GT World Challenge America has brought under the spotlight two outstanding female talents at their GT3 debut: Taylor Hagler clinched her third class victory at Sebring, ahead of Erin Vogel – in a historic female 1-2 in race 2.
The SRO-promoted GT World Challenge America might feature one of the most spectacular calendars in GT racing. Surely, Europe has some historic and state-of-the-art motorsport venues, but every single racetrack on the 7-event schedule of this year's GTWC America represents the roots of the sport in North America. From Sonoma, Circuit of the Americas - the current home of the US GP – the mighty VIRginia International Raceway and the fast Road America, to the second half of the season at Watkins Glen, Sebring and the American capital of motor racing, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two weeks after tackling the Glen, the drivers headed to Florida for the sixth and penultimate round of the season – the final double header at Sebring International Raceway. The event made its return to the SRO America calendar after 2009, having been added as a replacement of the Canadian round at Mosport. The series has been the stage of the GT3 debut for two talented female racing drivers: Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler. Vogel, at her second SRO season after a solid and learning-oriented campaign in GT4 America, promptly switched to GT3 machinery in the Mercedes AMG GT3 car by DXDT Racing – always alongside her co-driver and coach Michael Cooper. Erin proved early on in the season to be much more comfortable with the powerful GT3 machine and made history at VIR when she became the first woman to win a GT3 race in SRO America. She would claim another class podium at Watkins Glen, as she continues to impress in the Pro-Am category. "Sebring is a fun addition to the World Challenge calendar." – explained Erin. "I drove there for the first time just this past February, which was our third pre-season test with DXDT in the Mercedes AMG GT3."
"Michael and I both had a very good test there and ended the second day feeling really strong on the circuit. I had a chance this week to drive the track again on a full-motion CXC sim rig, and it was both shockingly realistic and a thorough reminder of what we're in for with the bumps!" – the track is in fact famous for its uneven surface, with a concrete section and fast and bumpy corners. "Fortunately, our setup on the DXDT car is much better than the generic setup on the sim. I look forward to racing at the iconic track, and I know we're all definitely ready to have another strong weekend."
Equally impressive is Texan Taylor Hagler: the young member of the HPD program stepped up to GT3 after a few seasons in touring car categories - where she is still competing at the highest level in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Sharing the Acura NSX GT3 by Racers Edge Motorsport with Jacob Abel and Dakota Dikerson – the two alternate as Hagler's teammates - Taylor had secured five class podiums and two victories prior to the Sebring weekend. At Sebring, Hagler was joined again by Dakota Dickerson – the latter returning behind the wheel of the #93 Acura after their first win at Elkhart Lake. The circuit was surely familiar soil for Hagler, who raced in the IMSA Pilot Challenge earlier this year, as well as completed two test sessions in the Acura NSX GT3 prior to the event. “The Racers Edge team and I have made great strides this season but we have more work to do" – said Hagler, who entered the race second in the drivers' standings. "Sebring is a place I am comfortable and familiar with in the Acura platform. With this weekend being the last double-header of the season, it’s the final opportunity to have two opportunities for championship points." "We have our goal ahead and I look forward to getting back to Sebring."
The on-track action started with the right foot for Erin Vogel, who topped the Bronze driver practice session on Friday. "Definitely a day with some highs and lows." – she wrote. "Had a great session in the morning, then a rough few laps in the middle of the day and a recovery, then a decent session to end the day. We'll see how it all shakes out tomorrow morning." In qualifying, Andrea Caldarelli (KPAX Lamborghini) set the fastest lap in the first session, leading the sister car of Giovanni Venturini and the TR3 Motorsport's Huracan of Giacomo Altoè - in a Lamborghini 1-2-3. The latter was joined by Danish driver Dennis Lind, as the team moved for the first time to a fully Pro line-up. Fred Poordad scored the pole position in ProAm, followed by Rodrigo Sales (Compass Racing), Jason Harward (Zelus Motorsport) and Taylor Hagler, fourth in class. Vogel lined up in 12th position overall and sixth in class, but would move one place up on the starting grid for the missing BMW M6 GT3 of Dinan-Foley, as the Turner Motorsports duo couldn't take the start following damages from a qualifying accident.
At the start, Caldarelli led the Lamborghini trio into Turn 1, followed by Ward, Poordad and Charlie Scardina – in the new AM Triarsi Competizione Ferrari.
