My Season in Review: Michele Abbate Reflects on Trans Am National Tour Debut Season

By Michele Abbate

This year was the most anticipated one of my racing career and it has not disappointed. I had a lot of things to be excited about, from traveling to new tracks and racing for a new team. I got to drive a brand-new race car and I was equipped with everything I need to be successful.

If you would have asked me at Sebring, in the beginning of the season, what I was most excited about, I would’ve said I was anxious to see how I stack up against the competition. The past three years of my Trans Am career has been in an older car. Plus, my husband Anthony was the only one wrenching on my car, without any guidance or help. Joining the BC Race Cars team in 2022 meant we now have no disadvantage excuses.

Unfortunately, my first race of the season ended abruptly when two cars wrecked in front of me. They left me with nowhere to go because of another car passing on my outside. In addition, my teammate wrote off his car as well during that race. This was quite literally the worst possible way to make my National Tour debut. In hindsight, however, this was actually helpful for me. The ever-so-daunting idea of wrecking the car in a race happened and now it was time to bounce back.

Next up was the Charlotte Motor Speedway “roval,” a track I had never been to. I drove somewhat cautiously there for a couple reasons; I wanted to finish for some self redemption, and because the following weekend was Road Atlanta. I didn’t want to take any chances that could jeopardize my ability to race a few days later.

Unfortunately at Road Atlanta, some lap traffic didn’t see me and caused race-ending contact to my car. So at this point in the season, I had a 50 percent finishing rate: Not great. I was learning about the effect of attrition in the TA2 Series. This is not something I was used to, but when you have more than 40 cars racing in the same class on track, it definitely becomes a factor.

Any good driver will tell you that the mental aspect is a massive part of racing. Even though I can’t plan a race or predict what will happen, I can control my mindset. Things that are out of my control will happen, so I have been learning how to adjust my mindset.

As I mentioned, at the beginning of the year I was focused on how I compared to the competition. Now, 10 races into our 12-race schedule, I wished I could go back and tell myself the importance of comparing my abilities to my abilities, and no one else’s.

The amount of talent in the TA2 field this year is undeniably the strongest it has ever been since the inception of the class. There are veteran drivers, champions from all disciplines and young talent that have astounding accomplishments already in their careers. When I remove myself from the comparison to other drivers in TA2, it is much easier to see my progress and success.

Being thrown into the massively-talented “wolves” of the National Tour TA2 class has been the best thing to happen in my career. Racing against strong competition only makes me better.

I have gotten faster at each track, and from every practice to qualifying. I’ve never taken a step backward. I have had success and competitive lap times at every track we’ve been to. I’ve also been able to understand race craft better, and execute things like braking, cornering, shifting and acceleration better than ever.

In addition to having a crew, engineers, and a teammate to learn from, I have been able to improve my performance far beyond any other year in my racing career. That is the big win. I am so proud of our results this year. If I’m fortunate enough to return for 2023, I believe we now have an excellent baseline from which to grow.

I am beyond grateful for my partners this year who have made it all possible. GHOST Lifestyle & GHOST Energy jumped on board with me for this journey and I couldn’t be more proud to be their only athlete in the racing industry. Long-time partners like Lucas Oil, Scosche, Boxo, Heat Wave Visual, RECARO, and PRYDE Apparel have all been with me since my club racing days. I am so honored to continue our partnerships through into the pro-racing level. Last but definitely not least, I am very proud to represent Shift Up Now in the Trans Am series. They have been an integral part of promoting women in motorsports and I look forward to supporting the cause. I cannot wait for the day I am not the only female in the world racing in TA2. Let’s GO!

The Best View Comes After the Hardest Climb (Part II)

By Laura Hayes

ICYMI: CLICK HERE for Part I

In a matter of hours, I was walking through the IMSA paddock at Watkins Glen to jump into my MX-5 car. It was a busy Thursday with two practice sessions to get reacquainted with an entirely different platform and a track I hadn’t driven in years. I’ll admit: There may have been a couple naps squeezed in that day too.

