Making their GT3 racing debut at the season opener in Sonoma, both Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler had remarkable weekends: while Hagler clinched two Pro-Am podium finishes, minor issues to prevent Vogel to step on the podium, in a very exciting start to their campaigns.
Five months after the final round of its 2020 season, the GT World Challenge America returned to the track with some novelties: among them, two female racers made their GT3 racing debut in the very competitive SRO series.
Coming from different backgrounds, Erin Vogel and Taylor Hagler both entered the opening race weekend at Sonoma with big plans for the 2021 season.
Vogel had a very solid GT4 America campaign in 2020 – her first in a SRO sanctioned series – at the wheel of the McLaren 570S GT4, which she shared with experienced racer Michael Cooper. Despite the learning curve, Erin showed impressive progress throughout her debut season and went on to clinch three top ten finishes.
With one season of competitive racing under her belt, Vogel made the switch to GT3 machinery and joined DXDT Racing, always joined by Cooper in the driving seat of the stunning purple and red #19 CrowdStrike Mercedes AMG GT3, in a three-car operation for the squad.
Taylor Hagler had previously competed in the Touring Car category of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, where she claimed a runner up spot at Mid-Ohio and ultimately finished seventh in the championship standings in the #77 Honda Civic Type R TCR.
The Texas-native, then, had the chance to enter the HPD GT3 Driver Academy, which allowed her to gather valuable experience behind the wheel of the Acura NSX GT3 as she received coaching from some of the brand's veterans. Taylor graduated from the academy together with former F3 winner Dakota Dickerson, who joined the young lady at Racers Edge Motorsports for the GT World Challenge America campaign. Hagler will also contest her sophomore season in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, as she moved to championship winning team BHA.
Both Vogel and Hagler had the chance to log several laps in pre-season testing days, which allowed them to familiarize with their respective new vehicles ahead of the Sonoma round.
“Getting back into the Acura NSX GT3 Evo for the first time this year was refreshing,” said Hagler. “The Acura is a powerful machine that is exciting to drive. Testing at The Thermal Club allowed me to get seat time and work with the Racers Edge Motorsports team to prepare myself for two 90-minute races. We worked hard to tune in the car and are ready to head to Sonoma Raceway" – she commented before the event.
"We have great momentum coming into Sonoma." – added Vogel. "The crew at DXDT has been working incredibly hard to be ready, above and beyond the normal beginning season work. We’ve got a super solid car that we’ve been able to become very familiar with over the last two months. We’re excited to see the competition in this class and get out there, wheel to wheel again."
Compared to last year's GT4 America races – which feature two 60-minute heats with driver change, the driver of the #19 Mercedes also had to work on a different race format, which sees a double header of 90-minute for each competition.
Having qualified the car in 14th position, Erin Vogel started her first GT3 race of her career on Saturday, tackling the fast and flowing Sonoma Raceway from the seventh row of the grid. A few places ahead of her, Taylor Hagler had placed the #93 Acura in eleventh place.
Ahead, it was a KPAX Lamborghini 1-2, with Andrea Caldarelli leading Corey Lewis into the first corner.
There was plenty of action right from the beginning, as George Kutz was quickly tagged by teammate and team owner David Askew into Turn 4, which sent the #4 DXDT Mercedes into a spin in the grass. The pack took evasive action and both Hagler and Vogel were particularly good at seizing the opportunity to gain places: Hagler advanced to P10, just ahead of Vogel in 11th overall.
Italian racer Andrea Caldarelli extended his lead by over one second after the first lap, with Lewis is second chased by Michael Dinan in the #96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 – also at his first GT3 start.
The two ladies kept moving up the order, as the Pro-Am train remained very bunched up: when Askew served a drive through penalty for the first lap incident, Hagler and Vogel found themselves in fourth and fifth Pro-Am positions respectively, before engaging in a very exciting battle.
Vogel made the move stick on lap 7 and quickly pursued Burton in the #91 Rearden Lamborghini ahead. 15 minutes into the race, her pace continued to improve.
