Australian IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship rookie Kenny Habul readily admits his knowledge of the series was somewhat limited prior to the 2017 season in which his No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 made its debut.
Habul is both team owner and driver, and will share the GT Daytona (GTD)-class ride in Saturday’s Chevrolet Sports Car Classic at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park with Tristan Vautier, as part of a 15-car GTD field. The 100-minute race featuring the WeatherTech Championship’s Prototype, Prototype Challenge (PC) and GTD classes will be televised live on FS2 at 12:30 p.m. ET, with a rebroadcast set for 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday on FS1.
Through the team’s first four races as full-time WeatherTech Championship competitors, the No. 75 Mercedes-AMG squad has performed quite well, with a pair of third-place race results, including the most recent round at Circuit of The Americas earlier this month. Vautier also made IMSA history for Mercedes, bringing the manufacturer its first series pole position in qualifying for the prestigious Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida in March.
“It’s encouraging,” says Habul of his team’s solid start. “It’s not easy starting a new team. I don’t have a lot of knowledge of this series, so we really started from scratch.
“We got a lot of help from AMG, which is good, and we have some people here that work with us that are former race people, so they’ve been helpful putting everything together and buying everything we need. Starting from scratch, we were careful and we selected really experienced people and took our time instead of rushing.”
Among those really experienced people were Vautier and sports car racing veteran Boris Said, who rotates in and out of the driver line-up for the No. 75 as well. Said offered a helping hand to Habul as the team was being constructed, while Vautier – a former IndyCar racer – does more than just drive for SunEnergy1.
“He’s a brilliant talent,” said Habul of Vautier. “He actually works at my solar energy company part time and drives with us. He drives in Europe and sort of helps me also. It’s a good combination. Everybody gets along.”
Below: Watch as Vautier passes 12 cars to charge back to third at COTA.
If Habul’s name was somewhat familiar to race fans prior to this season, it was likely because he previously competed in NASCAR road course races. Habul, whose business is based in the Charlotte, North Carolina-area counts championship-winning NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick among his friends.
In fact, the relationship with Hendrick played a central role in putting Habul and Said together.
“Boris has some business interests with Rick Hendrick, and we did some things together,” Habul explained. “That’s kind of how we met. I think it was 2015 and Boris was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Monster Energy car and I was driving there also in the road courses, so we were kind of teammates. He helped me out and gave me some tips, so we sort of became friends.”
So, how does an Australian find his way to Charlotte, start a company, make friends with Rick Hendrick and ultimately form a WeatherTech Championship race team?
“It’s been a huge success story,” Habul said. “We started here approximately 10 years ago with three people. I was in the construction industry (in Australia) and moved to the U.S. about 2007; probably not a good time to come here.
“It was difficult, obviously, for the construction industry and it got worse in 2008 and ’09, so I really had to reinvent myself and find something new to do. I had a knowledge of solar from back in Australia on the residential side. I didn’t really want to do that here, so I focused more on the commercial side and what they call, ‘utility scale.’
“I went to Germany in 2008 and sort of learned from the industry over there, because they were pretty much – and probably still are – the leaders in the world. That gave me a lot of good knowledge on how they build live systems and how they connect them and things like that, so I came back after that stint. I started SunEnergy1 and just ended up going from strength to strength.
“We started building rooftops and we built the largest solar system on a rooftop – that was about a million square feet – here in Charlotte. From there, we sort of moved to the ground and have just grown every year and broken a number of records, to where we now have built the largest solar system east of the Mississippi here at 112 megawatts, which is somewhere around 1,200 acres. That was in 2015 in North Carolina.
“We’ve built larger systems again. Our average systems size is somewhere around two-and-a-half thousand acres, and we’ve just filed recently for the largest solar system in the United States at 6,000 acres. It’s been a great ride.”
Habul and Vautier are hoping for another great ride this weekend in Detroit. On-track activity for the WeatherTech Championship begins Friday with a 90-minute practice session at 8:30 a.m. ET, followed by a second practice from 1 to 2:30 p.m. ET. Qualifying runs from 4:55 to 6 p.m. local. IMSA.com will offer live streaming of qualifying in addition to IMSA Radio coverage from all on-track sessions.
IMSA Radio also will have live coverage throughout the weekend, including the race broadcast, which airs online at IMSA.com, SiriusXM and locally in the Detroit market on WCSX FM 94.7.
The green flag flies on the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic Saturday at 12:40 p.m. ET.