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PWC: Shea Racing, Honda forge ahead for bigger 2017

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Seven years in racing terms is an eternity. In 2010, seven years ago, a then-unheralded young female driver named Shea Holbrook and her family-run Shea Racing team showed up for the first time in the Pirelli World Challenge paddock.

A year later, Holbrook scored a surprise but well-earned victory in the Touring Car class at Long Beach, arguably one of PWC’s biggest races on the calendar. This was in a time when the series’ GT, GTS and TC classes all raced in one race, at one time, before all classes and the series itself have expanded.

The Shea Racing team is no different, but throughout its run has maintained a strong and sincere relationship with Honda. First one of Honda’s top customer teams, Shea Racing and Honda Racing/HPD confirmed a formal partnership at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show in Indianapolis in December.

This sees Holbrook’s still family-run team, although now having grown in size, stature and formal appearance thanks to its partners, now officially aligned with a manufacturer for the first time. Holbrook, who’s not just a driver of her No. 67 Honda Accord but teammate to Jason Fichter in another Accord and Tom O’Gorman in a TCA-class Honda Civic Si, attempted to recap the whirlwind of her and her team’s rise that’s brought them to this point.

Photo: Shea Racing
New Civic Si at Thunderhill. Photo: Shea Racing

“The announcement with Honda Racing/HPD and Shea Racing and the addition of Tom coming on board is the second-worst kept secret in motorsports. The first one was RealTime and the NSX!” Holbrook told NBC Sports at PRI.

“I’m incredibly excited. I think back to when Shea Racing started as a true mom and pop effort. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had zero background and experience. We started (when I was) 15 years old. This is amazing how far we’ve come. With seven consecutive years in PWC, in TCB in Honda Fit to TCA in Honda Civic Si, to TC in Honda Accord, it’s been the power of dreams, pun completely intended.

“It took us a while. But after everything we’ve been through, with hard work, being patient, playing your cards right, and delivering on your word, those things really mean something to people and I’m glad it does to Honda. I’m glad we’ve accomplished this.”

Holbrook’s TC class win in 2011 was her first until winning multiple races in 2014 and only narrowly missing the TCA class title in another Civic Si. A one-year detour followed with her briefly sampling IHRA jet racing before regaining a foothold in the PWC paddock full-time in 2016.

The other, perhaps insane, racing highlight of 2016 was Holbrook’s quest to assist Denise Mueller, a 43-year-old, who was attempting to set the land speed record on a bicycle. The Wall Street Journal chronicled the run, one of several media pieces that followed that journey.

Lest those be the only things Holbrook accomplished last year, she also got engaged to longtime boyfriend Nick Chorley, who is team manager.

Fichter and Holbrook at CTMP. Photo: Shea Racing
Fichter and Holbrook at CTMP. Photo: Shea Racing

Holbrook’s business savvy – partners such as BUBBA burger, Lucas Oil, KONI Shock Absorbers, Eibach Springs and StopTech Brakes are among those she can reel off off the top of her head at an instant – has helped her and her team get into this position. She’s found the business side of motorsports as intriguing and fascinating as the racing itself. She’s also become a tireless advocate for Duchenne, working to raise awareness and funds to combat the genetic disorder.

“In the jet racing scene, I met a lot of new people, and I was into a different form of motorsports I’d never been in. But I was missing wheeling a car,” she said. “I missed the PWC paddock as a driver, but that year was huge and a growing year for us as a business.

“Being trackside as a team owner, I’ll wear a lot of hats at the track. When you focus on just one piece at a time, you start to see things differently. At SEMA two years ago, I’d received a message from KONI Shock Absorbers and they said we’d like to have a meeting. They blossomed into a partner, and along with our other partners that helped put the pieces of the program together. I’d love to say 2016 was our best year yet, but 2017 should be even better.”

Holbrook, having seen PWC’s class and race structure evolution, hailed the TC competition. TC has fallen off of IndyCar weekends and instead run largely at PWC headline weekends; that being said, the caliber, depth and car count across the board in the three TC classes (TC, TCA, TCB) has gone up.

“I hadn’t raced door-to-door with Johnny O’Connell, per se, but it was the same race,” she explained. “Theres pluses and minuses, and the pluses massively outweigh the negatives. It’s our home. I like the competition there. The BoP is always something everyone works hard at and I think PWC does a great job with it. The racing is clean, and the people are professional.”

Holbrook is also quick to extoll the positives of the people around her, from parents Erin and Jeff, to her teammates and crew.

“Jason and Tom are amazing teammates. Tom, it’s funny, has become a ‘racing bestie’ of mine! He’s developed into such a great driver very quickly and become a fantastic brand ambassador for Shea Racing, Honda Racing/HPD and Pirelli World Challenge,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my two supportive parents. It’s no secret it takes money to do this. My family didn’t have a lot of it. I’m an only child. We came from very humble beginnings; blue-collar type workers. They did everything what they could to get me best position and seat time. But eventually the more you rub pennies together, the more they disappear.

“Still, I had to go to work; I had to figure out how to make a career at this. (Fellow Honda driver) Ryan Eversley is a really cool story, from sweeping shop floors, to working on cars, to becoming a GT driver. I wasn’t working on cars. But when I became more business savvy and started to understanding how hard you have to sell and market your program, that helped. We sell Shea Racing beyond just the performance and results; it’s also a chance for drivers to work on brand development and partnership growth.

“I think that’s the sick, twisted mind I have! If I didn’t enjoy this part of the business as much as I do, I would have been gone six years ago.”

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.