We qualified on Friday morning and it didn’t go as planned, so we started deep in the field that afternoon for the first race. Caution flags plagued the 45-minute sprint, and I got to see most of that action as I narrowly avoided three accidents coming out of the Bus Stop.

Race two was early Saturday and this time, we went green to checkers without incident. I had a great start and some good battles but got hung out to dry at one point. I lost the draft and it became a lonely race in the end. I finished inside the top 20 in both races, and although I was not happy, my crew had a clean race car for the following weekend at Road America.

Then just like that, I was on a plane again, heading back to Colorado. I set up my laptop on the tray table and tried to soak up all I could for the big day.

I arrived in Denver at 11:00pm and went straight to the mountain. Rain sprinkled the windshield, which meant it was snowing at the summit.

We sat stationary for hours as the PPIHC staff tried to work the race teams and the record number of spectators through the single lane Gateway. Finally, we made our way to our trailer at 3:30am for a couple hours of rest on air mattresses and sleeping bags.

At 5:50am, we set out for our pit area to begin prep and putting the tire warmers on. The drivers meeting started at 6:30am and race officials informed us that conditions on the course were less than ideal. Fog and cold temperatures blanketed and summit crews had worked through the night to clear the road for us to run the full course.

I was the 39th car in line. As we waited, we watched what we could of the other drivers’ runs. Due to the weather, the camera helicopter that chases cars up the mountain was grounded, so that limited our decision making to sector times and the four camera angles at key locations up the mountain. Some of the road was drying, however, the fast upper section remained wet and visibility could be a concern. With the limited information we had, we chose a conservative approach and bolted on Hoosier rain tires.

As we neared launch time, Sabine was as ready as she was going to be. I climbed in and gave a few extra tugs on my seat belts. The tire warmers came off and I rolled to the start line. It didn’t matter that I was running on only a few hours of rest because the adrenaline that coursed through my veins at that moment had me at an entirely different level of focus.

Just as I was about to go, something happened on the course which delayed my start. As the minutes passed, the tires cooled quickly and my heart rate lowered. After what felt like an

eternity, I got the signal to get ready. I received some last-second fist bumps from my crew, and the crowd was cheering as I put the car into first gear. The green waved and it was foot to the floor as Sabine and I slid sideways and disappeared into the fog and around the corner under the famous Start Line.

After a couple of corners, the road was dry and the rain tires were already fighting my inputs, but I’d have to make the best of what I had. A couple miles later, I emerged from the fog and into a different world where the sun was trying to make an appearance. I had one of the fastest first sector times – and a respectable time in the second sector – even with a few mistakes.

As I raced passed the brake check station at Glen Cove, everything was going well but I prepared for tricky conditions ahead. Once I reached “the Ws,” the road changed from dry to damp to wet, with the pesky clouds moving in. At exactly the point where the final
section began (the section I missed in practice), I hit a wall of fog and visibility all but disappeared. In an instant, I weighed risk versus reward and chose self-preservation. Breaking a record wasn’t in the cards so I crept, blindly feeling my way to the summit and across the finish line.

It’s hard to describe the emotions after such a week of sacrifice, mental and physical exhaustion. I was let down by something completely out of my control and I couldn’t help but be utterly disappointed after a year of anticipation for my one shot. But as the locals say,
“the Mountain decides.”

Fortunately, a big team of supporters – the rest of my competitors – were waiting at the Summit House to bring my spirits up. One of the highlights (and this could be my favorite part of the entire event) is the Parade of Champions, where we drive back down the mountain together. As luck would have it, the weather had moved out at this point.

While I drove down the mountain, I took in the beauty from what felt like the top of the world and reminded myself of what I just accomplished. The fans lined the road and shouted our names, giving congratulations and high fives. This must be what rock stars feel like! The best part was climbing out of the car and being reunited with the best team in the world and celebrating with 14,115-foot donuts I brought back from the summit.

There is nothing like the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Many people say they have no desire to try it, and I would have said the same a few years ago. Yes, it’s dangerous and it can be an ultimate test for a driver. But once you experience it – the people, the early wakeup calls, the sunrise from 13,000 feet, the slides around the hairpins and the chance to make history – you’re hooked. I’m hooked. And I’ll be back to try again in 2023.

