge Motorsports put Mario Farnbacher in third place overall and first in ProAm, following another perfect stint by Ashton Harrison. When the dust settled, Michael Cooper found himself fourth in class, as the RealTime Racing duo was the biggest mover of the race, with 10 positions gained from the start. He would have to give up one position after a tough battle with the #94 BimmerWorld BMW of Bill Auberlen and settled in fifth. The hot temperatures, though, meant that tyre management became the biggest factor in the closing stages of the race: with 23 minutes to go, it was drama for the #93 Racers Edge Motorsport Acura NSX GT3 of Mario Farnbacher, who had a tyre blowout while solidly in the class lead. Farnbacher pitted and dropped to ninth – but he was soon followed by the second-placed overall Winward Mercedes of Ellis, who had almost caught up with Loris Spinelli. With a similar issue, Bill Auberlen pitted to change a left front tyre – leaving Michael Cooper third in class and fifth overall. Incredibly, the same fate awaited also the race leader Spinelli and, with a few minutes to go, Jan Heylen (#45 Wright Motorsports Porsche) went on top of the leaderboard. The ProAm entry of Heylen was able to win the overall classification despite a late charge from Colin Braun (#4 CrowdStrike with Riley Motorsports Mercedes) on the final lap. Dinan/Foley were third overall and took Pro class honours for Turner Motorsport. Fourth overall, Michael Cooper and Erin Vogel completed an inspired run to claim their first class podium of the season. “We had a good race today, even after starting with a grid penalty from VIR,” Vogel said. “I made up a few positions with a good start, staying down the inside and taking advantage of a stack up on the outside of Turn One. Then I was able to take advantage of a late caution to get another pass right before bringing the car in for the driver change fifth in class." "The crew was able to give us another position with a quick stop to put Michael [Cooper] out fourth in class.” A great stop by the RealTime Racing crew and Cooper's solid final stint did the rest. “Erin drove an incredible stint to work her way to fifth in Pro-Am before handing the car over" – explained Cooper. "I made sure to take good care of the tires on the out lap, staying off the curbs, and we were fast enough to come home in third place, the first podium of the year!” Ashton Harrison and Mario Farnbacher were ninth in ProAm and P13 overall.
Race 2 pole sitter Loris Spinelli retained the lead from Jordan Pepper at the start of the second race on Sunday, albeit under big pressure also from Ellis and Dalziel (#13 Triarsi Competizione Ferrari), the latter also leading ProAm. From fifth in class, Mario Farnbacher gained one position, while Michael Cooper could move from eighth to sixth in class in the opening laps. Having started from ninth overall, the #1 KPAX Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli was initially looking fast, but then struggled to recover positions and dropped to P12. The sister car of Jordan Pepper also had to endure the pressure of Ellis, as Spinelli opened a 3 second gap in the lead. An early unscheduled pit stop for Saturday's Pro winners Turner Motorsport put Dinan/Foley out of contention, as positions settled in a clean first half of the race.
With one hour to go, Philip Ellis attacked and passed the struggling KPAX Lambo for second – with Ryan Dalziel also completing an opportunistic move for the overall podium. It was in fact a tough weekend for the team that has been so dominant in the series, and Pepper started to drop down the order due to a damaged diffuser. Ellis chased and caught up with Spinelli just as the pit window opened; the leader handed over to Steven Aghakhani, while Ellis, Dalziel and Braun extended their stints by a few laps. After a slower pit stop, though, US Racetronics lost the lead to the WInward Racing Mercedes of Russell Ward, who rejoined well clear of Aghakhani, who had also slipped behind George Kurtz in the #4 CrowdStrike with Riley Motorsports Mercedes. Michael Cooper pitted on lap 26 from P5 in ProAm and Erin Vogel jumped on board of the #43 RealTime Racing Acura, but a slow driver change caused by tangled belts meant that Vogel was back out in seventh place.
Mario Farnbacher stayed out and, despite contact with Jan Heylen, he took the overall lead before pitting with 12 seconds left in the pit window, leaving Ashton Harrison behind the wheel of the #93 Racers Edge Motorsport Acura in P3 in class, fifth overall. Harrison started another really strong stint and hunted down Justin Wetherill (Trarsi Competizione Ferrari); lapping on very consistent times, she moved into second on lap 33. The Ferrari driver then lost more positions to Beretta and Hull, demoting him to fourth in ProAm. Ashton Harrison was on a mission to catch Steven Aghakhani – who could not get past the Mercedes of Kurtz – but at the same time she had to defend from the fast recovering Pro Lamborghini of Beretta and Hull in the BimmerWorld BMW. And it was again a dramatic finale, as Aghakhani came to a halt and Michele Beretta had to pit for a right rear tyre issue with 4 minutes left on the clock. Now second in class and third overall, Harrison defended from Chandler Hull, just as overall leader Russell Ward slowed down dramatically and lost the overall win with 2 laps to go to the ProAm entry of George Kurtz. Ward held on to second place overall, finishing just ahead of Ashton Harrison – who made up for Saturday's bad luck and claimed her fourth ProAm podium, as well as second overall podium of the year.
With a solid second stint, Erin Vogel was able to gain sixth place in class when Smithson hit trouble, finishing tenth overall. In Race 2, Vogel ran her best lap times of the weekend. "I’m incredibly proud of everyone here at RealTime Racing for their perseverance and for always being there, ready to seize the opportunity when it counts,” Vogel commented after a positive weekend at Watkins Glen. “After a big struggle in our driver change with a substrap that got twisted around the bungees, we were about 7.5 seconds late rolling out of pit lane,” she explained. “I figured this had put us way behind, so I used the track time to get used to the setup changes we put on the car since yesterday's race and hone in on the car's performance." "The change was definitely good, and I was able to take about two seconds off my lap times as the stint went on. “ – she concluded, as she expects the changes to carry momentum into the next round at Road America. GT World Challenge America will in fact make its return to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, on 19/21 August for the fifth double-header of the 2022 season.