Most of the numbers associated with the 2011 Grand-Am Rolex Series would gladden the hearts of SunTrust Racing owner Wayne Taylor, his son/driver Ricky and his partner/driver Max Angelelli. Five consecutive poles and six podium finishes, including a pair of wins and more laps led than series powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
However, with just three rounds to go, the only numbers that really count read 295 to 266 – those are the championship points amassed by Ganassi and SunTrust, respectively.
The good news? Taylor & Co. are on a roll, speed-wise. It was mid May when anyone last outqualified the rapidly emerging Ricky Taylor. And the SunTrust Dallara-Chevy has led the vast majority of laps since the green flag dropped at Lime Rock on Memorial Day weekend, making Grand-Am's “bounty” on Ganassi after their season-opening hat-trick an increasingly distant memory.
The bad news? The bad luck and mistakes that plagued SunTrust since the early hours of the Rolex 24 at Daytona continued through the heart of the season, be it a loose wheel at Barber Motorsports Park, a losing gamble on full wet settings at VIR, an untimely full-course yellow at Road America or a jammed air gun at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Couple that with Juan Pablo Montoya's mugging of Ricky Taylor in the fifth hour of the Rolex 24, and SunTrust Racing finds itself with a mountain to climb. While the Daytona incident sticks in Wayne Taylor's craw, he is well aware his team has – at times – been its own worst enemy.
“Juan apologized a couple of days later,” he says, “but Daytona is not why we find ourselves at a disadvantage in the points. At virtually every event, we have had the fastest car at some point during the race, but far too often we haven't been able to turn that speed into anything. We obviously have a great team, with outstanding partners like SunTrust, Chevrolet and Toshiba, so we know we just have to execute, because when we execute, we win.”
There appear to be several reasons for this season's turn of speed. The switch from Ford to Chevrolet hasn't hurt. In many ways, the move was a homecoming for Taylor and SunTrust, who ran with General Motors power (Pontiac) in the first five seasons of their Grand-Am program, including their 2005 championship season.
“We couldn't be happier with our engine performance,” he says. “The service we've received from ECR [Earnhardt Childress Racing] has been spectacular and there have been no reliability issues. We seem to be on par with everyone else in terms of horsepower and torque, although Grand-Am recently increased the rev limit on the Fords by 500rpm. We've been incredibly happy with Chevrolet.”
The Chevy's one-two punch of power and tractability has both enabled and complemented the team's advances in consistency. SunTrust Racing wasn't a backmarker in its Ford days – Angelelli and Taylor finished runners-up to Ganassi/Sabates' Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas in last year's Rolex Series standings. But the Dallara-Ford ran hot and cold – quick on high-speed and tight circuits, less so on the “intermediate” circuits. The team credits its improved consistency to a fresh approach from the engineering group, following Brian Pillar's promotion to race engineer.
“Brian has brought a lot of exciting ideas and we've taken a bit of a different direction this year,” says Ricky Taylor. “The engineers worked hard so we're closer to the Riley on the mechanical side while maintaining our aero advantage. It's made our car well-rounded, especially in terms of being easier on the tires.”
The third part of the puzzle has been Ricky Taylor's remarkable maturation. Although his experience belies his 21 years (he logged 19 Daytona Prototype starts in '08-'09 with the Beyer and Doran Racing teams), he was inevitably overshadowed by the vastly experienced Angelelli upon joining his father's team in '10. Although Taylor more than held up his end, qualifying on the pole twice and winning at Lime Rock, he has come into his own this season.
A second straight win at Lime Rock was significant, but Watkins Glen was a real watershed. At his urging, the team swapped driver roles, assigning him the event's “anchor” leg, in all likelihood, setting up a head-to-head confrontation with Pruett, unquestionably the master of Daytona Prototypes. Predictably, the SunTrust entry emerged as the car to beat and, when a late-race caution put Taylor squarely in Pruett's sights, the youngster might have been forgiven for musing about being careful what you wish for… And yet Taylor never put a wheel wrong and pulled away to win by 3.8sec.
Taylor's development owes much to his talent, dedication and fortitude. But has there ever been a better race driver incubator than the one in which he has found himself, living with his father/boss and “other father,” Angelelli, who lives with the Taylors when he's not at his true home in Monaco? And let's not forget 19-year-old Jordan Taylor who's in the hunt for the Rolex GT title and who won the GT class at Watkins Glen with Bill Lester in the Autohaus Racing Chevrolet Camaro.
“It's a unique dynamic,” admits Ricky. “I've got my dad with all his experience in sports car racing and giving me various life lessons. There's Max teaching me about the technical side, working with the engineers and how to deal with other drivers. Even Jordan helps me. He helps me understand what a GT driver is thinking when he sees a DP in his mirrors.”
Angelelli prefers to give credit where credit is due. “Ricky, Jordan and I talk all the time about racing – setups, aero, mechanical, driving,” he says. “It is like they're going to school. They are open-minded, open to constructive criticism, open to new things. They listen, and they deliver.”
Angelelli, like Ricky, knows the mountain they have to climb before season's end, but he's up for that.
“I have not for one moment given up on the championship,” Angelelli says. “We will fight for the points until the end. Why is it only us who have bad weekends? Perhaps the others will have theirs, as well. But in any case, we have only one option and that is to fight every weekend and win every weekend.”
“It's nice when you have a fast car and are chasing someone rather than struggling for speed and having to put together a perfect race,” Ricky says. “I like the position we're in.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the September 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.