GTWC America: Taylor Hagler takes second win in SRO, Erin Vogel back on the podium after pole
The women of GT World Challenge America continue to make headlines: Taylor Hagler took class victory at Watkins Glen, with Erin Vogel returning to the podium after claiming her first pole position.
The SRO-organized GT World Challenge America is certainly known for visiting some of the most iconic venues in North America and, after the previous round at Elkhart Lake, the series began its final three-race stretch of the 2021 season on yet another classic racetrack: Watkins Glen International. Located in the state of New York, the circuit has been the home of 20 consecutive F1 Grand Prix, from 1961 to 1980.
The two women of GT World Challenge America have both enjoyed success in their debuts season in GT3: Erin Vogel (DXDT Racing), making her step up from GT4 America, took ProAm victory at VIRginia International Raceway, sharing the #19 Crowdstrike Mercedes AMG GT3 with co-driver Michael Cooper.
Since her first races in GT3, Vogel has immediately found pace and has looked more comfortable than ever in powerful purple Mercedes. Despite a few unfortunate rounds – including the fourth round at Road America, where she was looking strong with her best qualifying effort to date before technical issues and an early contact in Race 2 took her out of contention -– the first season of the #19 crew has been a successful one ahead of the fifth race meeting at Watkins Glen.
"I’m looking forward to racing at a new track." – said Erin Vogel ahead of the weekend. "We had the opportunity to test at Watkins Glen recently, and it’s a fabulous track. It’s high speed with tons of elevation change, and lots of large-radius, sweeping turns."
"It’s very much my style of track, and I hope that we’ll have another opportunity to show our pace as we did at VIRginia International Raceway." – she added. "I’m also looking forward to escaping our 95-degree fall weather here in SoCal for a little taste of New England autumn weather."
Driver of the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports' Acura NSX GT3, Taylor Hagler is also in her rookie season in GT3 – but has been racing like a seasoned veteran.
The young Texas-native, now part of the prestigious HPD Academy, has been moving up the ranks for sports car racing with steady and impressive pace. Hagler is now combining a double program in IMSA and SRO, and with an equally outstanding season in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, she is currently leading the TCR category in the IMSA-sanctioned series.
Last time out at Elkhart Lake, Taylor clinched her maiden win in SRO, sharing the car with Dakota Dickerson. But Watkins Glen had also played host to notable results for Hagler, whose last visit to the venue resulted in a third place finish, a fastest lap and her first pole position in TC America.
"We are in such a busy, yet exciting, part of the season but the focus doesn’t change" – said Hagler. “Watkins Glen is a great track that is always good to me so I’m excited to get to drive the Racers Edge Acura there. We have had some highs and lows this season but our ultimate goal is to continue to push for success and we will do exactly that this weekend."
Four podiums and a victory brought Hagler to second place in the drivers' standings, with three rounds remaining in the 2021 season.
For the fifth round of the season, Jacob Abel returned as Hagler's co-driver, as the young racer is alternating behind the wheel with Dickerson.
The first race of the weekend turned out to be another little milestone for the series.
On Saturday morning, Erin Vogel claimed her first pole position in SRO and in GT3, as she placed the #19 DXDT Mercedes on top of the ProAm field and in fifth place overall after a mixed-weather session.
"I’m super happy with our debut weekend here at Watkins Glen." – she commented. "I really love this track, and I took to it really quickly. It has this fast, flowy feeling that I think really suits my driving style, and Michael Cooper’s as well."
"We had a great day on Saturday, with my first pole position in the series and GT3 racing in mixed conditions, which was just even better. I used to struggle with that, but this DXDT Racing Mercedes is such a confidence-inspiring machine in those mixed conditions."
Hagler wasn't as happy with her qualifying performance and lined up in ninth overall, fourth in ProAm class, on the grid of race 1.
The two KPAX Lamborghini of Jordan Pepper and Corey Lewis locked out the front row in the overall classify, ahead of Michael Dinan (#96 Turner Motorsports BMW) and Russell Ward (#33 Winward Mercedes).
