Am driver Mike Hedlund created one of the more entertaining races in recent Blancpain GT World Challenge America by leading overall and, if only briefly, holding off world-class pro drivers from the series top teams.
That’s not supposed to happen. Sure, we’ve seen Pro-Am cars lead in the early going when the Pro driver starts, but not in the second half of the race when the amateur, “gentleman” driver takes over. But there Hedlund was, leading the second race at Watkins Glen ahead of Daniel Serra — subbing for regular Miguel Molina in the No. 63 R. Ferri Motorsports Ferrari — and Alvaro Parente in the No. 9 K-PAX Bentley. A strong stint by Hedlund’s pro partner Dane Cameron in the No. 43 Acura NSX and stellar pit work by the RealTime Racing crew put Hedlund out front. And while he had no intention of defending, he wasn’t going to pull over and let them past, either.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Hedlund after the race. “Our pit stop was amazing – the RealTime crew, they’ve killed it all weekend. They did the same at Sonoma, so hats off to them for getting me out there and Dane’s killer stint as well to get us out front.
“When I first left the pits, there was a red car a bit behind me; I was just thinking, ‘I’m going to drive as hard as I can and not defend,’ because I didn’t want the 80 car (the Kyle Marcelli/Martin Barkey Racers Edge Acura) to catch us, but if I could stay in front I would. I was able to hold him off for a few laps and have some fun; but I know these guys, and I know they’ll race me clean as long as I race them clean. If I’m not defending or doing anything dumb, I know they’ll treat me the same. So once (Serra) threw it down, I just gave him room. When the other guys were behind me, I tried to make it easy for them as well, so they could have their own race. It’s fun when you’re out there with the fastest of the fast.”
As Serra was trying to find a way around Hedlund, Parente came up to his bumper to make it an Acura-Ferrari-Bentley train. Patrick Long in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche was about to join the party as well. The suspense of wondering how long Hedlund would stay in front and the more condensed top three after he wasn’t made the race quite entertaining.
As it was, Hedlund faded to fifth overall, ahead of some of the pro cars, but more importantly ahead of the No. 80, giving Hedlund and Cameron three wins and a second out of four races together. Hedlund took over the Am seat from Brett Curtis — a winner with Cameron in Round 4 at VIR — after Curtis injured his back, and has proven nearly unstoppable since.
Although he hasn’t spent a lot of time in a race car since ending last season’s GT4 campaign in a Flying Lizard Audi, Hedlund isn’t exactly new at this, either. An entrepreneur in “nerdy, techy stuff” from Redwood City, Calif., Hedlund took up car racing in 2011, harkening back to his youth racing bikes and motorcycles. Since then, he has raced a variety of cars on some fo the world’s biggest stages.
“Winning here at Watkins Glen in 2015 in the IMSA 6 Hour race in LMPC,” he says, recounting some highlights. “Winning in (European Le Mans Series) GT at Imola with Wolf Henzler…that was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had as a racer, because it was a new track to me, relatively new car – I’d never raced a GTE car – and it ended up raining at the end of the race and I was only a few tenths off Wolf the whole weekend.
“But the highlight of my racing career is doing the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2017 with Pat Long. That was an amazing experience. Our car wasn’t super competitive – it was the last year of the rear-engined Porsche, so we were struggling – but I believe we finished as the top Porsche and the fastest Dunlop car. We had no mistakes, no penalties, no offs, no long pit stops, no extra pit stops. For being a rookie at Le Mans, I was relatively close to Pat, I believe 1.2 seconds, and I was really proud of that.”
Hedlund is in the Acura for the rest of the season — the pair of races at Road America and the season finale at Las Vegas. Given the No. 43 team’s performance in the two weekends he’s run so far, he’s naturally looking forward to it.
“I wouldn’t say I thought we would win as often as we have, but I thought we would be strong because I’ve watched all the cars. Being a gentleman driver, you always watch which cars are good, and with the races left on the schedule, I thought the NSX was going to be really strong. Even at Sonoma, where I didn’t feel like that track suited our car, we still did really well there. I thought if we go to tracks that suit our car a little better, we’ll be even stronger. So when he gave me the call to finish out the season, I was super excited and told him yes right away.”
One of those races Hedlund says he expects to be especially fast at is the next round at Road America, Sept. 20-22. That event will kick off with a race car parade from the track to a pre-race party on Thursday evening at the famous Siebken’s tavern in Elkhart Lake.