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Taylor Hagler clinches back to back IMSA TCR titles

Seven podiums, one victory, nine top five finishes: Taylor Hagler's second title winning season in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge was even more impressive than the first one, as the driver of the #1 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai - alongside co-driver Michael Lewis - made more IMSA history after a crazy season finale.

Photo credits: Richard Dole

With a 100 point margin over the closer pursuer, Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis' title defense race at Road Atlanta might have sounded like a relatively easy job. But, in motor racing, nothing is easy when there is a championship on the line. 26 year old Texan racer Taylor Hagler clinched her first IMSA title last year, when she became the first ever woman to win the extremely competitive Michelin Pilot Challenge in the TCR category, alongside Michael Lewis. Hagler - who also competed in a double program in SRO, where she had an equally remarkable campaign in her GT3 debut - finished six times on the podium and took her first win at Lime Rock Park in 2021 - and aimed for even higher in 2022, as Hagler/Lewis committed to another season at Bryan Herta Autosport to defend the crown. If winning is an extraordinary achievement in itself, confirming the same competitive level is often the hardest task - but Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis delivered once again and, having finished six more times on the podium - and coming off their first win of the season at VIRginia International Raceway - they headed to Road Atlanta for the series' season finale with a comfortable lead in the standings. Hagler and Lewis built their strength on consistency, in a championship that has often delivered crazy races and with many potential winners. A series of second place finishes in the first half of the season, in addition to a great charge from eleventh to third at Road America and the victory slowly built that gap - but the drivers of the #1 Hyundai Elantra N TCR had to keep at bay the #5 KMW Motorsports with TMR Engineering Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR, which turned out to be a very fast opponent throughout the season, with three wins to their name.

Photo credits: Sideline Sports Photography

“Our championship has been a bit up and down this year and we’ve had to fight back hard in the second half of the season,” said Hagler. “Getting the win at VIR was huge. Fighting for wins is what everyone on this Hyundai program is focused on, and it was obviously a huge step forward for us with the championship. So it is good to have a little bit of a gap, but IMSA is so competitive and we know we’ll have to deliver another strong result to bring this [championship] home and that’s exactly what we plan to do!” The stage of the final battle was the tricky Road Atlanta race, in support of the Petit Le Mans event that rounded out the IMSA season. The 2.54-mile circuit features a combination of fast corners and a few crucial braking areas, as well as a technical section and a long backstraight. A layout that has been friendly territory for Hagler in the past, as the young woman always finished in the top-five in her previous participations. And momentum was carried through qualifying, as Hagler put the #1 Hyundai in fifth position for Friday's two-hour race. At the green flag, one of the most chaotic races of the season was underway - with both titles in the GS and TCR classes on the line. Dillon Machavern (#96 Turner Motorsports BMW), overall pole sitter lost the lead to the #93 CarBahn Porsche of Tom Dye, while early drama shuffled the order in TCR as well, with race leader Mat Pombo (#73 LA Honda World Racing) receiving a drive through penalty for jumping the start, before the second and third placed cars made contact: the #19 Van der Steur Hyundai ended in the tyre barrier, while #98 BHA Hyundai had to eventually pit with damages.

Photo credits: Zac Stern / Squatch Media

From fifth on the grid, Taylor Hagler was trying to keep it clean and avoid chaos in the frantic opening stages, but she was hit at Turn 10 by her main championship rival, the #5 KMW Motorsports Alfa Romeo Giulietta driven by Tim Lewis. After dropping all the way down to P13 in class, Hagler brought the car back to the pits for an early stop - but was instructed to continue on. Having effectively completed a drive through, Taylor Hagler was up for the challenge and started to climb back the order. It was chaos all over the field, as the GS leaders made contact - with Machavern regaining the lead in the Turner Motorsports BMW - and Victor Gonzalez (#99 VGRT Honda) was pushed in the gravel, with the #77 BHA Hyundai of Mason Filippi taking the temporary lead in class. In another turn of events, the #5 Alfa Romeo Giulietta had another contact - this time sustaining rear suspension damage. Tim Lewis rejoined - then stopped again on track - before managing to bring the car back to the pits; the damage, though, was significant and the team had to bring the car back behind the wall. At the mid-race pit stops, Hagler pitted from sixth, having charged through the TCR field with steady pace and handed over to teammate Michael Lewis. After the round of pit stops, Bill Auberlen led overall in the #95 Turner Motorsports BMW, leading the #59 Kohr Ford Mustang of Johnson and the #46 TGM Porsche 718 GT4 of Plumb. In TCR, Wilkins - who had pitted midway through the first stint anticipating a yellow flag that never came - extended his stint, before finally handing the wheel in the hands of Robert Wickens. After heavy contact with the #47 Nolasport Porsche of Jason Hart, though, Wickens was off and into the barriers, as the #33 BHA Hyundai Elantra was forced to retire. The incident brought out the first Full Course Yellow of the day, with 40 minutes to go. Michael Lewis made the most out of the neutralization and the #1 Hyundai was back in the pack. Lewis pitted under yellow for fuel and rejoined in eighth place in class. Karl Wittmer (Victor Gonzalez Racing Team Honda) found himself in the lead, leading the #77 Hyundai of Maxson - as the latter picked up damages after contact but continued, before being handed a drive through.

Photo credits: Sideline Sports Photography / Nickolas Wolf

At the restart, the third and fourth placed TCR cars - the #73 Honda of Eversley and the #15 Hyundai of Rockwell - slid off in the grass and lost a few places, while Michael Lewis navigated through chaos to claim fourth place. He would make up one more place when the #2 BHA Hyundai driven by Ryan Norman pulled off the track. In the final minutes, Lewis started to put pressure on the two leaders, as the top three were separated by tenths of a second. Ultimately, Wittmer held on and took victory for Victor Gonzalez Racing Team, ahead of Simpson/Johnson and Hagler/Lewis. With third place - their seventh podium of the season - Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis claimed their second IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR title, becoming the first drivers to defend the crown in the series. "It's official!" - said a stunned Hagler after the race. "Honestly, to have that one behind me is really great because that was a pretty hit-and-miss race. We really had to fight for it today." "There was a lot that was happening, and it wasn't looking great there for a while" - she continued. "I just put my head down and did what I could and gave the car to Michael. It's never over till it's over!" "This was the only track on the IMSA schedule that I didn't have a trophy from, so it's awesome to close out that collection and finish the season with the championship and another trophy." Hagler made history once again and became the second woman to secure back-to-back titles in IMSA after Christina Nielsen, who won the WeatherTech GTD Championships in 2016 and 2017. An achievement that leaves with even more excitement for what will come next from this outstanding talent.

Photo credits: Michael L. Levitt



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