Bryce Ward took the call while sitting in the Daytona paddock, leaning back against his grimy but victorious Mercedes-AMG GT3, and enjoying an unspecified number of beers after pulling off one of the more amazing feats at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Akin to hitting a grand slam in Winward Racing’s first at-bat, Ward’s largely unheralded Michelin Pilot Challenge team entered its first WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race amid zero fanfare. Winward was never mentioned as a potential contender, nor was its driver lineup of Philip Ellis, Ward’s son Russell, Indy Dontje, and factory pilot Maro Engel hailed as one to fear at IMSA’s big season opener.
As far as shocking results go, the South African’s Texas-based team stole the GTD show; it was as much of a surprise for Ward’s group as the heavy-hitting championship contenders in the class. Even better, the entire project started in a similar fashion to how it ended – sitting and dreaming of the possibilities the Rolex 24 can offer.
“Last year in Daytona, we double-podiumed in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race on Friday; Phillip and I got second and Russell and Indy got third, and we decided to stay on and just watch the main event afterwards,” Ward told RACER. “And we were sitting up in the grandstand, and we said to each other, ‘You know what, wouldn’t it be nice to do this event? I mean, it really, really looks like an unbelievably special event.’ And we sat down, we made a pact that we would try and actually compete in this year’s event. And it was just something that just kept churning in my mind.
“We got with AMG and said, ‘Listen, we need to get a car for this.’ And Christian Hohenadel, who runs the Winward Racing/HTP branch in Germany, and I sat down last year and said, ‘We need to just do a little preparation for this, because Russell’s never really run in GT3.’ Philip and Indy obviously are pretty good GT3 guys, so let’s enter the 24 Hours of Spa. That’ll give Russell some practice in GT3, and it’ll give Philip and Indy a little bit of time to coach him. And that’s where this entire thing came to be.”
Although Ward’s Rolex 24 dream was established 12 months prior to winning on their debut, the time between receiving Winward’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 and going racing was rather brief. It meant the Pro-Am team with no WeatherTech Championship experience would not have a relaxed schedule to learn the car and conduct numerous tests ahead of the race.
“AMG really moved heaven and earth to get us a car in Houston on December 1st so that we could just go through it and prepare it for Daytona,” he said. “And the guys at the shop just spent day and night… they took it to pieces, and they put it together again, as it should be. They were inspired, and I’m so proud of the whole team, and I’m so proud of the drivers, the way they performed and the way they accepted the challenge.”
Just as Winward’s driver rotation starred in the No. 57 entry, Ward is filled with pride for all his MPC crew achieved while taking on the likes of Lexus with Vasser Sullivan, Lamborghini with Paul Miller Racing and GRT, Porsche with the Wright and Pfaff teams, and other GTD outfits with considerable experience in professional endurance competition.
For every team racing in a training category like MPC with a goal of making it to IMSA’s top series, Winward now serves as an example of all that can be achieved.
“Our team spent so much time practicing pit stops every day and training in all the ways the WeatherTech Championship is different than the Michelin Pilot Challenge series,” Ward said. “I think every time we came into the pits this time, we left picking up a place or two. We were really fighting with a Ferrari, and he had passed us, and we managed to pass him in the pits. It was just an absolutely awesome experience. And I’m so proud of everybody that was involved.”
As an early riser, Ward saw the effort being expended by the Windward crew over the holidays and into the new year.
“The guys at the shop are just passionate about what they’re doing, and the workshop is really close to where I work; probably a hundred yards away, and I get to work probably about 5:30 in the morning,” he continued. “And sometimes, the guys were already in working on the cars; that’s just will. It’s a passion that they have, led by Alberto Pena, our team manager.”
Ward made another commitment that stood out in the GTD field, and that came with a firm decision to carry Winward’s MPC lineup into GTD. Other than taking himself out of the picture in favor of Mercedes’ Engel, Ward was not interested in filling the No. 57 with factory drivers to boost Winward’s odds of finding success. Facing stacked pro-grade lineups throughout GTD, Ward awoke with a sense of calm and confidence before the Rolex 24 got under way.
“I got up race morning at about four o’clock and went for a walk down the beach, just thinking, ‘Well, I mean, I wonder what we can do,’ because I thought that our chances were pretty good,” he said. “Christian, who has done lots of these, we sat down, and we put a plan together for the drivers, and it was something we approached with a big-picture approach.
“This is not just a one-year plan; we really want to put together a team that is here for the long-term; a 10-year plan, so our plan was never to go race Daytona this year and change who we are just to try and win. We wanted to win as who we have always been at Winward. So how proud are we? It’s just amazing. I absolutely love the whole racing atmosphere and the comradery with the guys. And when you do badly, everybody still hangs together. And when we do well, oh my gosh, it’s incredible.”