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  • Writer's pictureLIAM REDFORD

Jem Hepworth claims two victories, double podium for Caroline Candas and Paige Morales at NOLA

RAFA Racing Club’s trio of female drivers enjoyed a dominant performance at the SCCA Super Tour event at NOLA: Jem Hepworth claimed a pair of victories, in a sensational battle with Caroline Candas - who made her Stateside debut with a pole and a fastest lap - and Paige Morales, twice on the podium on her racing debut.


Caroline Candas, Jem Hepworth, Paige Morales, RAFA Racing Club
Photo credits: RAFA Racing Club

RAFA Racing Club’s trio of female drivers began their competitive season with a dominant display in the Hoosier Racing Tire SCCA Super Tour event at NOLA Motorsports Park. Jem Hepworth claimed a pair of victories in the GTX class, with one pole position and one fastest lap to her name. Hepworth was involved in a sensational battle for the victory in race two with polesitter Caroline Candas who was making her stateside debut. Candas also claimed fastest lap in race one in what was a brilliant first outing driving for RAFA Racing Club.


Paige Morales also enjoyed an excellent weekend on her racing debut, stepping onto the podium in both races while making significant improvements in changeable conditions.

All three drivers entered the weekend aiming to bank competitive track time ahead of their 2024 campaigns with RAFA Racing Club.


After a superb 2023 season racing alongside RAFA Racing Club founder Rafael Martinez, Jem Hepworth will step up from McLaren Trophy Europe, where the duo finished as championship runners-up, to compete in the GT4 European Series alongside Cameron Lawrence. Hepworth arrived at NOLA with good experience of the McLaren 570S and therefore provided a benchmark for both Candas and Morales who would race the car for the first time.


Indeed, Candas and Morales will be racing in Porsche Sprint Challenge North America this season with both drivers embarking on their first campaign stateside. For Morales, these races at NOLA were given greater significance as they were her first career races altogether, with the motorsport rookie taking huge strides in a small space of time.


After sensationally winning the RAFA Racing Club shootout in November, Candas has been working with the team to prepare for the season opener at Sebring in just two weeks’ time. However, this weekend was first time she had ever driven the McLaren 570S, a GT4 specification car with different characteristics to that of the Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.


The Hoosier Racing Tire SCCA Super Tour features a wide diversity of machines, with the RAFA Racing Club drivers competing in Class GTX within Group 6. While GTX catered for modern GT4 cars, the variance across the 29 car grid would see machines such as the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 competing alongside classic Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Corvettes and a Jaguar XKR. Therefore, traffic management would be vital in the pair of races at an unfamiliar circuit to the drivers.


Caroline Candas, Jem Hepworth, Paige Morales, Rafa Martinez, RAFA Racing Club
Photo credits: RAFA Racing Club

Track conditions added to the challenge for the RAFA Racing Club trio with Friday’s test sessions held in extremely wet conditions. Nonetheless, valuable experience was gained and the importance of this should not be underestimated. Caroline Candas particularly impressed, topping multiple sessions in GTX, with Jem Hepworth in hot pursuit. Despite her limited wet-weather experience, Paige Morales banked crucial track time and finished the day third in class, fourth overall within the group.


Heading into Saturday’s opening qualifying session, conditions were once again tricky. Although the rain had abated, the track was damp with some small puddles remaining. As the twenty-minutes progressed, the track dried quickly which led to consistent lap time improvements. Negotiating traffic therefore gained added importance, with areas away from the racing line proving more treacherous.


Out front, Hepworth and Candas traded fastest times with the former claiming GTX pole position by just over a second from Candas in second. Morales showed great maturity in light of her experience, with her final sector pace especially competitive. This saw the racing rookie qualify third in GTX, seventh in the overall classification and one tenth faster than Rafael Martinez in his McLaren Artura GT4.


The opening race of the weekend saw conditions change once again, with drivers experiencing the first dry running of the meeting. This was a particular challenge for Candas and Morales whose first dry laps at NOLA in the McLaren 570S GT4 would come in full racing conditions. At the head of GTX, Jem Hepworth made a fantastic start and held her lead with a confident opening lap in which she shadowed the overall race leader despite her power disadvantage.


Candas did a great job to stay out of trouble as she brought her tyres up to temperature, while Morales remained solidly within the podium positions in GTX.

By the end of lap two, Hepworth’s lead over Candas was up to four seconds, however the young French driver was now in sight of her RAFA Racing Club teammate following a smart overtake on the GT2 class Chevrolet Corvette of Michael Quattlebaum. Now in clear air, Hepworth and Candas traded fastest sectors while Morales had settled down in amongst some close midfield battles which saw her develop her race craft.


