Shift Up Now Athlete Laura Hayes and her Thunder Bunny Racing (TBR) teammates earned a race win and second-place finish at Sebring International Raceway on November 10-12, 2023, to clinch the World Racing League (WRL) Eastern Championship in the GTO class.
The achievement makes Hayes the second Shift Up Now Athlete to be crowned a champion in the 2023 season, both competing on Yokohama Tires.
Also competing at the Sebring WRL event, Pippa Mann returned to the No. 888 Imperial Bancorp Aston Martin GT4 with TLM Racing in GTO, and Loni Unser was back in the No. 701 Team Cooper Tire Cayman for Round 3 Racing in GP1.
Both the TBR and TLM teams elected to take part in the optional Thursday test day at the event, making qualifying their main focus on Friday. Temperatures on Friday afternoon were hot and humid, but cloud cover produced competitive lap times.
Hayes qualified the No. 111 TBR Supra in P6 for Saturday’s race, with the TLM Aston Martin just behind in P7.
Despite not taking part in the Thursday test day, the No. 701 Cayman also showed competitive form, and qualified P6 in the GP1 class.
The eight-hour endurance race began Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. Hayes was behind the wheel to start with a double stint and leapt to P4 on the first lap. She then moved into P3 halfway through her first stint. By the time she handed the wheel over to her teammates, she was in the lead. The teammates cycled through stints, then Hayes got back into the car to close out the race, taking the checkered flag with a victory.
The TLM Racing Imperial Bancorp Aston Martin had a quieter start to the race, but cycled to the top five in the GTO class. Mann got behind the wheel for her first stint of the day as the race approached halfway. With the A/C system on the car no longer working, the sealed cockpit made for hot conditions, and Mann and her teammates traded off in single stints from the halfway point until the close of the race. Despite an extreme break-wear issue that threatened the team’s ability to finish, Mann was able to manage the issue, and bring the car home in fourth place.
In the GP1 class, Unser was the second driver in the No. 701 Team Cooper Tire Cayman, with all drivers double- stinting as the car climbed the order. In a race that was otherwise described as “drama-free” for the team, there was a tough moment on pit lane when the driver’s door got stuck closed – meaning Unser had to do her driver change with Carter Pease through the driver’s window. The team had built enough of a gap over the first six hours of the race, that his became nothing more than a blip on their way to a second-place finish in class.
On Sunday, the Shift Up Now Athletes prepared for another eight-hour endurance race, this time starting at 8:00 a.m.
Hayes was behind the wheel once again for the start, lining up in P5 on the grid. She had another strong start, jumping to P2 immediately on the first lap, then holding position for most of the first stint.
Race two brought several caution periods and two short red flags. As a result, the GTO pit stop cycles caused the TBR No. 111 to drop as low as P10. Hayes and her teammates then focused forward and drove back to the lead.
Near the race finish, with Hayes behind the wheel for the final stint, she battled with NFC Motorsports for the win. Despite crossing the finish line in P2, she and her teammates were able to secure the WRL Eastern Championship.
Unser and her No. 701 Round 3 Racing trio started Sunday’s race from P6. She took the wheel first to drive a double stint and advanced to P3. The team was able to complete their first driver change pit stop under caution, which moved them up to P2, a position they would hold until the checkered flag.
Meanwhile, Mann traded her racing helmet for a headset on Sunday, coaching and calling strategy for the team. The No. 888 started P10.
Using the caution periods, red flags and pit stop cycles, the Imperial Bancorp Aston Martin briefly cycle to the lead in the middle of the race, but later, a caution period immediately following the team’s tire change put them a lap down. A bold strategy call after the second red flag of the day advanced them back to the lead lap, and they would finish the day with their second fourth place finish.
With strong finishes for all of the Shift Up Now Athletes this weekend, the celebration in Victory Circle focused on Hayes, and Thunder Bunny Racing, who overcame a two-point deficit to claim the WRL GTO Eastern Championship.
“I couldn’t be more happy with our results in Sebring. We entered the weekend trailing by a couple of points, meaning we had to win to have a chance at the Easter Championship. We ran our race to the best of our abilities, our Yokohama tires were fast and consistent, the crew executed when it mattered most, our Toyota Supra GT4 ran flawlessly, and we came home with a first and second – enough to win the championship by 1 point!”
Hayes and Thunder Bunny racing now head to the World Racing League 2023 season finale at the Circuit of the Americas, TX on December 1-3, 2023, with a one-point lead in the National Championship.