Hagler had a slow start and dropped to 13th, while Vogel held position. Both overtook Jean-Claude Saada (AF Corse Ferrari), moving into P10 and P11.
The whole ProAm field battled in the opening stages of the race: Hagler passed Vogel, while Sales (Compass Racing Acura) attempted an optimistic move and hit Jason Harward in the #88 Zelus Lamborghini, sending him into a spin. Sales was handed a drive through for the incident.
15 minutes into the race, Taylor Hagler continued her impressive recovery and moved ahead of Jeff Burton in the #91 Rearden Racing Lamborghini, advancing into second in ProAm. The Racers Edge driver confirmed herself a race-weapon and, despite a difficult qualifying, had a stunning first stint. She quickly cleared Scardina and hunted down the championship leading Wright Motorsport's Porsche of Fred Poordad.
Meanwhile, the top-four in the overall standings had checked out. Caldarelli opened a gap of over 10 seconds on KPAX teammate Venturini, who battled with compatriot Altoè for the runner up spot. Russell Ward's Mercedes started to struggle to keep up with the Lamborghini drivers, before entering the pitlane and having to retire for a power steering issue.
Altoè's pressure pushed Venturini to a rare mistake: the white TR3 Racing Lamborghini quickly pulled away once in second place, but had a significant gap to close on the race leader. Venturini hit more trouble when he picked up a puncture and had to make an unscheduled stop.
This resulted in Poordad moving into third place overall while retaining the ProAm lead, just ahead of Taylor Hagler – who continued to close the gap at the pace of half a second per lap quicker.
When the pit window opened, Caldarelli pitted and handed over to Jordan Pepper, as well as most of the ProAm field stopped for their mandatory driver change. Erin Vogel pitted from eighth overall after a very solid stint and Michael Cooper got behind the wheel of the #19 DXDT Mercedes. Jan Heylen was in for Poordad, as well as Dakota Dickerson for Taylor Hagler. The leading cars in ProAm rejoined in the same order, separated by less than two seconds.
When the #6 KPAX Lamborghini of Giovanni Venturini pitted with 45 minutes to go, the order at the front of the field was restored with Jordan Pepper leading Dennis Lind and Jan Heylen. Michael Cooper rejoined in P7, fourth in class, and had a big moment when he went into the dirt at Turn 1 to avoid the rejoining Huracan of Corey Lewis.
South African Pepper spent a few laps behind the battling Aston Martin of Staveley and the DXDT Mercedes of home racer Dalziel; the race leader avoided unnecessary risks and cleared the traffic of the lapped cars.
Having taken over from Taylor Hagler – the biggest mover of the first stint – Dickerson closed in on Jan Heylen with 30 minutes left on the clock. They both caught up with Dennis Lind, and an amazing battle for second overall – and first in ProAm - animated the whole second part of the race.
Michael Cooper had climbed to fourth in class, when he started to report issues with the left-front and ultimately had to pit and retire with 3 laps to go for a suspension failure.
It was an unfortunate end of Saturday for Vogel-Cooper, but they would make up for it on Sunday.
Belgian experienced driver Jan Heylen was faster than Lind, but had to watch his mirrors from Dickerson. When the latter made a mistake and went deep at the Hairpin with 1 minute left to the chequered flag, Heylen tried one final attempt, but Lind defended well and held on to second.
Jordan Pepper took a commanding win by over 35 seconds, ahead of Dennis Lind - at series debut – and Jan Heylen, who also brought home the ProAm victory for Wright Motorsport. Dickerson-Hagler were second in class and added another podium to their resumé, after a thrilling race.
"It is nice to get back up on the podium with Dakota here at Sebring" – said Hagler on Saturday afternoon. "We came ready to battle and we gave the Wright Motorsports guys one of the better fights we have had all season!"
"I made a mistake on the start and put us behind, but I put my head down and picked cars off one by one." – she recalled. "Dakota put in a stellar drive to fight for the top step of the podium, but we ended up second today. Thanks to the Racers Edge Motorsports crew for a car that was the class of the field today. We are going for it tomorrow!”
Caldarelli and Pepper's eighth win of the season gave KPAX the overall title to the #3 crew with two races to go.