Lap five saw Hepworth and Candas both negotiate a plethora of lapped traffic, with the tight and technical nature of NOLA Motorsports Park testing their skills. Two laps later, Morales had risen into the top-10 of the overall classification and was making sizeable improvements as she gained confidence in dry conditions.


At the twenty-five-minute race reached its conclusion, Hepworth was able to stretch her gap out front to claim GTX class victory ahead of Candas in second place who claimed an impressive fastest lap on her stateside debut by two tenths of a second. Morales rounded out a historic all-female class podium, with another personal best time coming on lap ten to complete an excellent debut race in the McLaren 570S GT4.


Caroline Candas, Jem Hepworth, Paige Morales, RAFA Racing Club McLaren 570S GT4
Photo credits: RAFA Racing Club

Grid positions for race two would be determined from the driver’s fastest lap time from either qualifying one, qualifying two or the quickest race lap from Saturday’s opener. With dry conditions for second qualifying on Sunday, all three drivers were looking to improve on their best lap from race one to secure the best starting position. Clear track was at a premium despite the trio positioning their cars well in the opening stages. Hepworth, Candas and Morales were all quick to dip under their fastest race lap from the previous day, underlining their progress in the short session.


It was Candas who secured GTX class pole with a 1:45.346, just less than a second faster than Saturday’s benchmark. Hepworth was second in class, setting a quickest time of a 1:45.854, sixth tenths of a second faster than her quickest race one lap. However, it was Morales who found the largest time improvement with her lap of a 1:49.497 just short of two seconds quicker than her previous best time at NOLA and this ensured a RAFA Racing Club 1-2-3 GTX sweep once again.


Dry conditions remained for the final race of the weekend with the RAFA Racing Club trio all making good starts. It was Candas who displayed the most aggression as she valiantly fought off the Ford Mustang of Barry Boes in an attempt to put a car between herself and Hepworth. This mission was initially successful, before Boes used his power advantage to move past, with Hepworth in close company. Morales meanwhile, was competing like a veteran to build up her confidence on cold tyres and held off her nearest class rivals to remain in third, gaining back one of the two overall positions she had lost on the opening lap by lap two.


Lap three saw Candas and Hepworth involved in a sensational side-by-side battle for the GTX lead with both drivers displaying superb race craft. It was Hepworth who initially came out on top, but was unable to make her escape as Candas remained within a second of her teammate. The gap stabilised for a short period, before the introduction of lapped traffic allowed Candas to close in and weigh up her best overtaking opportunities. On lap eight, Candas did just that and despite Hepworth’s best defensive efforts, the French racer pulled off a spectacular overtake to claim the lead seconds before the safety car was deployed.


Paige’s strong lap times during the first half of the race saw her remain on the overall lead lap, before successfully negotiating her first ever safety car restart. This was made trickier by lapped cars falling between herself and her nearest rivals, nonetheless Morales held her overall position well. Lapped traffic also impacted the battle between Candas and Hepworth, with Caroline being trapped behind a slower vehicle in the opening corners which allowed Jem to make a fantastic overtake round the outside to re-take the GTX lead.


With just a handful of laps remaining, Hepworth and Candas remained nose-to-tail and both drivers were showing immense commitment to make their advantage count. The gap between first and second consistently remained less than a second, with the final lap providing yet more excitement. Coming upon lapped traffic and a yellow flag zone, Candas almost drew level with her rival but despite her best efforts, was unable to make a move with Hepworth resisting the pressure extremely well to claim her second victory of the weekend with fastest lap in the process.


Caroline Candas, Jem Hepworth, Paige Morales, RAFA Racing Club
Photo credits: RAFA Racing Club

Candas took the checkered flag second for another superb runner-up result after leading a sizeable portion of the race. Morales yet again rounded-out the GTX class podium with a composed drive which saw the rookie collect two trophies on her racing debut.


All three drivers can leave NOLA feeling extremely proud of their performances in what was a flawless season opener for RAFA Racing Club. Sweeping the GTX class podium underlined both the speed and consistency of the trio, who will be embarking on exciting 2024 programmes in the coming months.


Candas and Morales will be the first to return to competitive action, with the opening round of Porsche Sprint Challenge North America taking place at the fabled Sebring International Raceway in less than two weeks’ time. Hepworth will have to wait a little longer before her debut in the GT4 European Series, but she will be eager to gain extra track time before the curtain-raiser at Circuit Paul Ricard on the weekend of 6th/7th April.

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