Hayes Takes First Win of 2024 Season at Road America

May 1, 2024

Four Shift Up Now athletes took to the track over the weekend of April 26 and 27 at America’s National Park of Speed in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Laura Hayes was behind the wheel as team manager and lead driver of the No. 225 Thunder Bunny Racing Toyota Supra GT4, and Shift Up Now by AE Victory Racing’s duo of Erin Vogel and Sarah Montgomery was joined by Pippa Mann as the third driver of the No. 119 Audi R8 GT4. Both teams set their sights on the checker and the GTO class podium for the weekend’s 8 + 7 race format at Road America.

Both teams took full advantage of the additional seat time on Thursday with WRL's partner Max Track Time, working on set-up for the upcoming 15-hours of racing on the 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course. As returning champions, Thunder Bunny Racing (TBR) planned every turn of the wrench to return to the top step of the podium. The goal for AE Victory Racing (AEVR) was slightly different, but no less important: continued focus on the development of their Audi R8 GT4 set-up in the team’s rookie season. The AEVR crew and drivers used every session to improve the car’s performance on the Yokohama Advan A052, a race-ready, extreme performance summer street tire sanctioned by the series. However, while testing on a dry and sunny race track Thursday the teams knew that weather was in the forecast for the coming days, which could mean a drastic change to track conditions.

The first impact of that forecasted weather was set to hit on Friday, making the morning practice and qualifying sessions extremely important for both track position and potential set up changes. AE Victory Racing ran in the top 15 in both timed sessions in the morning in the GTO field. Meanwhile, Thunder Bunny Racing also took full advantage of opportunities in both sessions to run at the top of the GTO timing charts in practice. Hayes then qualified the TBR Toyota Supra GT4 on the outside of row 3 for Saturday’s race.

On Saturday morning, the overnight storms left the racetrack significantly damp, with some areas of puddling remaining at the countdown to the green flag. However, with dry weather forecast to continue throughout the day and strong winds blowing to aid in drying the track surface, the entire field elected to start the race on their dry-weather tires and hang on until the track conditions improved over the course of the first few hours.

When the green flag flew, Hayes immediately began pushing her Mobil 1 Racing-supported Toyota Supra GT4 towards the front of the lead pack, steadily ticking off track positions on her Yokohama tires. The first laps of the race ran cleanly despite the challenging combination of slippery track conditions and dry tries. As lap times started to drop into “dry racetrack” territory drivers began getting braver, resulting in the first incident of the race.

The first three hours of the race continued in a similarly disjointed manner, with only spurts of green flag racing between incidents. Drivers quickly discovered that despite the dry track, the rain had washed the pavement clean of rubber, and the combination of lack of grip and gusting winds wreaked havoc on the grip. By the four-hour mark drivers had seemed to settle into a rhythm, and the race stayed green until the checker.

Deeper in field, Montgomery discovered that the change in track conditions had affected the set-up on the AE Victory Racing Audi R8 GT4 more than anticipated. She dug deep during the periods of green, pushing hard to keep the car on the outside edges of the top ten in the GTO class. Vogel followed with the middle stint, keeping the car out of trouble as the track conditions evened out. Once Mann took over for the final three hours and the gap ahead and behind the No. 119 was settled, the team made the strategy call to take longer pit stops and continue to work on set-up for race 2.

Strategy also played a key role amongst the leaders after such a long green flag run. Thunder Bunny Racing made the call to save fuel, stretching their final tank to take the checkered flag in second place in the GTO class - their 4th podium in 5 races to start the 2024 season.

Temperatures turned cold on Sunday for race 2, with a forecast for more rain on the horizon. The setup changes paid off for AE Victory Racing, giving Montgomery power to push through the field. As she was working on a pass for P10, the racing got a little too close and resulted in the Audi dropping back several spots. Undeterred, Montgomery gritted her teeth and set about regaining the lost ground.

Rain started to fall at the two-and-a-half hour mark, quickly creating treacherous conditions for the field. From the wheel of the AE Victory Racing machine, Vogel fought the weather as she battled her competition, all while continuing to work on setup changes to improve the car's handling in the increasingly wet conditions.

Taking over with less than three hours remaining, and a dry forecast for the rest of the race, Mann elected to swap to the team’s dry-weather Yokohama tires during the driver change. Despite the standing water remaining on track, with the set-up work done by Vogel in the middle of the race, Mann was able to get up to speed for the conditions quickly, making moves as the dry line emerged on the race track.

With one hour to the checker, the field came to pit-lane due to red-flag conditions; on the restart, rain poured onto the track. Mann made it cleanly to the checker while still running dry-weather tires, and brought home the AE Victory Racing Audi R8 GT4 in 9th place in the GTO class - matching their best finish of the season so far.

Under those same conditions, Hayes battled fiercely for the lead at the front of the field. Her quick reactions and heads-up driving kept the No. 225 Toyota Supra GT4 in the hunt for the win. With half an hour to go, contact between the two leaders allowed Hayes to slot into the lead. Eyes focused on the checker, Hayes never looked back or put a wheel wrong, and brought home the first win of the season for Thunder Bunny Racing.

“I’m so thrilled we were able to accomplish a first and second place finish with our Toyota Supra GT4," said Hayes. "We knew that with the long straights having less power than some of our competitors would make racing a challenge, but our entire Thunder Bunny Racing team was on point. We had great pit-stops and strategy, my co drivers Bill and Allen always handed me back the race car in a position to fight for the win, and we had a lot of fantastic on track battles.

“It was so treacherous out there at the end. That was such a tough race to win. Between the conditions, so many yellow flags, making sure you didn’t get any penalties, trying to make sure you didn’t have any contact… There were some folks driving super aggressively, the flags were hard to spot at times with the amount of spray… I’m so proud of our Thunder Bunny Racing Team. We earned this win today!

“Thank you to EPC Power, Mobil1, and everyone who makes this possible. I’m really proud of the direction in which we’re heading as a team.”

Vogel echoed that sentiment, and applauded her entire team’s performance.

“It’s been challenging being a small team that's bringing a chassis no one else is running in this series,” said Vogel. “However, we’re consistently making progress, and this weekend we made strides in understanding our Audi R8 on these Yokohama tires. We now have a solid direction for the continued development of our chassis in the few months between races, and we’re looking forward to challenging further and further up the order as the season continues.”

Thunder Bunny Racing and Laura Hayes return to action in the 14 hour race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on June 29th, and AE Victory rejoins World racing League competition at Road Atlanta in July. Mann will also be competing in the July event, returning to her full-season program with Fast Track Racing.

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