On lap 11 though, after an outstanding first part of her stint where she had gained 6 positions, Vogel slowed down and allowed past several rivals, struggling with a seat belt coming loose.
The unfortunate incident forced Vogel to pit on lap 12 and she rejoined the track in P13 overall, eighth in Pro-Am class.
Once back on track, Erin lapped quicker than most of the field but had to make up for the lost lap in the unscheduled pit stop.
Russel Ward moved up to third overall after a small mistake by Dinan into the final corner, while Fred Poordad and Jeff Burton also battled out for position.
Taylor Hagler came under pressure from the return of Askew; they would both dive into the pitlane at the same time when the pit window opened at the 40 minute mark: Dakota Dickerson stepped in the #93 Acura, as Ryan Dalziel took over the #63 Mercedes.
Having caught up and passed Gannett on lap 20 for P12 overall, Erin Vogel also pitted for the compulsory driver change, leaving Michael Cooper at the wheel of the #19 Mercedes.
While Corey Lewis opted to stay out a little longer, the overall race leader Caldarelli handed over the #3 KPAX Lamborghini to Jordan Pepper. The South African – a very experienced GT3 racer and younger brother of W Series driver Tasmin Pepper – regained the lead on lap 25, when Lewis pitted in the sister car and performed the driver change with Giovanni Venturini.
When the dust had settled, Pepper led Venturini, with Dickerson and Cooper rejoining P2 and P6 in Pro-Am.
The Safety Car was deployed on lap 29 when the #77 Acura of Matt McMurry lost the left rear wheel into Turn 6. With gaps neutralized, Jordan Pepper had to rebuild his safe margin with less than 30 minutes left on the clock, when the race was again green flagged.
One of the most experienced drivers in the field, Dalziel completed a great move around the outside of Dickerson at the Hairpin. Having taken over from Ward in the #33 Winward Racing Mercedes, Philip Ellis hit trouble and retired.
Despite encountering some lapped cars in front, Jordan Pepper managed a clean restart and quickly built a 7-second gap to Venturini, also stuck in traffic.
In the midst of a four-car fight, Braun ran into the back of the #96 BMW of Robby Foley, scattering pieces of bodywork around the track. Cooper, who was right alongside Braun, managed to avoid the collision and moved up to eighth, fifth in class. He would then pass Braun on lap 40, but his DXDT teammate responded back at the exit of Turn 7.
The battered Turner Motorsport BMW of Foley dropped down the order, allowing past Dakota Dickerson for fifth overall with 14 minutes to go.
In his first ever race in the Lamborghini Huracan GT3, Jordan Pepper claimed victory in Race 1, preceding Giovanni Venturini by over 15 seconds. Jan Heylen brought the Wright Motorsport Porsche to the overall podium and to Pro-Am victory, ahead of Ryan Dalziel (DXDT Racing) and Dakota Dickerson (Racers Edge Motorsports). At her first race in the GT World Challenge America, Taylor Hagler thus secured her first podium finish, after running a flawless first half of the race.
Micheal Cooper and Erin Vogel were seventh overall and fifth in Pro-Am across the finish line, in a remarkable recovery from the seat belt issue.
"I am officially a GT3 racer as of today." – wrote Vogel.
"We had some challenges in race one, which wasn’t ideal, but we were able to move on and still take some positions to earn a solid fifth place finish", she added. "That yellow allowed us to catch up to the pack and get back into the race. Michael did a great job in his stint, and we got a decent result all things considered."
After GT4 driver and singer Aurora Straus performed the US national anthem, the second 90-minute race at Sonoma went underway with Jordan Pepper leading the field, alongside Colin Braun. But there was early drama, when Venturini almost ran into the back of his KPAX teammate when the lights went out. Pepper dropped to third, with Braun and Heylen advancing into the top two places.
The Dickerson-Hagler duo – taking the start from P6 overall – moved up to fifth with Dickerson in the driving seat. Michael Cooper also gained one position from his 10th grid slot. He would soon move into eighth overall and chased down the battling Dalziel and Ellis in the #63 and #33 Mercedes.
