Two aspiring female racers, one American whose apparent promise has gone unfulfilled and a New Zealander fairly new to auto racing, will be competing in Pirelli GT4 America in 2023 thanks to The Heart of Racing team and its recent shootout of nine young women.
Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt will share a Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the series next season, which begins March 30-April 2 at Sonoma Raceway. In addition, 17-year-old Annie Ruhle, who also participated in the shootout at Apex Motor Club near Phoenix, Ariz., was selected for a testing program with the team, that competes with Aston Martin in GT4 America and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“We had originally intended to bring one driver on, but it was clear after reviewing everyone’s performance through the event, that pairing these two in SprintX was the best solution and we are pretty excited to be able to offer both of them this opportunity to race together,” said team manager and driver Ian James. Sporting manager Paul Charlsley and Heart of Racing drivers Alex Riberas and Roman De Angelis, along with 2022 GT World Challenge America Pro-Am champion Ashton Harrison, observed the shootout and assisted in selecting the winners.
“It’s really nice to know where I’m going to be racing next year, and have a seat with a really great team that I know has competitive equipment in the series, so I’m super excited for that,” said Grisham (pictured above), a Southern Califiornia resident. “I’m really excited to be paired up with another female as well. There’s a lot of really talented women at the shootout. I think usually if you see one woman in a race, you know, you kind of put the microscope on them and then if there’s two then it’s like well, who’s better. It’s kind of like society pins them against each other. So I think it’s really cool that we’re going to be a duo and I think we have a pretty good shot of doing well.”
The GT4 America championship consists of two 60-minute races each weekend, with a mandatory driver change coming between 25 and 35 minutes into the race. So each driver will compete in each race.
“The racing looks really fun,” said New Zealander O’Meara-Hunt (pictured, top of page). “There are so many cars, so many people. Moving myself from New Zealand to America is a little bit scary; I’ll be by myself, my parents aren’t going to come with me. That’s going to be a big change for me but I’m also excited to start the next adventure over there. I’m excited to create more of a friendship and a partnership with Hannah and learn off her. She knows most of the tracks, which is going to be really helpful.”
After a long career in karting, O’Meara-Hunt just completed her first season racing cars, having competed in the Toyota 86 Championship in New Zealand — similar to the GR Cup that will be racing with SRO in 2023. Heart of Racing was running a program there, which is where she first garnered the attention of the team. Once she learned of the shootout, she made an effort to get into something that would give her more experience than the Toyota 86 she had raced and lined up a test in a Vantage GT4.
“The power … you stand on the throttle and it actually goes,” she says of the Aston compared to the Toyota. “It was a much more comfortable car to drive. You’ve got the pedals, there’s aircon so it doesn’t get too hot. And from karting, I’ve obviously been using my left foot to brake. So switching to my right foot and the 86 was a bit of a hard hard thing to learn. So going back to that left-foot brake was was really, really good for me.”
O’Meara-Hunt got a little familiarization with American life when Grisham took her and fellow New Zealander Chelsea Herbert out for dinner in Phoenix, including a trip to Target and Trader Joe’s, so the two who will be co-drivers next year got to know each other a little better. Grisham says she’s excited to pair with her, and thankful for the opportunity after a couple years of uncertainty. While some success in Spec Miata earned her a trip to Mazda’s shootout to earn a ride in MX-5 Cup, and she just wrapped up a World Racing League National points championship with Round 3 Racing, she hasn’t had a true pro ride yet.
“For the last few years, I’m kind of on my own. I’ve never really come from money and, you know how racing is, it’s all about money,” Grisham reflects. I think I’m really talented, but like a lot of race car drivers, one thing that’s always kind of held me back is my finances. I’ve almost not had a seat pretty much the last two years. But then I’ve had some really great people like the McCalls (Buz and Brad), who own Round 3 racing along with Hagerty and Shift Up Now who have literally been the reason I was able to be in a car this year.”
From that standpoint — giving some racers who may not have had a shot otherwise — The Heart of Racing’s first shootout was a success. For a team based largely in philanthropy — Heart of Racing uses the exposure of its motorsports teams to raise funds and awareness for the Seattle Children’s Cardiology Research Fund — that’s important.
“I think it’s been in the back of my head for a number of years now,” said James of conducting the first shootout. “The impetus has probably come from being prodded a little bit from the females in my life — my wife, my daughter, and other influential females. They know that I’ve managed quite a few drivers, we run the race team now and there’s a bit of a void that we haven’t really been helping any female drivers. So in talking to the stakeholders in the team, that’s something that they were very interested in — diversity and inclusion. It was just all the stars aligned to be able to do it and move forward.”
While part of the goal was to find racers the team would help advance into professional racing, there was a lot of emphasis on making sure that, win or lose, all the participants left Arizona with something valuable.
“This was our first-ever kind of shootout that we’ve done of any kind, and regardless of who was picked, we wanted to make it a good experience and give them some quality time in a GT4 car. So it turned out to be an amazingly successful event in terms of giving everybody a good feel of what the car’s about,” added James, who has been competing in GT4 America’s Pro-Am category with Gray Newell. “Some of them had very limited car experience, so it gave them an appetite for that as well. It was incredibly hard to choose who to pick, to be honest. There were some really quality drivers, but we felt that Rihanna and Hannah were the best two options in the end for what we were looking for.”
Now focus turns on preparation for 2023 and the seven-weekend, 14-race GT4 America schedule that includes NOLA, COTA, VIR, Road America, Sebring and Indianapolis in addition to Sonoma Raceway. With the family feel of the team and a little help along the way, the two racers think they have a pretty good shot at doing well.
“I think we have the right team behind us to be able to move forward quite quickly,” said O’Meara-Hunt. “They started with Gabe (Newell_ and Gabe’s son Gray, quite fresh.
“(Gray had) never done anything before and he’s now he’s winning championships and races, so I believe that Hannah and I can be up at the pointy end quite quick in our first season and hopefully fighting for the championship.