The 2012 Grand-Am Rolex Series season ended with a pair of interesting and future-minded themes for sports car racing enthusiasts to follow.
After three years spent learning with his father's team, Ricky Taylor established himself as one of the fastest drivers in the Daytona Prototypes category and was ready to strike out on his own. His opportunity to graduate from Wayne Taylor Racing came with a call from Troy Flis, owner of the rising Spirit of Daytona Racing program, who hired Taylor to drive alongside the rapid Richard Westbrook.
SDR had a breakout year in 2012, taking three race wins and ending the championship with a victory and a second-place finish to help enter 2013 as one of the pre-season title favorites. Given SDR's emergence as a serious contender in DP, it just needed a slight push to become a legitimate title contender, and the combination of Taylor and Westbrook looked like a hellish lineup for their rivals to deal with.
The second theme of interest pertained to Ricky's younger brother Jordan. Ricky had come from an open-wheel background and slotted into the DP category with relative ease, while Jordan, who seemed destined for a career in tin-top racing, spent the same three-year span focused on the Rolex GT category.
With Ricky signing to drive for SDR, Jordan was pulled from the GT ranks to replace his brother in the No. 10 WTR Corvette DP, partnering with 2005 DP champion and driving instructor extraordinaire Max Angelelli. The Italian groomed Ricky to take flight and leave WTR's nest, and now it was Jordan's turn to undergo the same multi-season process.
Jordan had done a few one-offs in DP before, but his real prototype education was about to start. Between the two Taylors, Jordan was expected to have a quiet season – one spent slowly coming to grips in the black DP as mistakes were made while learning in competition.
With two rounds left to run in the 2013 championship, those two themes have played out in ways that continue to defy the odds. Jordan, the GT convert, is coming off the drive of his life last weekend in Kansas where he withstood severe pressure from five-time DP champion Scott Pruett to seal WTR's third victory of the season.
The 22-year-old was given the responsibility of carrying the car to the finish, taking over from Angelelli just past the 30-minute mark in the two-hour and 45-minute contest, and never wavered. He and “Max the Ax” have now taken over the championship lead, which speaks to the remarkable progress Taylor has made since joining the team in January.
Take a look further down the championship standings and you'll find Ricky and Westy buried in eighth. With a single visit to the podium (third at Barber) so far this year, SDR's high hopes have been repeatedly dashed as either mechanical issues or a lack of pace have prevented the beautiful blue No. 90 from being a factor.
On the same weekend his brother dominated and won, Ricky qualified the SDR Corvette DP sixth at Kansas but encountered a sticking throttle just eight laps into the event. After losing 23 laps while repairs were made, he and Westy soldiered on to finish 12th, which seemed to fit the team's underwhelming year.
Understanding why the Taylor brothers have somehow swapped seasons requires delving into some sensitive areas, starting with how SDR has reverted to its pre-2012 form. To start, the team lost its engineer just prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and with his departure, SDR would have to start from scratch on the engineering front. Using chassis data from 2012 was an option, but with the rest of the field working hard to make performance advancements during the off-season, simply relying on year-old setups was never going to be the answer.
It's also worth noting that after years of falling short of expectations, SDR appeared to have made big strides in 2012, but one of the concerns heading into 2013 centered on whether they could maintain their newfound status. Based on their results so far this year, those concerns were well-founded.
“I've had the same high expectations for us that most people had,” Ricky Taylor told RACER. “Entering one of the top-3 teams in the series this year was a great opportunity, and I was looking forward to driving with Richard and driving for the team. But the results have not been anywhere close to what any of us have expected. It has been down to a lot of reasons, and it caught all of us by surprise.”
It's safe to say that Taylor and Westy haven't forgotten how to drive, leaving the two in the odd position of waiting for their team to find its way once again.
“There have been a lot of positives this year, but we've had a few mechanical issues that have hurt us,” Taylor continued. “But the biggest thing is the pace we expected hasn't been there on a more frequent basis. We have a new engineer, a young engineer, who has a lot of experience and is really bright, but has never engineered at this level so it has been a big learning curve for him.
“I went through the same thing when I came into DP, so I know what it's like to have a lot of expectations put on your shoulders while you're really just trying to figure everything out. You want to be right up there from the beginning, but everybody in the team has to understand that it takes time, and that's what we're doing now. Patience is what we're trying to have, but that's never easy in racing.”
Although SDR's competitiveness with the other DP cars has been rather infrequent, it hasn't been diminished inside the cockpit as Taylor has proven to be a match for Westy's pace this year. Taylor was a frequent polesitter at WTR, earning six consecutive poles in 2011, but measuring up against a rocket like Westy has only helped to validate the 24-year-old's capabilities.
“It's amazing – if I were to have this sort of season with any other teammate, no one would be talking to me, but just driving with Richard and being right there on pace with him, it's amazing how people have noticed or commented on it," said Ricky. "I've always looked up to him as one of the fastest and best, and the chance to drive with him was a big part of what attracted me to this opportunity.
“We work very well together, but when you have a season like this, I'm very quick to blame myself. But when I can measure myself against him and see how equally we've matched up, that's been good for me. It's helped keep my head in the game and kept us doing the best we can.”
Taylor's nightmarish season is almost over, and looking ahead to 2014 has already begun, but he and Westy would obviously welcome the chance to end 2013 with a meaningful result.
