Shea Holbrook is one of the most popular racers in Pirelli World Challenge, but last year her driving ambition took a back seat as she focused on being team boss. Yet, as David Malsher reports, that hard work paid off.
As media and fans, we’ve grown used to hearing and writing about young drivers who, for financial reasons, struggle to get a break in racing, or who get a break and then can’t keep the gig. We all sympathize with the talented ones, because they so often look and sound so lost. With them having dedicated their young lives to progressing their motorsport career, feeling it coast to a standstill often leaves drivers utterly bemused.
Shea Holbrook was never going to be one of them. Four years ago, she had enough money (though not a lot) to become a pay driver at an established team in the Pirelli World Challenge. Instead, she thought long-term and resolved to carry on weaving a career catch-net - namely, building her own team. She wouldn’t be at the mercy of team owners who could flick her away at season’s end if the funds ran out and/or sponsors couldn’t be found.
That’s not to say Holbrook’s career got any simpler, nor the financial burden any easier. Far from it. But at least she enabled herself to keep her destiny in her hands. If there wasn’t enough money for her to race, she could at least run the team.
I’m glad I did what I did, because to have longevity in the sport, I had to have something more than just being a racing driver
On the eve of the 2016 World Challenge season, Holbrook muses: “There were days – there still are – when I wonder what my career would look like if I had just taken the [sponsor] TrueCar funds and gone to another team rather than plow them into my own effort. Maybe my career would have escalated more rapidly.
“But my parents aren’t rich at all – I couldn’t just buy rides if and when TrueCar withdrew. I’d have been left with nothing. So I’m glad I did what I did, because to have longevity in the sport, I had to have something more than just being a racing driver. I’ve been doing this for seven years and the past four have been a multi-car effort.”
Sadly, she was rarely driving one of those multiple entries in 2015. Despite finishing second in Touring Car A (TCA) class in 2014, steering a Honda Civic Si, with five class wins to her credit, Holbrook was able to take part in just two PWC rounds last season, and scored a pair of third places. She did however, also campaign a jet-powered dragster…
She explains: “I knew my funds would be very limited last year and to stay relevant you’ve got to be in a car no matter what it is. So I felt the jet car would be beneficial to my personal brand and partners, plus I wanted to add to my skillset. It was the first time I had run on someone else’s team, so not only were there one or two driving aspects I could carry over to World Challenge, there were also business lessons I could learn.
“But aside from that, I spent 2015 pretty much just working on a 2016 World Challenge program. It was a year of constant emails and phone calls.”
Worth the effort
The earache and heartburn paid off. 2016 will see Holbrook and teammate Jason Fichter piloting a pair of new Honda Accord V6 Coupes in the main Touring Car class. The concept was easy to form; the execution was long and drawn out, as Holbrook reveals.
“It was natural to go to Honda,” she says. “We’re really happy with them and we’ve had tremendous success together in TC-A in the past. But what really put the wheels in motion for this team was a call from KONI [shock absorbers] in September. They wanted to meet with me at the SEMA Show in Vegas to talk about a technical partnership for 2016.
“Once we had KONI on board, I went to Eibach [suspension], StopTech [brakes] and HPD Honda Racing and said, ‘Listen, the shocks on the car are the second-most expensive item for us, so I can put together the rest of the funding to make it all come together.’ So then I just worked my ass off, and I’m delighted that Bubba Burger have come on board as my principal sponsor.
“As you can see, it’s not like I’m on sound financial footing, personally speaking – it’s down to others to support my racing addiction!”
Not just financially but also in terms of manpower. Aside from Holbrook herself, Shea Racing consists of her parents, her boyfriend and two fly-in crew guys. Shea handles the sponsorship hunting and PR side, while dad Jeff runs the team at the weekend and the team logistics at all times.
And Jeff applies a military-style dedication to duty. As a former search and rescue helicopter pilot for the Navy, he has a fascination with aviation to the extent that he once had a little homebuilt amphibious aircraft. That, however, was sold to help fund his daughter’s nascent career. And mom Erin has willingly - albeit wistfully - accepted that she lives at one of the few houses in Florida without a pool, because that money is needed to help fulfill her girl’s racing dream.
“Those are material things though,” Shea observes, “and I can and will repay those sacrifices as soon as I can. But there are other things you can’t buy or fix. I mean, racing costs you so much in time. I don’t know how many weddings and baby showers and funerals we’ve had to miss because we’ve been at the races or traveling to or from. Friends and family don’t always understand….”
Roots reflected in racecraft
Holbrook is honest enough to admit that, once upon a time, the fragility of her team’s structure had a negative effect on her driving. She found herself reining in her aggression, and this hurt her speed and results; bold 50/50 passing attempts or dancing on the knife-edge on a qualifying run… those sorts of heroics were for other people. She was all too aware of the financial price if the car came to grief.