At the start of Saturday's race, Pepper retained the lead, but Michael Dinan was quick to snatch second in the fast BMW M6 GT3, taking advantage of a slower getaway by Corey Lewis in the green #6 Lamborghini. Erin Vogel had a flawless start and held on to the class lead and to fifth overall, while Taylor dropped to P5 in ProAm, P10 overall. David Askew (#63 DXDT Mercedes), eleventh on the grid, spun in the opening stages and pitted reporting a tyre puncture. Soon after, the race was neutralized when Bill Sweedler spun and hit the barrier at the fast Esses section in the #10 TR3 Racing Lamborghini Huracan, bringing out the Safety Car. Jordan Pepper had a good restart in the leading #3 KPAX Lamborghini, but was closely pressured by Michael Dinan. Vogel showcased some great defensive driving and racecraft, but had to give up the top class position to the fast Acura of Michael Di Meo (#77 Compass Racing). Meanwhile, the other Acura NSX GT3 was also charging through the field: Taylor Hagler was on a great run and moved into third place in class after four overtaking manoeuvres in six laps. Eventually, Hagler will also go by the #19 Mercedes of Vogel, who was powerless against the speed of the two Acuras now leading the ProAm race. After 30 minutes of racing, Pepper led the overall standings with a 6 second margin on Dinan, as Lewis battled Ward eighth further seconds adrift. Di Meo held a 5 second gap over second placed Taylor Hagler. When the pit window opened, most of the front-running cars pitted: Andrea Caldarelli stepped in for Jordan Pepper in the #3 KPAX Lamborghini, Michael Dinan handed over to Robby Foley, as well as Michael Cooper and Jacob Abel started their driving shifts following flawless stints by their teammates. Russell Ward and Corey Lewis stopped one lap later for their mandatory pit stops and driver change, as Mikael Grenier and Giovanni Venturini rejoined the race – swapping their on-track positions. The Winward pitstop was in fact fast enough to gain Grenier third place in Pro and overall classify, with Venturini slowed down by a seatbelts' issue. After the pit stop sequence, Taylor Hagler's stunning first stint granted Abel the first position in ProAm, preceding Matt McMurry (#77 Compass Racing Acura) and Michael Cooper.
“It wasn’t the qualifying I wanted with the mixed conditions” – stated Hagler after a remarkable stint. “When I’m that far back, I’m usually like a dog with a bone, and as long as I have something to chase, I’m going to be up there." "If I had a few more laps, a little more time, I think I could have been right up there with the leader – I was catching him a half-second a lap. I get a little fire under my foot, and if I have someone to chase, we’re good to go." The second half of the race was defined by two exciting battles for position in ProAm: McMurry caught up with Abel as the two leading Acuras fought for class victory, while Giacomo Altoè – having taken over from Martin Fuentes in the #9 TR3 Racing Lamborghini - had to defend from the charge of Jan Heylen in the Wright Motorsport Porsche for fourth place. In between them, Michael Cooper was faster than the leading duo, but had to close a 16 second gap. Giovanni Venturini's Lamborghini dropped behind the ProAm entries for a technical issue and Madison Snow (#88 Zelus Motorsport Lamborghini) – who had also received a drive through for a pit stop infraction – came to a halt on track, triggering a local yellow with 5 minutes left on the clock. Andrea Caldarelli took the overall win, over 9 seconds ahead of Robby Foley (Turner Motorsports BMW) and Mikael Grenier (Winward Mercedes). Jacob Abel held on and crossed the line to take the second ProAm victory of the season for the #93 Racers Edge Motorsports Acura shared with Taylor Hagler. He preceded Matt McMurry by 0.366 seconds. “Taylor did an absolutely phenomenal job at the beginning" said Abel, after securing the win. "She got us up there, and then the Racers Edge guys got us in the lead. All I had to do then was to hang on." Michael Cooper was third across the line, clinching the third podium of the season for the Vogel/Cooper duo. "I just knew I could go out with confidence" – commented Erin Vogel after an equally solid stint. "So that really set the tone for our race, and we had a great race. We knew there were some cars that were stronger than us in the field. Our position in the field depended on what happened further back in the field. We ended up third on the podium, which was really still a great result."