By lap 4, Jan Heylen managed to cut back his gap to the leading Mercedes but, despite coming under the second margin, Braun was able to extend his leadership by 2.7 seconds 20 minutes into the race. After dominating Saturday's race, Pepper couldn't come closer to the top two and settled in third, defending from teammate Venturini.
On lap 12, Cooper got past Pro driver Ellis for seventh overall, but remained P5 in Pro-Am.
As the pit window approached, the gaps remained relatively small up in front, with Dakota Dickerson lapping impressively in the #93 Acura in fifth, third in class.
Pepper was the first one to pit – a strategy that would reveal crucial for KPAX. Caldarelli rejoined P9, but his blistering pace made sure that the #3 Lambo would jump ahead of the whole field once Lewis and Kurtz had taken over from their co-drivers with 41 minutes to go.
When the 10-minute pit window closed, the KPAX Lamborghini drivers were again 1-2, with Caldarelli leading Lewis.
Taylor Hagler and Erin Vogel jumped in their cars and started their stints in P5 and P7 respectively, third and fifth in class. A spin for DXDT Racing's David Askew allowed Erin Vogel to move up to fourth, as she kept closing the gap to Hagler in front.
Running almost 2 seconds faster than the Pro-Am cars in front, Erin closed a 18-second gap and started to put pressure on Hagler. The duo was also significantly faster than Fred Poordad in the #20 Wright Motorsport entry, but a tight battle between the two ladies ultimately prevented them to catch up with the second-placed Porsche.
There were more troubles for the #9 Lamborghini of Ziad Ghandhour – coming from an early retirement on Saturday – who received a drive through for a pit lane infraction.
But all the eyes were on the podium battle between Taylor Hagler and Erin Vogel. They both managed to pass the lapped car of Askew but, when Vogel seemed able to complete a move, she spun coming off of the Hairpin. She rejoined and quickly regrouped, but had to defend from the fast approaching Russell Ward in the #33 Winward Racing Mercedes.
Meanwhile, Andrea Caldarelli had put almost 5 seconds between himself and the second KPAX Lamborghini and continued his run unchallenged. He navigated through traffic and took the chequered flag to claim a back-to-back victory. Lewis/Venturini were again second, preceding Kurtz/Braun in the #4 DXDT Mercedes that also secured the Pro-Am win.
In a very confident drive, Taylor Hagler finished fifth overall and again third in class, closing to within five seconds to P2.
"Our Racers Edge Motorsports team did a flawless job at Sonoma and it was a great start to the season," said Hagler. "We have all worked together in the HPD GT3 Driver Academy and it felt just like we picked up from last season. It is always much easier to execute when you have history and experience with each other."
"It was a weekend of firsts for me - first GT3 race, first race as a finishing driver, and first double podium weekend. This was a great debut weekend having the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on our car prominently", she added. "I am so thankful to be a part of this program and I am ready to head to COTA to see how we can do at home!"
Vogel showed remarkable defensive driving in the final laps and could keep her Pro rival Ward behind in a photo-finish. She was sixth overall and fourth in Pro-Am, showing great speed, determination and overall natural feeling with the Mercedes AMG GT3 car – even more so compared to last year's McLaren GT4.
"I was fortunately able to use the sticker tires that we chose to run today to catch up to cars that were immediately in front." – expained Vogel.
"I was able to get back in the race and that felt pretty good. I chased Taylor Hagler for a couple of laps until I made a little bit of a mistake and did a half-spin. She got away and it was great driving by her. I spent the last couple laps of the race fighting off Russell Ward in another Mercedes-AMG. It was a really great fight. I had fun racing with him and held him off in a photo-finish to come in P4, which we are happy with for our second race of the year."
It was indeed a stunning GT3 debut and a very promising start of the season for both Hagler and Vogel in Sonoma: Taylor now sits third in the Pro-Am standings with 30 points, while Erin follows in fifth place at 22 points.
From the California venue, the series will move to Hagler's home round at COTA on April 30-May 2 for the second double-header of this very exciting GT World Challenge America season.