I must thank my Thunder Bunny Racing family for believing we could pull off a month like this. Thank you to Jim Keown for having faith and trust in me. A huge thank you to Gregg Randolph and my friends at Winslow BMW of Colorado Springs for their support the past two years. This also wouldn’t have been possible without support from EPC Power, Hoosier Tire, Hawk Performance, Century 3 and Sabelt. Also, a massive thank you to Mazda Motorsports and their partners for providing our team this incredible opportunity.

The Best View Comes After the Hardest Climb

Laura Hayes takes on Pikes Peak

It’s a special feeling to know that my team – Thunder Bunny Racing – is now part of motorsports history and I have memories that will last a lifetime. As I write this, I’ve just concluded a week in Colorado Springs, where I competed in the 100th running of the famed Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

I’m excited to give you a glimpse into my whirlwind racing tour, the improbable turn of events that led me to the mountain and all the adventures that 2022 has brought.

In addition to my racing career, I oversee the motorsports division of Thunder Bunny Racing (TBR). Early this year, our little team took a big leap of faith and moved locations. Prior to the move, we were operating out of a high school automotive department for many years. The move took us to a larger, dedicated facility in Greenville, SC.

I was offered a full-time position to lead racing operations and although this meant backing off from full-time to part-time at my BMW Performance Center instructing gig, I was ready for a new challenge. It’s been an unreal ride. In addition to the day-to-day shop operations (we also work on street cars offer storage services), our race season filled up instantly. Before we knew it, we were competing in World Racing League (WRL), making a rookie run at Mazda MX-5 Cup and attempting the Pikes Peak climb for a second time.

The June and July calendar was stacked with races throughout the east coast. My heart sank when I realized Pikes Peak and the Watkins Glen MX-5 race fell on the same weekend. This year was the 100th running of the climb and I didn’t want to miss it for the world. At the same time, I’m a scholarship recipient for MX-5 and it’s an important commitment. I worked hard to see if we could piece the weekend together and do both. Theoretically, it seemed feasible but I knew that the TBR crew and myself would have to make sacrifices. In the end, we love a challenge and we decided to give it a shot.

June started with the 14 Hours of Daytona race in WRL. As I suited up for Friday’s qualifying, I received news that a great friend and mentor of mine had suddenly passed away. I was devastated and somehow had to go drive, even though I felt like I couldn’t focus. I didn’t want to be there but I knew I had a job to do. Before the race, I pieced together some spare decal letters to put “J. Clark” on my car and he rode with us for the weekend.

We didn’t qualify well, as early car issues kept us in the garage. We took the green from near the back of the GT0 field and I let my emotions help me drive to the overall lead. Later that night, we earned a respectable fourth-place finish with no time to celebrate. We had four days before Pikes Peak.

It was all hands on deck for the Bunnies as they prepared my M2 – which we call Sabine – to race up the side of the 14,000-foot mountain. The turnaround meant Sabine lost some weight, got the big tune, Hoosier slicks and was rewrapped for the big show. Finishing in the nick of time, we were off to Colorado. In the meantime, our MX-5 machine was being prepped and loaded for Watkins Glen, NY.

On Saturday evening, after two days of driving, we arrived in Colorado Springs. On Sunday, we took a trip to America’s Mountain so our small crew of four could appreciate what we were about to undertake.

Monday morning was technical inspection for our class, called Time Attack 1, which includes production-based cars that must maintain their original manufacturer driveline configuration. Some of our competition included a 911 Turbo S, an Acura NSX, and Pikes Peak legends David Donohue (driving a Porsche GT2 RS Clubsport) and Jeff Zwart (driving a Porsche 935/19).

Although you’re racing competitors, Pikes Peak is a race against the mountain. During the 4,720-foot accent, there are 156 turns over 12.42 miles, with countless corners you wish were lined with more guardrail. But all you get is the bright blue sky – or clouds and rain – as a reference, and your memory. There are no second chances. Veterans say it takes about five years to learn the course.