“I think we've already had a lot of focus and planning for 2014 to figure out how to return in a winning position, but Richard and I won't be happy with anything less than at least one win this year,” he confirmed. “We've had a string of really bad races, and they have been humbling for us, but a podium and a win or a pair of wins is what we both want.”
As the older Taylor brother worries about how or if he'll find Victory Lane before the end of the season, the junior member of the family (LEFT) is faced with a greater concern: how to win a championship in his first full season of DP racing.
“The [WTR] team has been around for a while now, but the championship has slipped away for various reasons the past few years,” said Jordan. “They've had the Corvette DP now for two years, have data at almost all the tracks, and when we roll off the trailer, we're dialed into where we want to be. It has made things a lot easier on me while I'm learning, but at the same time, we're also in a great position to try and win the championship. That's what we're concentrating on.”
Jordan's relative inexperience in DP cannot be discounted, but a big part of his instant success this season can be attributed to his time spent in Rolex GT. His older brother, by comparison, went directly into the DP category and had to learn a lot of the basics that Jordan was able to figure out prior to stepping up to the DP program.
“GT racing really did prepare me well because there's no aero; it's all mechanical grip, and you learn first from all the slipping and sliding that's going on,” he said. “You also learn the strategy side, the racecraft, how to do pit stops, saving your tires and everything else you need to do. The cars are different, but the racing is the same. It was a great stepping stone for me, and has been a big part of making my first season with the Corvette DP a much easier transition.”
Taylor's progression at WTR reached a high point at Kansas when he was given the task of being the closer – a role Angelelli has traditionally held. The same coming-of-age move was made with Ricky when he was at WTR, and the significance of the proverbial baton being passed wasn't lost on his younger brother.
“It meant a lot to me,” Jordan stated. “The starter has a big role, and the finisher has to bring it home and get the job done. It boosted my confidence knowing I was trusted to race to the finish, but I was nervous. Once I was in the car…35 minutes into the race…and knowing I had 2 hours and 10 minutes left to go…it was a big deal, an important deal. But I settled in and tried to treat it just like last year when I was finishing GT races.”
With one of the most feared DP competitors sitting just a few feet behind his car in the closing stages of the Kansas race, Taylor could have wilted – given into the pressure of having Scott Pruett and the Ganassi driver's chrome horn lying in wait—but drove like a veteran to seal the win and take over the points lead.
“I was a bit nervous with Pruett behind me for the last hour or so,” Taylor said with a laugh. “We were pushing flat-out on qualifying laps for quite a while, and when we pitted and came out, the fast in and the out laps helped quite a bit to get back out in front. Our team's strategy was perfect and did a lot to get us the win.
“Pruett was behind me for 40 minutes straight within just a few car lengths. I knew if I could gap him between Turns 1 and 3, I'd be good for the rest of the oval, so that's what I concentrated on, but they had more speed in some areas so it was a balancing act to go fast without wearing out the tires or making any mistakes.”
Earning the win was the latest triumph in a season filled with memorable events for Taylor, but he regards the finish of the Kansas race as possibly the most important step forward he's made in 2013.
“The whole time I was thinking, ‘Scott Pruett's behind me, one of the most successful sports car racers of all time,' and if I crumbled, that's what people would have expected,” Taylor admitted. “It wouldn't have been a surprise if I'd somehow let him get by, so putting my head down and executing on every lap to get our team and Velocity Worldwide the win had a lot of meaning for me as a driver. I can't say I won't make a mistake at the finish of another race, but it felt good to get the job done under really intense pressure.”
The diverging season for the Taylor boys will come to an end at Lime Rock on Sept. 28. One could be crowned a champion, while the other will be looking ahead to a reboot in 2014, but there's no tension to be found between the two. Ricky has also drawn the interest from at least one IndyCar team owner in the past few weeks, which suggests all has not been lost during a year where his brother has moved into the spotlight.
Ricky couldn't have known was stepping out of the WTR team at precisely the wrong time, just as Jordan couldn't have known how his incredible season would unfold or how his stock would rise. We'll soon how the championship plays out, whether Jordan will become the first rookie in DP history claim a title, and if Ricky and Westy can salvage something of value on the racetrack.
And as the Taylors share, they'll continue to support and cheer for each other every step of the way.
“Spirit of Daytona was one of the quickest teams and won a couple of races last year, so we were all excited when Ricky got the invitation,” said Jordan. “And we were a bit afraid because he was going to be one of the main opposition, but it's too bad the season has been so hard for him and the team this year. He's my best friend, so it's not something where you're happy to see things being such a struggle. I'm sure things will improve and he and Richard Westbrook will be going for wins again.”
Maybe it's due to being slightly older than Jordan, but Ricky took a more philosophical approach to how their seasons have played out.
“It's good for Jordan and I'm really happy for him, but I can't ask for everything – I can't be upset that my dad's team is doing so well,” he said. “I had three great years there and finished second in the championship twice. But I've grown a lot since moving to Spirit of Daytona. I've had one of the biggest learning years of my career here. When you're winning and things are going smoothly, it feels like it will keep coming to you.
“Now that we're having a tough season, it really forces you to work harder on all the other parts – on the team side, taking a bigger leadership role, working even closer with the engineers… It's great if you can just show up, drive the car and win. That's the dream situation for every driver. I hate that we're not winning, but I've become a more complete driver because I've had to look for other ways to contribute outside the car. Hopefully, all our hard work pays off with wins and a championship next year.”