Taylor Hagler’s first “a-ha moment” in racing happened at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course when she took pole position for the 2020 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race in the Touring Car (TCR) class.
It was a shock because Hagler was midway through just her second season of racing. Before 2019, she had no familiarity with motorsports. No go-karts. No quarter midgets. No tiny dirt bikes. Her only previous experience with horsepower was riding horses in show jumping competition.
She stunned herself and many in the paddock this season by winning the TCR championship with co-driver Michael Lewis. The two shared the No. 77 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai Veloster N TCR. They all but clinched going into the season finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, where they claimed the title by taking the green flag in the Fox Factory 120 on Nov. 12.
Hagler, 26, made history as the first female driver to win a Michelin Pilot Challenge championship.
“This is monumental,” Hagler said. “It’s a big honor. For me and the team, this wasn’t an expectation or requirement. This year was supposed to be getting used to the new car, the new co-driver, the team and engineers. We had planned to go slowly, learn new things and set up for winning a championship next year. For this all to happen in one year, I think we are all thinking this is over expectation and that’s definitely a happy thing.”
Hagler’s achievement was praised by IMSA President John Doonan, who with most others has tracked her progress that included a first TCR victory at Lime Rock Park in July.
“I’m extremely happy for her and her family,” Doonan said. “She not only has horsepower today, but she rides horses away from the racetrack. Taylor has done this in a very organic manner. She’s had the right developments from driver coaches to the manufacturers she has driven with, so I’m really proud of that.
“We have talented, young females coming up through our levels of IMSA, but I’m really proud of Taylor and I’m excited for her.”
But how did this championship come together? When Hagler claimed that 2020 pole with another team and manufacturer, it caught Herta’s attention and he immediately began an inquiry into her 2021 availability.
“When we saw that kind of speed out of her, we were really impressed and felt like this is someone who continues to show improvement and would be a great fit for Hyundai and our team,” Herta said. “Really, the discussion started last year at Mid-Ohio about ‘how do we get Taylor in a Hyundai?’”
Hagler and Lewis ran off four straight podium performances this year before the Lime Rock victory that for Hagler was like a nitro shot of self-assurance.
“Lime Rock was a turning point,” she said. “When we won that race, it gave me the confidence boost I needed. I think it showed the team I was capable of doing this and that put a little bit more pressure on. Sure, I can handle pressure, but I can’t handle stress. When we won Lime Rock, I felt like, ‘Yeah, we can win this championship.’”
Hagler gives special credit to Lewis, who won the 2019 TCR championship with Mark Wilkins in a BHA Veloster. Coupled with the championship won by Gabby Chaves and Ryan Norman last year, it’s given the team three straight TCR driver and team titles.
“Michael has been great,” Hagler said. “He’s been very patient with me. He has definitely taught me a lot. I’m not the most positive person. One of the things he has taught me is positivity. He says, ‘You know what you’re doing. Get out there and you will be fine.’”
And Lewis was fine letting the spotlight of this championship shine on his teammate.
“This was a 50-50 effort – she does her job and I do mine,” Lewis said. “We did this as a team. To have a female driver win a championship is pretty awesome. It makes me feel good because I was part of the team to make it happen.”