Many teams attended the test days in early June to dial in their machines and pocket valuable seat time. I had my work cut out with zero practice, on top of my goal of being the fastest woman ever up the mountain.

On Tuesday, our alarm clocks went off at 2:30am to head to the mountain and arrive in our sections. The mountain is divided into three sections and groups rotate throughout the week. Qualifying always takes place in the lower section and determines the running order for race day.

Once the sun came up at 5:15am, the first car was sent. Since it was still somewhat dark, I used my first pass to shake down the car and try to mesh reality with my memory, and the many hours of video I had watched. As I lined up for the second run, it was time to send it because this could be the last attempt. I shaved 18 seconds off my first run time, then another two seconds for my third run. I was extremely happy with my P5 starting position.

On Wednesday, we moved into the middle section of the mountain, where the climb really begins. This section includes the steep switchbacks known as “the Ws” and the dangerous blind corners where your right foot and your mind begin to fight one another. We finished P4 that day and although I would’ve loved to stay for the final practice in the upper section the next day, I had a flight to catch for Watkins Glen.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II…

Five Keys to Improving Your Mental Performance for Success In Racing

By Amber Balcaen

As racing drivers, physical training is a big part of our weekly preparation to make sure we are in the best possible shape for race day. But the secret to getting the results you want requires just as much time spent on mental preparation as physical. Combining the two creates a recipe for success.

I truly believe that our mindset and mental preparation are extremely important for being able execute our physical skills on race day. Mindset is everything when it comes to life, and our sport. When you can show up at the track with a confident and positive mindset, everything else will follow.

In this blog, I’ll share some of the techniques that have helped me most in getting my mind conditioned for race weekend. I firmly believe these practices are a game changer and will help you reach your peak performance!

Visualization

Visualization – calling upon all of your senses to mentally imagine yourself driving your race car in competition – is a great tool to prepare for races. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Therefore, you can use visualization to prepare for each race by already experiencing the race in your mind. I love this because it’s a way of getting “seat time” without actually being in the seat. During visualization, you are essentially priming your muscles for the race. Make sure your visualizations are all positive: See the race exactly how you want it to be executed.

Law of Attraction

What you believe, you will achieve and what you put out, you will attract. Know what you want and have a clear vision of where you want to go. You need to truly believe in your talent and ability, and that you can achieve what you want. Remember that our bodies work perfectly, it’s our minds that get in the way. Your thoughts become feelings. These feelings influence your behavior and performance. Self-belief mixed with the desire to succeed will help you reach your full potential. Your thoughts must be positive and productive to help you get the results you want.

Preparation

You have to want it, and be willing to put in the effort to get it. This includes creating a pre-race regimen that prepares you for what’s ahead. Preparation is key. Make a race preparation plan and commit to your plan every day. 

For example, my race preparation plan looks like this: On the days leading up to the race, I am on top of my fitness and nutrition, practice on IRacing, watch footage (in-car and past races), read about the track, fill out pre-race and post-race debriefs, practice visualization/meditation, and read self-development books.

It’s easy to make a plan but following it through can be tough so it’s important to be disciplined with promises you make to yourself. Discipline breeds action. Action breeds confidence. Confidence breeds happiness and success in your performance.

Execution > Results

“Results are simply the goals of our performance. When we are engaged in the performance, our focus needs to be directed on our execution – the specific actions and tasks that are directly relevant to the performance itself.” 

Pinpoint what you need to do in the race (ie. braking points, lifting points, lane choices, setting up passes, etc.), rather than fixating on the outcome of the race (i.e. finishing in the top five). Your focus must first be on being present in the car, then on your actions in each moment. When you focus on winning alone, you are focused on the result. When you focus on executing, you are focused on your performance. Concentrate on the task at hand and the results will follow.

Turn losses into gains

Racing is a sport where a driver can go their entire career without ever feeling whats it’s like to win. While winning is great, we learn more from losses than we do from wins. This is why focusing on consistent improvement is much more important than winning. When you constantly work toward getting better, your performance improves and increases your chances of victory. Evaluation of your performance is key in progressing your skills. Use every opportunity in the car as a chance to get better.

