This week in the Pirelli Paddock Pass, MarcoPolo Motorsports driver Nicolai Elghanayan reflects on his his first season in Pirelli World Challenge, the highlights of his year, his racing background, and more.
What drew you to Pirelli World Challenge?
“I used to race in Lotus Cup USA and SCCA, and I still do, but we were looking for a series with more competition and a more packed field.
“The series we wanted to participate in had to meet a few requirements: A sprint based race series, a large field, highly skilled drivers, and a diverse range of cars.
“The last one was very important to us! Pirelli World Challenge does such a great job leveling out all those different machines to make finger biting close racing with a large field.
“It is a very appealing aspect of the series that I don’t think many other series has a good grasp around.
“PWC also has the added benefit of traveling all around the U.S. There is something different about traveling to a state as a tourist compared to as a driver. It gave me a sense of belonging instead of feeling more like a foreigner.
“PWC makes sure to bring a native audience to the track, this causes the drivers to feel welcomed and above all excited to have such a dedicated fan base follow the series around the U.S.
“On top of all this, the people who work at PWC want the teams and drivers to be there. If you crashed your car, they will help you find parts.
“If you want to race with them, they will do everything they can to help make that goal come true. It is a very welcoming series that caught our eyes.
“In October of 2017 we brought our small team out to Laguna Seca and participated in our first ever PWC race with our little Lotus.
“We had the time of our lives, even though I had my first ever crash, the car died in race one, and I started in the back of the pack in Race 2.
“It was one of the best races and it immediately got us hooked to Pirelli World Challenge.”
How did your interest in racing develop?
“Everyone always has a story of when they were a kid they were excelling in a specific field and since then they kept on rising to the top. My story doesn’t really start like that.
“But it does start when I was a kid, I had a poster of an old Lotus concept car on my bedroom wall. I told myself that one day I will race a Lotus.
“Fast forward nine years and I was competing in Lotus Cup while starting my first years at college. I raced with my dad, who used to race in the IMSA series as well as motorcycle races.
“We had a great time competing against each other and eventually I found out that I had a knack for this.
“One thing led to another and we started to travel around the West Coast competing in whatever event I can that worked with my school schedule. My old friend from High School, Michael Lewis, was also a big factor in all this.
“I was able to watch him dominate in go-karts while we were in high school, and then after he graduated he kept on winning race after race!
“I never thought that I would be competing in the same series as him. He has been a huge help to my racing career through coaching and connections into the race world.
“He helped draw me into the sport and eventually pointed us in the direction of Pirelli World Challenge.”
What did it mean to you to win overall in Pirelli World Challenge GTS competition at Lime Rock?
“Winning at the Pirelli World Challenge GP at Lime Rock was one of the most incredible feelings for me, and I literally had just graduated from USC two weeks prior to winning at Lime Rock!
“We came into this season of Pirelli World Challenge with extremely low expectations. We were just trying to feel things out and see how the series operated.
“We did not intend on getting any podiums or top-10 finishes, so imagine our surprise when we compete in our second ever professional race on a track that I have never been to on the other side of the U.S. and then we get an overall victory! I was speechless!
“The MarcoPolo Motorsports team consists of seven people to run the whole operation, so for a team like that to come to the series and outperform everyone else there is just unreal.
“The team did such an amazing job setting up the car. I was also extremely fortunate to have one of the developers from Reiter Engineering and driver Tomas Enge come down to the U.S. and help coach me as a driver and the team in setting up the car.
“To go from competing in a club race on the West Coast to winning an overall Victory at the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix of Lime Rock is incomprehensible for me.
“Leaving the track that weekend was nothing less than a phenomenon. It made my college graduation seem like an average day.”
Outside of the win, what was the highlight of your season?
“Besides winning at Lime Rock, I had a handful of other races that went well. The one that stands out the most I think is the Grand Prix of Utah, the reason being is because of the events that led up to it.
“We were having so many issues with the car, my mindset, and the layout of the track. It felt like every step we took forward we took two steps back.
“We started Race 1 in decent shape, I believe we qualified somewhere in the middle of the pack.
“Once the race started we immediately started to overheat. The kicker was that a driver punted us off the road and damaged the intake that made the heating situation even worse.
“Race 1 ended with us limping across the checkered with a qualifying time for Race 2 in 33rd place, dead last.
“For some reason that night I was feeling over the top confident about the next day, I told the crew, if you can fix the car and solve the overheating issue I guarantee you a top-10 finish and maybe even a podium.
“Race 2 starts and I was in the zone, passed eight people in the first lap and just kept on climbing.
“I told my crew chief (John Mueller) that I did not want to hear anything besides pit stop times, and how many laps we had left.
“Lap after lap I was putting down quick times that never diminished and finally the checkered flag was brought out.
“After passing the checkered flag I asked John how we did and was dumbfounded when he told me that if it was not for that yellow flag restart on the last lap we would have finished second in class and tenth overall, but we finished third in class and eleventh overall!
“I could not believe it. We got the VP Racing Fuels Hard Charger award for passing 21 people and a third place trophy.
“Even though it wasn’t an overall victory like Lime Rock, I think it was one of my best drives I’ve had in awhile.”
Where do you see yourself racing in 2019?
“We do not have any definitive plans as of yet for 2019. We are most likely going to race in Pirelli World Challenge with the KTM GT4s again and shoot for a championship, but I have been also looking into racing in Europe as well in the GT4 Central races.
“I will be competing at Misano and Zandvoort with KTM and Reiter Engineering this week. I am very excited to race with such a big team for the first time and I can’t wait to compete with new drivers and teams overseas.
“It would also work out with my architecture career, I am trying to apply for jobs all over the world including Germany and if I am able to secure a job out there, it would be a perfect opportunity for me to race in Europe as well.
“Either way whatever path I take I am excited to keep on racing in the KTM Xbow whether it is in the U.S. or in Europe.”