Once again, Bill Auberlen made it look easy.
The most successful driver in IMSA history controlled the second half of Friday’s Fox Factory 120 at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta to claim his 20th victory in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition.
Auberlen, who also owns 65 career wins in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, took over the Grand Sport (GS) class-leading No. 95 Turner Motorsport BMW M4 GT4 from Motul Pole Award winner Dillon Machavern just over 40 minutes into the two-hour contest and season finale.
The lone full-course caution of the race cut into his lead, but Auberlen was never threatened on his way to winning by 2.081s over Mike Skeen and Trevor Andrusko in the No. 55 FCP Euro by Ricca Autosport Mercedes-AMG GT GT4.
“We knew we had long run pace and I had a nice smooth stint,” Machavern said. “We were able to turn the car over to Bill with a really big lead that, unfortunately, got eaten up by that yellow flag. It’s always tough to inherit a lead that big and then start again from square one.”
It was no problem for Auberlen, who said the Turner BMW was on rails. “My job was to not screw it up and bring this BMW M4 home for the win in its last race.”
The victory lifted Auberlen and Machavern up to third in the final GS standings and somewhat made up for their disappointment in losing out on the title in last year’s Fox Factory 120. Auberlen was eliminated from that race in a late collision.
“Last year was a huge heartbreak for all of us after the season we had to that point,” Auberlen said. “So that was definitely in my mind, and with 10 laps to go, I thought, ‘This is the way it should have finished last year.’”
Meanwhile, Trent Hindman and Alan Brynjolfsson clinched the GS championship by finishing sixth in the No. 7 Volt Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT4, directly in front of their only realistic title competitors – Eric Foss and Jeff Mosing in the No. 56 Murillo Racing Mercedes-AMG GT GT4.
It was the first championship for 54-year-old Brynjolfsson, a self-professed “gentleman driver” who has built Volt Racing into one of the top teams in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, as well as a platform for Hindman to showcase his talent.
Hindman was just 21 years old when he won the 2014 GS crown, later adding the 2019 GTD class title in the WeatherTech Championship. Brynjolfsson revealed on Friday Volt Racing and Hindman will compete in GTD in 2023.
“This is really an incredible culmination for me personally, and Trent is the quintessential young phenom,” Brynjolfsson said. “We’ve been working together for six years and partners in the car for five, getting better and better every year. The goal has always been to get a championship, and we finally got it. I’m pretty stoked.”
“Everybody wants the Cinderella story, and we really wanted to be in position to win the race,” added Hindman. “Today, a couple audibles had to be called and we had to play a more defensive fight. Even though this race result was a , I think it’s indicative of why we are in the position we are in as champions at the end of the year.”
Brynjolfsson and Hindman credited Wright Motorsports, the team’s operational partner, for preparing faultless cars and providing valuable engineering guidance. Wright driver Jan Heylen won the 2021 GS championship in a Porsche.
“I don’t think you could have a better group of guys sitting on your pit box,” Hindman remarked. “I don’t want to say that I was ignorant in 2014 to everything that was going on to make a championship. But being so young, you don’t fully take in and appreciate the effort from everybody involved in the program.
“A bit more pressure this time around, for sure, considering the scenario we were in. But the level of relief and gratitude is astronomical, the appreciation for everything that everyone in this team has done.”
Hagler, Lewis nail down TCR repeat as Wittmer pushes No. 99 Honda to win
After some anxious moments at the start of the race, Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis recovered to create some historic moments Friday at Michelin Raceway.
Hagler and Lewis secured another championship in the Touring Car (TCR) class of the Michelin Pilot Challenge by finishing third in the Fox Factory 120. The championship was Hagler’s second in succession, the first time a woman has won two championships in Michelin Pilot Challenge history.
It also was Lewis’ third championship — the first time a driver has won three TCR titles.
Only one other woman, Christina Nielsen, has won two championships in IMSA history. Nielsen won Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) crowns in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2016 and 2017.
Hagler and Lewis came into the race with a 100-point lead over the No. 5 KMW Motorsports with TMR Engineering Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR driven by Roy Block and Tim Lewis.
“We knew it was going to be a fight to the death,” Hagler said. “We had to finish in a certain position. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. There was a lot more that needed to be done.”
They got it done, sharing the spotlight with a rousing victory by Karl Wittmer, who outraced Stephen Simpson to the stripe by 0.420s. Lewis finished 0.591s behind Wittmer.
Wittmer waited until 13 minutes remained in the two-hour race before pushing hard. In retrospect, he said he pressed too early and battled worn tires at the end of the race.
“I miscalculated that a little bit and burned my front tires off,” Wittmer said. “I knew I had to manage it. It was a question of when. I miscalculated it a little bit, but I got away with it.”
Shortly after the start of the race, Hagler brought the No. 1 BHA Hyundai Elantra N TCR to the pits after contact, but she was immediately sent back on track in 12th place as Block advanced to fourth place, putting the championship for the No. 1 car in jeopardy.
But Hagler didn’t panic.
“It was a little bit of a crazy start to the race, and then we kind of settled in,” Hagler said. “My engineer was really good about telling me, ‘Head down, your times are really good, we’re doing what we can, just focus on your job.’ That calmed me down quite a bit and I was able to focus on pushing the times and not going a lap down.”
Minutes after the No. 1’s aborted pit stop, Block spun after contact with Thomas Collingwood in the No. 83 BGB Motorsports Porsche 718 GT4 RS CS. The ensuing pit stop to repair damage to the No. 5 car dropped Block to 12th – one position behind Hagler – setting the stage for the championship clinching finish. After the driver change, Michael Lewis raced the No. 1 car back to a podium finish that earlier seemed unlikely.
The early contact actually helped the No. 1 car, Lewis said.
“For whatever reason, the car, after the incident, was so good,” Lewis said. “I was really good on the long run and could save my tires and corner the right-handers so well toward the end to push for a podium.”
Wittmer held on at the end to claim victory with Victor Gonzalez in the No. 99 Victor Gonzalez Racing Team Honda Civic FK7 TCR over Simpson in the No. 54 Michael Johnson Racing with Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR.
“It was a lot closer than I expected,” Wittmer said.