Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Breakthrough Taylor family title ends run of near-misses

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The tone for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season in its Prototype class was set in the final 10 minutes of the opening race of the season, following a rain-drenched, cool Rolex 24 at Daytona that was reaching its climax.

It all came down to Filipe Albuquerque versus Ricky Taylor, driver on driver in a pair of Cadillac DPi-V.Rs in the car’s first race and between their Action Express Racing and Wayne Taylor Racing teams.

Only one team could win the Rolex watches and lay the groundwork for the rest of the year, and Taylor was determined it was going to be his – come hell or high water.

Taylor made that barge down the inside, with enough of a crack left open, at Turn 1 much to Albuquerque’s and the No. 5 team’s dismay. The Taylors won, and they were on their way.

“I’d never been more proud of him in my life. He had that race in all of our hands. He was the guy that won us that race,” said his brother, Jordan Taylor.

The win at Daytona was Ricky’s true arrival on the stage after years of growth and overcoming adversity to get there.

Albuquerque’s look on his face says it all. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The run of four straight wins that followed spoke to the Konica Minolta team’s understanding its new car better than its competitors and bouncing with a number of IMSA-mandated Balance of Performance adjustments, which the team thought were implemented to stop the Taylor train in its tracks.

The rebound of a crucial runner-up finish at Road America after two bad races in Watkins Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park ensured they wouldn’t lose their grasp on the title, and their start at Motul Petit Le Mans in Road Atlanta sealed the team’s championship this season.

So the pendulum was swung back to the No. 10 car after three straight titles from Action Express, two by the venerable No. 5 pairing of Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi (Albuquerque was the team’s third driver through 2017) and then last year’s No. 31 pair of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.

That it came with both Jordan and Ricky Taylor driving – especially with the latter expected to be named soon to move to Acura Team Penske – made it sweeter than Jordan and Max Angelelli’s title in 2013, the final GRAND-AM Rolex Series title.

“I think it’s a culmination of some little things. We won Petit Le Mans in 2014 as a group. But I felt we worked well together off the bat and little things held us back. We were frustrated for three years and wanted things to click our way,” Jordan Taylor said.

“This new Cadillac was introduced, and we came out so strong with five straight wins. If we lost it, it’d be a disaster! With those two bad races in a row, I don’t know how we would have got over it.”

Ricky and father Wayne Taylor spoke to the team’s preseason preparation with the new car. The Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform meant both the Taylor and Action Express teams switched from the Corvette DP – their product for the last five years – to the new Cadillac DPi-V.R. The Cadillac was born of a combination of the 6.2L V8 engine developed by ECR Engines and a chassis from Dallara, all working in tandem from its development and official on-track debut in September.

“We had unfinished business with Cadillac going back to 2002,” Wayne Taylor said. “It was a big program to pull off, with the clean sheet of paper. Between Dallara, Cadillac, ECR Engines and my engineers, we had to get everyone together to build a team and car.

“So we’d do all the testing and get ready for Daytona. And going into Daytona, we’d never finished a session without anything going wrong! So we were expecting a troublesome run, but the car was flawless, and drivers were flawless. And then the BoP stuff started…”

BoP, in layman’s terms, is what a sanctioning body does to work to level the playing field between manufacturers to ensure no one car or team gets too far ahead. And so for Cadillac, whether it was boost adjustments or changes to gearing ratios, power or refueling restrictors, it often seemed there was another hurdle to clear – all of which they did.

The Daytona win capped a run of near-miss runner-up finishes, as the Taylor brothers broke through with Max Angelelli in his last start and Jeff Gordon in his first Rolex 24 start in 10 years. Newcomer Alex Lynn joined in place of the latter two at Sebring and came up to speed well, so much so the team almost had to rein them in. The full-season pair overcame a low-gear rpm deficit to win on the streets of Long Beach, Jordan Taylor sneaking by Ryan Dalziel late there, while wins at COTA from pole and Detroit from 12th on the grid after a rare unforced error by Ricky Taylor in qualifying all-but-solidified their title push.

Nightmare races in the back-to-back swing at Watkins Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park killed the perfect season chances and almost brought the No. 10 car back to the rest of the field. Suspension damage cost the team laps at Watkins Glen after contact from another car on the opening lap, while a late crash between Jordan Taylor and Tommy Milner in a Corvette C7.R took both drivers out.

Needing a result at Road America, Jordan Taylor stood down from a possible fight against Pipo Derani to win the race and came away with a key second place finish. A third at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca ensured the title was theirs provided they started the season finale, regardless of the outcome.

“I think at Road America, Jordan could have raced for the win and worked Derani for the win. But we needed some points,” Ricky Taylor said. “Jordan had a really calm head there. Those points were critical. It was a big sigh of relief.”

Jordan said of his discretionary race tactics there, “I didn’t want to take a single risk to not have a decent finish.  ‘That was our championship race,’ our engineer said. Between that, and moving onto Laguna, that turned our season back around.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

But while a championship is won and lost over the course of the season, the magnitude of that Daytona win to kick it all off will speak loudest about this family-won championship.

For Jordan, watching his brother Ricky fight for the lead, then make the pass, brought a mix of anxiety and almost anger, before it switched to elation.

“It was a massive swing of emotions,” Jordan Taylor said. “It’s easy to forget but Ricky had already made what we thought should have been the pass of the race at the Bus Stop, then we got caught up by a yellow, and fell to second. It felt like I was watching a replay of our previous four Daytonas!

“But as soon as Ricky saw there was hope, we were good. I know his mentality and driving style. I always compared him to a shark. If he smells blood in the water, he’s gonna make a kill. You see it every time he goes for it.

“He saw the opening. I knew how strong he was on the brakes, and that he’d try it if he had the spot. We’d talked about that move for years. We all said he’s going for it, then it flashes off TV and the 5 car’s backwards.

“A race like Daytona, you need a killer instinct, and Ricky’s our guy. If he wasn’t the one in that car, I don’t think we’d be wearing these watches.”

For Ricky, it was the move of his career.

“For me, Daytona is the highlight. I think about it almost every single day, that one moment,” he said.

“We’re looking at Jordan’s watch, and we never know if we’ll be in a car good enough to win the race, and then be in a position to do so. Some drivers go their whole careers and don’t even finish on the lead lap.

“When you have the opportunity to go for the win, you take it, and that is something I’ll never forget.”

Provided the lineup changes, the Taylors will be back to racing each other rather than with each other in 2018. It will set up an intriguing scenario for the No. 10 car as it’ll seek to defend the crown, but with a different lineup.

Still though, the Taylors winning this year’s title comes amidst a potential renaissance for IMSA in 2018 and beyond, and only fuels their determination to stay on top as the already strong competition increases.

“I think it’s perfect timing with Penske and Joest coming in. It’ll bring eyes to this sport,” Jordan Taylor said.

“The competition has been good here. It’s upped the game. For us now, it’s about proving this championship means what it does, and that Wayne Taylor Racing and Cadillac can battle with the best of them.”

Wayne Taylor added, “Now my goal is to beat the two biggest names in sports car racing, Reinhold Joest and Ralf Juttner what they’ve done with Audi and Porsche in their successes, and now will try to with Mazda, and Roger Penske with Acura.

“We’ll work even harder than last year to do the job.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.