Hagler Positioned to Become Series’ First Female Champion
By Godwin Kelly
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Grand Sport (GS) class championship will most likely be decided in the closing laps of the season finale Friday at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
And not to be overshadowed, but the Touring Car (TCR) class should make motorsports history in the opening laps of the Fox Factory 120.
IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge: Fox Factory 120 Entry List
Bill Auberlen and Dillon Machavern, who co-drive the No. 95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4, have a 30-point lead in GS points on Jan Heylen, who wheels the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport. Heylen’s co-driver, Ryan Hardwick, missed three races this season but will play a key role in determining the team championship.
Turner’s No. 96 BMW entry, co-driven by Robby Foley and Vin Barletta, is mathematically alive to earn championship honors, but team owner Will Turner said the chances of that happening look more like winning-the-lottery odds.
“For the No. 96 to win (the title), it would need our No. 95 car to finish 16th or worse, the No. 16 car finishes 12th or worse and (the No. 96) wins the race,” Turner said. “So that’s not looking great.”
Foley and Barletta are 140 points behind their teammates, but with 22 GS cars entered, it’s certainly a plausible possibility.
The No. 16 Porsche is in position to pounce and steal the title from Turner’s BMWs.
“We need to finish directly ahead or behind (the No. 16) to win the championship, unless they win the race and they would get the tiebreaker (season wins),” said Turner, whose team has two wins with the No. 95.
It’s a bit amazing the No. 16 Porsche is even in this position. Hardwick suffered a hard crash during a practice session before the season-opening race at Daytona, sustained a concussion and wrecked the car beyond repair. The car did not start the race.
“Instead of running in the first race of the season, I was over in the hospital at Daytona Beach, watching it on TV,” Hardwick said. “To start the season like that, missing the first round, then battling and clawing and fighting our way through the field, to now being second place with a real shot of winning the championship, I mean, man, that’s awesome.”
Since the No. 16’s return at Sebring (Max Root subbed for Hardwick), it has been a two-car battle through the season.
“We have been back and forth all year with that No. 16 car,” Turner said. “That car and team are very strong. I think this is going to come down to the last pit stop and end up being Bill Auberlen versus Jan Heylen for the win. It’s going to be exciting.”
The No. 16 Wright Porsche is riding a two-race winning streak into the finale.
“I love who we are competing against,” Hardwick said. “I mean, dude, we are going up against not only the great Turner team but Bill Auberlen – Mr. IMSA himself. Our competitor is the winningest driver in the history of the sport. He’s like the Michael Jordan of IMSA. To me, I won’t lie to you, it’s going to be really cool when we beat him.”
But there is just as much confidence on the other side of this battle.
“We are going to win it and I’m going to Disney World,” Turner said, with a laugh.
Meanwhile, the No. 77 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai Veloster N TCR has built a 230-point lead in the TCR class. The car only has to start the race to secure the 2021 championship crown for drivers Michael Lewis and Taylor Hagler, which would make Hagler the first female driver to claim a Michelin Pilot Challenge championship.
“This is a real honor to be up there with Christina Nielsen, who has won a WeatherTech Championship,” Hagler said. “It feels a bit overwhelming. I still haven’t fully processed it yet; to have my name up there with the greats. I want to continue to pave this road for women.”
Hagler, who hails from San Antonio, Texas, said earning title honors in her first year with this team comes as a bit of surprise. The No. 77 has one win this season, but an additional five podium finishes to build the cushion in the standings.
“You always want to win races and a championship, but it wasn’t an expectation for me or the team this season,” she said. “We were going to use this year for me to get adjusted to the car and team and get a bit better. Needless to say, it’s gone a bit better than anyone could have hoped for.”
The Michelin Pilot Challenge schedule this week calls for a practice Wednesday afternoon and another Thursday morning, ahead of qualifying Thursday afternoon. The two-hour race starts at 1:10 p.m. ET Friday, with live coverage available on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold and IMSA Radio.