She says: “One day a friend of mine who was doing some coaching said: ‘Listen, I know you’re thinking about costs and losing money that you don’t have, but in order for you to have success, you’ve got to get over that. You have to learn to take risks on track. If you don’t, you’re never going to break your own glass ceiling.’
“And I took that to heart. That was my epiphany. After that, I could feel my confidence was different. The risks were still calculated risks, but I wasn’t thinking about the ifs and buts or the dollars. It was just about controlling what I could control.
“Someone I respect totally – and I wish he was driving in the Touring Car division this year – is Jason Wolfe. He’s the guy I battled with for the 2014 TC-A title. He’s a quiet guy, and at first I only knew him on the track but we became friends because of how much fun we were having out there. Racing with him was a good lesson in how to do it right – we’d swap places back and forth but never once swapped paint. We were aggressive but showed each other respect."
With that change of philosophy, Holbrook became a regular winner. Her victory in the 2011 support race for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach had brought her to the attention of race fans. But it was 2014 when her rivals recognized her as a force who needed beating every time out. She just kept improving her craft.
“Over the course of that year, I really worked on putting down a qualifying lap, getting it done in three laps’ maximum. That hadn’t been a strong point previously, but I think that year I got six poles.”
Another Shea strength, and one that is quite rare in racing, is her ability to remain composed in action, while mentally beating herself up. When she spun into a tire wall on cold tires on the first lap at Mosport that year, she dropped from first to last in TC-A. “And last by a long way – like, half a lap behind,” she adds.
“I then drove like a madwoman, and being pissed with myself, I went into a different zone. I started running faster lap times than I had in qualifying, and on the final lap, with three corners to go, I made a move for third place and grabbed a podium finish.
“I’ve always loved watching [four time GT champion] Johnny O’Connell race when he’s pissed off, and we’ve called that Mosport comeback my ‘Johnny O drive.’ So anyway, I think that’s a positive quality – when I mess up, I don’t screw myself even further with another mistake. I mentally hit the reset button.”
And still the improvements continue for 2016.
“Something I can bring over from my drag racing is my reactions at standing starts,” says Holbrook. “I hit three 0.05sec lights [reaction time] in the jet car, and my average was 0.064, And that’s hard to do because a jet car doesn’t always work the same way twice. So I’m hoping that will play into my hands this year because of all the standing starts in Pirelli World Challenge.”
Back to the future
Without wishing to sound dismissive of the TC-A and TC-B runners, it is fair to say graduating into the main Touring Car class has upped the stakes for Shea Racing. In 2016, TC will contain 23 cars – Pirelli World Challenge’s largest class – and it of course has obliged the team to start over with a whole new package.
Says Holbrook: “The Honda Civic was a really strong little car – incredibly reliable, nimble and quick in a straight line by the [TC-A] class standard. Was it the best under braking or the best mid-corner? Hmmm. Depends on who you were racing against.
“Based off what we’ve found in testing, the Accord is wickedly fast – great power to the wheels. But it’s obviously bigger, heavier and the wheelbase is longer, so there’s a little bit more of a struggle there in terms of mid-corner power-down. But it’s not yet fully developed and we know we’ll have growing pains as we familiarize ourselves with it. There will be things we’re still learning at COTA this weekend, I’m sure.”
How the Accord will match up against the MX-5, I don’t know; our strengths will be in their weak areas and vice versa. But I’m thinking they'll be the biggest pain in our butt
Where Holbrook does have question marks is the introduction of Mazda MX-5 Cup cars to the Touring Car class.
“If you ask me, they don’t really belong,” she observes. “Touring cars should have two or four doors and have a back seat, which the MX-5 doesn’t. But it was a marketing decision, and I admit it would be fun to win against 23 cars rather than 15. How the Accord will match up against the MX-5, I don’t know; our strengths will be in their weak areas and vice versa. But I’m thinking they will be the biggest pain in our butt over the course of the season.
“At COTA this weekend, we have three long straightaways that will help us and play to our strengths. The point and squirt parts of the track will be more difficult, but I’m confident our partners have given me the best suspension/shock/braking system you can possibly have for the Accord.
“The hardest part will be front tire consumption – longer wheelbase, heavier car, front wheel drive, lots of power. I’m hoping my tire bill won’t exceed my budget although I’ve got a feeling it will…”
Nonetheless, Holbrook has high hopes for herself and new teammate Jason Fichter. Very high hopes, in fact.
“I’m not in this to finish third or something,” she states. “But I do recognize that even though it’s a Honda, even though we know what we’re doing, it’s still a new car so there will be things we can’t plan for and we’ll have to deal with. Having said that, I want Jason and I to be in the top five at COTA – I think that is attainable and realistic.
“In the long term, do I think it’s possible for us to win the championship? Absolutely. You don’t have to win every race to win the title. We go into the season with a mentality of 'stay in the top five, don’t make mistakes, go for wins when we can and bring the car home in one piece.'
“With that approach, I think the Touring Car championship is a realistic goal.”