Honda Performance Development’s GT3 Driver Academy is set to kick off for a second year beginning this month with a new crop of four up-and-coming drivers aimed to replicate the success of the program’s inaugural season, according to NSX GT3 program manager Lee Niffenegger.
The four-part academy, which will get underway with an outing at Mid-Ohio on July 13-14, will feature French F4 race-winner Nicky Hays, Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America driver Ashton Harrison, current FR Americas point leader Kyffin Simpson as well as Cat Lauren, an up-and-coming NASA racer who has been testing with Racers Edge in 2021.
The new quartet of drivers follow in the footsteps of the academy’s inaugural class, all of whom all currently racing Honda or Acura sports cars between SRO America and IMSA championships this year.
“We’ll start at Mid-Ohio, and they’ll do a factory tour or our facilities outside Columbus as a welcome to Honda,” Niffenegger told Sportscar365.
“I think the attraction to the drivers and word-of-mouth has been great.
“For example, we had a meeting with Nicky [Hays] and he said the same thing. He wants to expand into GT cars. He said it’s so awesome because you get to work with veteran Honda/Acura racers like Dane [Cameron] and Ricky [Taylor].
Niffenegger said the same level of driver support will be in place for the second season, with reigning IMSA DPi champion and current points leader Ricky Taylor slated to attend all four outings, along with a rotating between fellow HPD factory drivers Dane Cameron, Mario Farnbacher and Ryan Eversley.
HPD’s pro drivers will serve as driver coaches as part of the multi-faceted program that includes on and off-the-track training and opportunities.
In addition to Mid-Ohio, the GT3 Driver Academy will again visit Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Sebring International Raceway, with Virginia International Raceway replacing Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta this year due to a scheduling conflict.
Three of the four graduates from 2020 — Taylor Hagler, Jacob Abel and Dakota Dickerson — are all sharing an Acura NSX GT3 Evo this year in Fanatec GT World Challenge America powered by AWS with Racers Edge Motorsports, the team operator of the academy.
Karl Wittmer, the fourth graduate from last year, meanwhile, recently teamed up with HPD customer team VGMC Racing in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at the wheel of its Honda Civic Type-R TCR.
Niffenegger said all four graduates from last year have been “really well received” within the sports car racing paddocks.
“The graduates from last year are doing really well,” he said. “Karl Wittmer did the TCR race at Watkins Glen and he’s helping the team increase their organization and trackside procedures based on what he learned from the GT Academy.
“The Racers Edge trio have been killing it. They’ve gotten some podiums for two really young and inexperienced drivers.
“Taylor is the least experienced of all of them and she’s really picked it up. The main struggle has been Jacob and Dakota swapping in and out [between races], but sometimes this is part of sports car racing to adapt between different co-drivers.
“Jacob did two in a row and made huge gains from COTA to VIR and Dakota is coming back for the next one. I think they’re doing great.”
Niffenegger said he’s seen increased interest from up-and-coming drivers with open-wheel backgrounds wanting to make the switch to sports car racing sooner, rather than later.
“Formula car stuff takes quite a lot of money and there are a lot of rungs on the ladder. I think there are fewer rungs in sports car racing,” he said.
“But I also think young drivers get better advice now than they used to. There’s a lot of people with a lot of experience that [suggest] that sports car racing may be a better path for them.
“It’s interesting. We did see that Jacob and Dakota last year, coming from a downforce car vs. the others that came from touring cars, you’d think they’d be better off with ABS and all that other stuff than the formula car drivers.
“But we saw the opposite where the guys coming from formula cars adapted to the GT car a little bit more quickly. It’s less downforce than they’re used to but they’re used to driving with the downforce, where the others have to learn the downforce.
“It will be interesting to see if it plays out that way this year as well because we have a similar group again.”
When asked if the class of 2021 could end up in HPD-supported programs next year, Niffenegger admitted it’s too early to say.
“It comes down to what they want to do and if they think it’s for them,” he said.
“Certainly that’s an option and I think it suits Racers Edge really well. They’re really good at cultivating young drivers. I know [team owner] Jon Mirachi really likes it.”