Ian James has found an impressive groove with his Heart of Racing program. A newcomer to IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition in 2020, the team’s emerged as one of the strongest players in the GT Daytona class, all despite its lack of experience compared to the category’s veterans.
Add in Heart of Racing’s unique position in GTD as the only full-time team to make use of Aston Martin’s Vantage AMR GT3, and the idea of a new team fielding a car with no data to draw from at almost every GTD round should have the No. 23 entry relegated towards the bottom of the standings.
The great demonstration of skill has come in Heart of Racing’s performances to close last season, with two podiums earned in the last four races, and another podium in March at Sebring, which has James, young co-driver Roman De Angelis, and AMR factory driver Ross Gunn holding third in the championship.
“As we’ve seen in the past, a lot of the European setups don’t work in America, so we had to develop our own way with the Vantage AMR GT3,” James told RACER. “And we did it in short order; our engineering team applied what they’d done in the past, and they know the grip, they know the bumpiness, and what we have at the tracks waiting for us, so we’ve applied what we know and found setups that work for us.”
Another remarkable component behind Heart of Racing’s rapid rise has been the speed at which James’ crew have formed a successful bond. It can take years for a new team to rotate mechanics, engineers, and support staff in and out of the program as the search for complimentary personalities takes place; this new venture has sidestepped the interpersonal growing pains, and it shows.
“Starting this program, it was a blank sheet of paper, so I was able to look back on the last 20 years of who I’d worked with in racing and considering who’d fit best,” James said. “It wasn’t their credentials or who they worked for that interested me, but who I thought would work together best. Our team owner, Gabe Newell, really supports this approach and wants to have fun—in a personable group—that is also very competitive.”
Heart of Racing’s last area of unique construction is found with James. A winning sports car veteran with the better part of 200 races to his credit, James was given the chance by Newell to fill two roles by leading its pilots and leading the rest of the team as the only driver/manager in the series. IMSA has known plenty of team owners who’ve driven, but James is a rare WeatherTech Championship bird as the person Newell entrusts to be in charge of everything on and off the race track.
“This really is something quite different for me,” he added. “In my other opportunities in the past where I managed and drove, it was a situation where the team was already there. This, with Gabe, was a unique chance to set everything up, buy all the equipment, hire all the people, go and get insurance…and it was the next step for me which pushed my mental capacity. My days are pretty full. I’m able to switch all that off when I drive the car; which is good. I’ve always been very analytical, so I can put the managerial side away when it’s my turn to drive.”
Another year, another podium at @sebringraceway! Huge thanks to every member of the Heart of Racing that helped the #23 finish P3 after twelve tough hours of racing!
.#IMSA #Sebring12 pic.twitter.com/toBzAy9npr
— The Heart of Racing (@HeartofRacing23) March 21, 2021
Heart of Racing was one of a few GTD teams to reduce its calendar last year as COVID-19 continued to worsen; when the team returned after a three-race hiatus, the No. 23 Aston Martin outfit nearly matched eventual champions Meyer Shank Racing in its points haul to close the season. It’s here where the alarm bells began to ring within the GTD paddock as a new threat emerged. What has followed in 2021 with a fifth-place finish at the 24 Hours of Daytona and a third at the 12 Hours of Sebring is nothing more than a continuation of the form shown during its rookie campaign.
“I prefer the dark horse label,” James declared. “Our goal is to deliver the best we can and see where it stacks up in the championship. Wearing my other hat, I manage a few drivers, so I know their DNA and we want to have someone who’s in it for the team, and not there for themselves.
“We’re definitely not one of the fancy favorites, but we’re very fortunate with the funding we have to be selective on who we have driving the car, and we can choose who we want. Roman is a young talent we’re happy about and we’re building him as the backbone of the team and we’ve had a clean year so far.”