Having finished fifth in the overall rankings of Q2 – and third in class – Michael Cooper took the start of the second race from the third row of the grid. Saturday's class winner Jacob Abel slotted in 6th place in ProAm, P10 overall, while the field was led once again by the #3 KPAX Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli – this time alongside the #20 Wright Motorsport's Porsche of the fast Belgian racer Jan Heylen. Caldarelli led the pack at the green flag; it was a good start for Michael Cooper, who followed closely the BMW M6 GT3 of Robby Foley as he made his way up the order, gaining fourth overall and second in class. Abel retained tenth. There was drama for previous podium finisher Mikael Grenier, who slowed down in the Winward Mercedes and retired for a brake disc failure. The Full Course Yellow was deployed for debris. Cooper had to hand back fourth place to Giacomo Altoè, having passed in the hectic phases when the FCY was being deployed; the two swapped places before the restart. Venturini (#6 KPAX Lamborghini) made contact with the #12 Aston Martin of Drew Staveley, which lost a wing mirror and a position to Ryan Dalziel (#63 DXDT Mercedes). The latter, though, had to pit with damage to the front splitter and was brought back behind the wall for repairs. Jacob Abel managed to move ahead of Staveley after a clean battle, advancing to eighth overall and fifth in ProAm – just before another Full Course Yellow for debris freezed positions at the 1 hour mark. The race went back to green with 53 minutes to go: Altoè looked menacing in the BMW's rear view mirrors of Foley and McMurry got closer to Venturini – just before the pit window opened. Corey Lewis took over from his Italian teammate and Jordan Pepper stepped in for Caldarelli one lap later. Cooper pitted on lap 23 and handed over to Erin Vogel from third in class. The leading ProAm pitted with 40 minutes left on the clock and Taylor Hagler got behind the wheel of the #93 Racers Edge Acura. Fred Poordad rejoined in the overall lead, but Pepper soon cleared the Wright Motorsport's Porsche, as Dinan overtook Fuentes. Vogel was under pressure from the Lamborghini of Lewis, but it would be with the return of Michael Di Meo that Erin dropped a position in class, having slipped to fifth. After the pit stops, Poordad led the ProAm field, preceding Fuentes and Taylor Hagler. The latter was chased by the Acura of Di Meo; Erin Vogel, faster than the cars ahead, took advantage from their battle to get closer, but was never at striking distance.
Di Meo was on the move and got by Hagler, Fuentes and Poordad to slot in the class lead. Behind him, it was a 4-car battle for the podium: Hagler overtook Fuentes on the main straight with a better exit out of the final corner and started to put pressure on the Porsche of Fred Poordad – but she also had to watch her mirrors from Martin Fuentes, right on her tail.
Joining this group of cars was Michael Dinan, who had served a drive through penalty for a pit stop infraction and was gaining ground. Hagler tried to use Dinan's faster BMW to sneak ahead of Poordad, but lost third to Fuentes in the process with two laps to go. In the final laps, overall race leader Jordan Pepper reported an issue with his Lamborghini Huracan and saw his over 30 second gap decimated. The sister car of Corey Lewis caught up with Pepper, but the South African cutted across the finish line to take a back-to-back victory for the #3 crew, preceding the #6 KPAX of Lewis-Venturini. Di Meo was third overall and took home the ProAm win. Fred Poordad masterfully held on to ProAm second place, as Taylor Hagler came up 0.286 seconds short of another podium. With another clean race, Erin Vogel was fifth and the first of the Mercedes. "Sunday, we started a little further down the field and had some great racing, but once again, you know, found some faster traffic found us right away and it didn't quite turn into the race that we wanted it to be." – explained Vogel. "But we feel like we had really good momentum here this weekend, and we're really looking forward to seeing what we can do this evening in a couple of weeks."
Next up on the GT World Challenge America's calendar will be another classic circuit, Sebring International Raceway, for the final 90-minute double-headers on October 2-3 before the 8 hour season finale at Indianapolis, in conjunction with the Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli.