Bryan Herta can’t wait to see what the future holds for Taylor Hagler. The 25-year-old Texan joined Herta’s Hyundai IMSA team at the onset of 2021 in the Michelin Pilot Challenge series with the goal of accelerating a steep learning curve with co-driver Michael Lewis.
Ten races, six podiums, and one win later, Lewis and Hagler were crowned champions with the No. 77 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR which, as Herta admits, came as surprise. Lewis, BHA’s 2019 TCR champion, delivered as expected, but for Hagler, whose motor racing career is in its infancy, the vast achievement has forced a thorough recalibration of her potential in the sport.
“I would say we really sat up and took notice of Taylor last year at Mid-Ohio,” Herta told RACER. “She was driving a competing car in the TCR Michelin Pilot Challenge series and she stuck it on pole. Legit stuck it on pole. And Hyundai had often asked us about the racing landscape and female drivers and if we thought there was a chance to bring an accomplished female driver into one of our cars. And honestly, we looked at it and said, ‘Whomever she is, she has to be competitive, and it has to be something that we’re doing to try and win with and not just do it for the sake of doing it.’
“Taylor, right in that moment, shot up in our minds. She’s the one we want, and from then on, we pursued it pretty heavily and we’re really fortunate to have been able to secure her for this year and years in the future. The fact that she and Michael Lewis delivered a championship in their first season was well above our or her or anybody’s expectations. She’s come a long way.”
Herta’s well-versed in the art of grooming talent. His son Colton, one of the NTT IndyCar Series most formidable talents, has been on a path to the top of the sport since he was a child. It makes Hagler’s story of rapid ascension even more remarkable.
“The thing to keep in mind with Taylor is her complete history in racing,” Herta said. “You know, we first saw her racing in TCA the year earlier in 2019 in the SRO championship. And other than the fact she was out there racing, she wasn’t particularly notable in the first year. It was really that second year when she stepped up to TCR (with Honda and co-driver Ryan Eversley) where there’s that spark, that flash that you look for.
“And then as I learned a little more about her history, what I think you have to put in context is unlike most of the drivers out there that have been honing their craft for a decade or more in go karts before they ever get into a racecar, she did none of that. She was jumping horses. And so she truly won a championship in her third season of competition in any sort of motorized category. So, wow! That’s the big thing.
“That’s the blue-sky potential we saw in her because knowing where she’s at on her development curve, even compared to maybe a driver of a similar age, but who’s been honing their craft at the car track since they were six years old, she should be way behind. But Taylor showed us how fast she can learn and overcome all those development years she didn’t have in racing.”
Hagler credits the transition to BHA for fast-tracking her growth in IMSA’s top training series.
“It’s been a really big learning curve working with such a professional and outstanding team, and everyone there made it really easy and was super patient with me,” she said. “I’m not really one that knows a lot about cars. So my engineer and I, we had to learn how each other communicates, when I say certain things like the car just feels ‘floaty,’ there’s not a lot for an engineer to go off of, but that’s part of what I’ve been learning. And Michael [Lewis] really helped get me up to speed before I even get to the track.
“I feel like it still hasn’t fully hit me that I won a championship. Every time I hear it, I’m just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I did just do that,’ and it’s been really great, but it’s happened within this massive learning curve, so it hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m still so new to this, and everyone’s been doing everything they can to help me progress a lot faster. That’s what this year was really only supposed to be about — just the learning curve and helping me to grow more and just get used to the team and used to the car and it ended up being a championship year. So I think we were all pleasantly surprised about that.”
Outside the car, her co-driver Lewis, a relentlessly upbeat character, offered the perfect balance to Hagler’s low-key persona, and inside the No. 77 Veloster N, their disparate driving styles also offered an immense opportunity for her development.
“We have very different personalities,” she said. “I’m a very, very chill person, not very expressive person. I think it took both of us a minute to be like, ‘Okay, this is your personality, and this is my personality, and this is how we’re gonna work together.’ And we definitely have different driving styles. Michael likes to drive a car that’s literally on rails and is trying to kill you. Whereas I like a more secure and stable car at the rear where I don’t feel like I’m gonna die every corner.
“So we both had to negotiate on that and try and find like a middle ground that worked for us. We have found a good balance where it still is loose enough for Michael to drive but secure enough to where I don’t feel like I have to tiptoe through corners. So that’s been that’s been really great and where I learned a lot about the car setup side, and his approach to racing is something I’m learning from.
“It’s like he just like sees red and he goes for it, but he’s also very calculated in what he does. He never takes the wrong step in the way that he passes people or when he doesn’t, or how he’s going to run his lap times and how he’s going to save his tires. It’s quite interesting to be around him and it’s a lot to learn because he’s been doing it for so long.”
Hagler’s goals for 2022 with BHA involve learning more about the engineering side of he car she drives and turning up her single-lap pace to earn more pole positions.
“I think one of the biggest things that’s gonna like help me continue progressing is learning a lot more about the car and the way that like things do work and changes that I like and changes that I don’t like,” she said. “And figuring out one of the things that I think I’ve struggled with my entire racing career is qualifying. I’ve never been good at qualifying; it takes me just a bit too long to really put the hammer down and do what I need to do. I usually just like work up to it.
“I think if I was able to run a fast lap on the first lap and then progress for like the next two or three laps, then that would use the peak of the tire more. So that’s something that I’ve been working on. And really, it’s just seat time and confidence is the main thing that I’ve been lacking and don’t have a lot of.”
After becoming the first woman to win a title in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, Hagler received a warm response from one of her inspirations. And like the Dane, she’s less interested in basking in the achievement and more motivated to earn more championships.
“I don’t think about it on a daily basis,” she said. “In the moment, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we won the championship, this is awesome.’ And then the next day, it was, ‘Okay, back to work. Let’s prepare for the next season. What’s the goals for the next season? What do we want next season?’
“I don’t really feel like much has changed. I’ve had like a couple of people that I grew up watching reach out to me like [double IMSA GTD champion] Christina Nielsen, which was amazing, but we’re looking ahead. The goal for next year is another championship and that will make Michael a three-timer and that’ll make me and him the first people to win back-to-back championships.”