The Belgian Is Succeeding in Both the WeatherTech Championship and Michelin Pilot Challenge
By David Phillips
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When it comes to physical talent, Jan Heylen has always had the right stuff.
Only since his move to sports car racing has Heylen had the right stuff needed to consistently demonstrate his talent – i.e., front-line equipment and a stable team environment. Since hooking up with Wright Motorsports in 2014, Heylen has been a consistent frontrunner, memorably winning the GT Daytona (GTD) class at the 2020 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts with Patrick Long and Ryan Hardwick while running most of the race with a broken shock absorber.
And despite missing this year’s opening round of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona after Hardwick’s crash in practice, Heylen was tied for the Grand Sport (GS) points lead heading into the Road America 120 thanks to podium appearances at Sebring, Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen and Lime Rock Park in the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
But that string ended abruptly at Road America after Hardwick slithered off the rain-slicked track and the team finished 16th in class. Making matters worse for the Wright cause, championship rivals Bill Auberlen and Dillon Machavern took maximum points with their second win of the season in the No. 95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4.
Heylen, who slipped to third in the Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team points standings with three races remaining, is undeterred.
“We’re not out of the championship,” the 41-year-old driver says. “Daytona was unfortunate, but it all worked out as far as Ryan being back in shape to go racing again, although scoring zero points was a big loss. But we’ve had a very strong season from there forward; podiumed at nearly every race and then we came to the last event, made it into the lead of the championship. But the reality is we didn’t have a good car in the rain. We were extremely fast in the dry but that definitely compromised us in the rain.
“I don’t think it’s the end of the world, (but) the next three races are crucial. We have to continue what we’ve been doing all season long, and if we can finish on the podium again – depending on where the BMW finishes – the championship can be very close going into the last race.”
The Michelin Pilot Challenge isn’t the only arrow in Heylen’s IMSA quiver. As Wright’s third driver in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship long-distance events, Heylen – with Long and Trent Hindman – currently sits atop the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup GTD standings with just the season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta remaining.
“Going into (Road America), we were leading both championships – Michelin Pilot and Endurance (Cup) – so you have to say we’re having a good season,” Heylen says. “The sprint series in GTD, we’ve had a couple of tough breaks with the way yellows come and definitely lost some points. But we’re not that far behind and consistency is key, so we still have a good shot at that as well.
“It’s a very good situation. I’ve been with the team going on seven years, so it’s definitely a home for me. We’ve built a lot of things together and it’s just a good relationship we’ve built with John Wright (team owner) and Bobby Viglione (technical director). Of course, Patrick (Long) plays a big role in all of that, and in recent years with Ryan (Hardwick) coming on board it’s a tight family. That’s one of our strengths.”
Heylen doesn’t come from a motorsports family, nor was their copious family money to jump start his racing career or, for that matter, sustain that career through the inevitable fallow stretches. With no mentors to rely on, he learned the hard way, admittedly making some mistakes in career choices along the way. Which makes him all the more appreciative of the situation he finds himself in with Wright Motorsports.
“My mother and dad certainly opened the door and it’s thanks to them that I’m doing what I’m doing,” he says, “but I never had a system around me that was well-connected. That’s what I had missing and that’s what I try to provide to people who reach out to me for advice.
“Looking back, my competition was Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Robert Kubica and Vitantonio Liuzzi. I was winning a lot of races and having more or less equal talent with all those drivers. We could have all had the same career, but as in any business it’s who you know – and I didn’t know anyone.
“Today it’s different, of course, and it’s something you build over many years. I always tried to surround myself with people I enjoy. With Wright Motorsports, I’m not saying it’s always perfect. There are ups and downs but for the most part it’s very good and I enjoy having been part of building what we have. Different offers come along that might seem better at that moment in time, but I always try to look at the big picture. The relationships I’ve developed, especially now that we’re a little bit older … I have no interest in going to do a race, even in a competitive car, with people I already knew I didn’t like. I just wouldn’t do it.”
Fortunately, but also thanks to a career’s worth of building relationships, Heylen now finds himself with the best of both worlds: driving competitive cars for a top-notch team of people he enjoys. Maybe it’s taken longer than he might have wanted, but it seems the right stuff has finally met the Wright stuff.