“Racing is Like a Drug”

By Sarah Montgomery

“Racing is like a drug.” 

It’s the very first line I used in our recent episode of ‘The Drive Within’ on MotorTrend TV.

My racing season started at Barber Motorsports Park on March 4-6, 2022, driving a brand new BMW GT4 M4 for Round 3 Racing in the World Racing League. I had one goal in mind: Win in the most competitive class, GTO. Because the GTO field mostly consists of high-end GT4 race cars, most every car will finish the race unless there is an unexpected mechanical, or driver error. Basically, there are some HEAVY hitters in that class.

I ran in the GTO class in 2021 in an older model Porsche Cayman, which was great for sprint races but simply wasn’t designed to run an endurance race twice in one weekend. As my team owner and teammate Brad McCall always said, “We would be leading the race in GTO in the Cayman for about four hours, then poof, there goes our race.” 

I put in the work last season and did the best I could with the machinery we had. I wasn’t able to win in my designated car but earned a couple of victories in Round 3 Racing’s sister cars, so I knew I was capable.

This year, we went into the first race with the car, the drivers, the crew and the team to get that GTO victory.

I qualified P9 in a field of more than 30 cars for the season opener on Saturday, March 5, 2022. One thing I struggle with is staying calm before the start of a race. Even though I can focus well and drive fast, I get incredibly nervous sitting on the grid waiting for the warm-up laps. 

For this race in particular – because I knew our potential – I was nervous and amped at the same time. The race started and I drove with focus, keeping the nose clean for the entire stint. I knew I had one job and that was to get the car up front. Luckily, the Cooper Tires are fantastic and allowed me to hand the car over to Brad in third place. 

About an hour into Brad’s stint, bad luck struck. As he was about to pit, we ran out of fuel a few corners from the pit entrance, and just far enough away that we had to be towed. This put us a few laps down and took us out of podium contention. Despite being devastated, that ‘racing is like a drug’ feeling crept up and I couldn’t wait to try again on Sunday, this time with an additional teammate, Cole Loftsgard.

Cole took the first stint for Sunday’s race, starting in second place. Although it’s rare for me not to start, I loved watching the field of more than 70 cars take the first turn all at once. 

Cole did a great job. He was able to maintain the P2 spot for his three-hour stint. The track requires a mandatory lunch break on Sundays and I took the wheel after that. Even though we were in an endurance race, my stint was a sprint from start to finish. I was able to put the car in the lead, with the second-place driver on my rear bumper the entire time. I’m actually good friends with him and, knowing what a great driver he is and that they had the exact same car, it was a stressful run.

To add to the pressure, it started raining on about half of the track. Letting up was not an option – and neither was crashing – so I drove to the limit and held the lead over the P2 car. It was a relief to hand the car back to Cole and catch my breath. We were in first place in our class, and overall. 

Cole had the same dogfight to hold the lead, with the distance between cars fluctuating anywhere from four to 14 seconds. I was almost as nervous watching the timing and scoring as I was behind the wheel. 

With ten minutes left in the race and still holding onto the lead, I couldn’t watch anymore. The combination of nerves and excitement were overwhelming. Luckily, my family was with me and got to celebrate the moment as Cole took the checkered flag in first place. Everyone in our pit box erupted in happy tears and celebration. We were beyond excited to put everything together and earn this win for the drivers, team and crew. 

Winning a race in the GTO class is extremely difficult and if I’m being honest, I didn’t expect it on the first weekend of the season. I knew it would be hard, and that my goal for the year was a lofty one, so it made the experience even more incredible. Now, I get to back to the drawing board for setting this season’s goals and take it one step at a time.

I’m honored to be part of the Hagerty, Round 3 Racing team effort and grateful to have the help of many partners like Shift Up Now, Lafayette Travel, Bell Techlogix, Cooper Tires and others. Racing is like a drug and I don’t plan on giving up anytime soon.