On Sunday, Jan Heylen started from overall and ProAm pole position, alongside Mikael Grenier (Winward Mercedes) and ahead of Jordan Pepper and Dakota Dickerson. Hagler's teammate had in fact qualified the #93 Racers Edge Acura in fourth overall and second in class, targeting another strong result after Saturday's podium. Their race, though, took a difficult turn on the first lap, when Dickerson was pushed off track by McMurry (Compass racing Acura), hit by Ryan Dalziel at Turn 3. Michael Cooper managed to move into sixth place overall and second in ProAm, before also making light contact with Madison Snow (Zelus Motorsport Lamborghini), who spun at Sunset Bend. Rejoined at the back of the pack, Dickerson set the fastest lap and quickly caught up with the group. Dickerson was a man on a mission and navigated through traffic, passing one car after the other: he first cleared the AM Ferrari entries, then the Compass Racing Acura of McMurry, the returnee Turner Motorsport's BMW M6 driven by Robby Foley. A few laps later, it was the turn of the Aston Martin of Drew Staveley, as he got back in contention for the podium positions. Cooper also had to give up second place, but he continued his great run in third, never under pressure.
When the pit window opened, Lind and Lewis pitted immediately, handing over to Altoè and Venturini. Jordan Pepper dived in the pit lane one lap later, leaving Dickerson in free air: Taylor Hagler's teammate kept reducing the gap to overall leader Heylen, in order to give Hagler a chance to fight for the victory after the driver change. Caldarelli and Ward battled for position after their pit stops; the Italian went through making the most out of his warmer tyres. Dickerson pitted with 42 minutes to go and handed over to Taylor Hagler from second in class. Poordad was the last driver to get behind the wheel for his stint and also Cooper pitted for Erin Vogel from third in ProAm. Just as the pit window closed, the race was neutralized with a Full Course Yellow following the heavy crash by Charlie Scardina (Triarsi Competizione), who went off into the tyre barriers at Turn 2. While the silver Ferrari 488 GT3 was severely battered, the driver was luckily unharmed. The Safety Car, though, gave the opportunity to bunch up the field again and, at the restart, the Pro drivers quickly moved ahead of Fred Poordad, who came under attack from Taylor Hagler and Erin Vogel. Both completed clean moves and went into an historic first and second place in class. Taylor Hagler completed a remarkable recovery for Racers Edge, which saw the #93 Acura going from last to first after the first lap incident. Vogel defended from Sales (Compass Racing), but then remained close to Hagler throughout her stint, in yet another great race for the American driver. There was some drama for Wright Motorsport when Poordad was sent into a spin by Jason Harward - who later received a drive through - but the Porsche's fifth place would nevertheless prove enough to secure the ProAm title. In the final minutes, Russell Ward and Giacomo Altoè battled for second overall: the Italian made a mistake and went through the grass, opening the door to compatriot Venturini who sneaked into third place. Andrea Caldarelli took the second KPAX victory of the weekend, in yet another dominant performance for the #3 car. Ward held on to second and kept Venturini at bay, while Altoè took fourth overall. Taylor Hagler, fifth overall, secured her third class victory in the last six races with a perfect stint.
“Honestly, I don’t know if [Fred Poordad] had an issue, or if he just got startled at the start with all the Pro-Pro drivers” – Hagler said. “I was able to follow another car through, and made a pass on the outside of Turn 7 and made it stick. From there, that was it." - she recalled. "Dakota’s a really, really good teammate” – Hagler continued. "He’s an amazing driver with a world of experience. He’s very quick and very precise in everything he does."
"I had a very bad start yesterday and I fell back, so I know what it’s like to come back and chase.”
Not far behind, Erin Vogel had one of her best runs and clinched second place, her third ProAm podium this year.
"I learned so much in race one on Saturday and I was able to bring that into race two, and just got out there." – Erin said. "We actually practiced some discipline and saved our sticker tires for today, so I felt like even though the restart was pretty sketchy with a lot of dust and dirt on the track, I had great tires and was able to hang up there with those guys in the first few laps; which is always the most important thing."
"I just tried to be really consistent and steady today. Yesterday I was overthinking some things and so I just wasn't on the pace. Today I was up there on the pace I wanted to have and I’m just really happy with this result."
"To be on the podium again, the third time this season, is pretty special."
"That was a really good job by Erin and DXDT." – echoed Michael Cooper. "She brought the car in clean and got us out on good tires just before the yellow in a good position. We even picked up one spot during Erin's stint and chasing the leader there. A little more power and maybe we'd be walking away with the win."
GT World Challenge America now gears up for the season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks' time, as the series will run in conjunction with the Intercontinental GT Challenge 8 Hour race. Double-points will be awarded at the three hour mark, with the Team's title still in contention.