NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Phil Allaway)

Beyond the Cockpit: Sean Rayhall on HART, ELMS & Working With John Falb

Sean Rayhall‘s career has had an interesting trajectory. He’s been all over the place from Saturday night short track racing to INDYCAR’s feeder series and sports car racing in Europe. Last year, he and co-driver John Falb won the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) LMP3 championship for United Autosports.

For this season, Falb and Rayhall will be back in the ELMS to defend their title.  In addition to their regular schedule that starts in April, Rayhall is also dipping his toes into GT racing for the first time. At Daytona, the two teammates joined up with Honda of America Racing Team (HART) to drive the No. 69 Acura NSX GT3 alongside Ryan Eversley and Chad Gilsinger. During the weekend in Daytona, Rayhall sat down with Frontstretch to talk about the team, his career and working with Falb.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch.com: You have somewhat limited experience in GT3 equipment as opposed to the prototypes you’re used to racing. What kind of changes do you have to make to your style to compensate?

Sean Rayhall: A car is a car. I’ve driven stock cars, IndyCars, dirt cars, formula cars, everything except GT3s. Adapting the driving style isn’t hard. The biggest thing is getting used to the brakes. With the ABS system, you lay into it so hard [to slow the car]. In a prototype, you’re always worried about locking up [the tires] and how your brake management is.

In [the Acura NSX GT3], you have ABS, so you just [stomp on them].  I think the trust factor for a prototype driver to be able to stomp on [the brakes can be tough.]  It’s one thing to do it and another to talk yourself into doing it all the time, knowing that you can just hit the crap out of the brakes and they’re not going to lock up.

In a prototype, if you hit the brake too hard, you flat-spot a tire and you’ll have to go through a whole ‘nother set of tires. That is the main, critical turning point where even John Falb can match me in attacking that brake pedal.

Allaway: Given the fact that you have ABS here, would it make it easier for you to go from a prototype to GT Daytona as opposed to GT Le Mans (GTE)?

Rayhall: I think a GT Le Mans car would be more of a middle ground. The translation from a prototype to a GT car is not a tough deal if you’ve been raised on downforce as a prototype driver.

If you’re raised as a GT driver (a specialist) and don’t have open-wheel experience in your career, or any kind of real downforce experience, it might be more of a struggle switching to a prototype.

Allaway: GT Le Mans have these light setups on the dash that show you when you’re locking up (and how much, if so).  Do prototypes have something similar?

Rayhall: The prototypes have a new dash system this year. Basically, there are side lights that will let you know when you’re on the edge of locking up. It gives you a pre-warning light, one when you’re at the minimum, then a lock-up light. It also gives you [a light] when the traction control is engaged when you’re coming up off the corner.

For example, I know the Ligier has those lights, as does the ORECA on the outside of their steering wheel dash.

Allaway: Speaking of your background, it is quite varied. You spent a couple of years running Legends cars at places like Atlanta Motor Speedway and Lanier. You did a little bit of Pro Cup at one point. Two years later, you were running Prototype Challenge. That’s a rather substantial shift. How did you make that jump?

Rayhall: I ran Skip Barber from age 12 to 14. I was pulled out of that by Jack Baldwin (former Trans-AM and IMSA GTU champion) because he thought that the opportunity was greater for NASCAR. He also knew that my parents really didn’t have much money.

Unfortunately, after we won a ton of races and we got the calls from all the big teams wanting to put me on development deals, we realized quickly that it’s the same thing. There are junior drivers buying themselves into these development programs for these big teams. You’d think that “oh, that guy just picked him up,” but it’s not really like that.

You have a performance contract set in stone if you do perform in this good equipment, which wouldn’t be very hard. But, we just didn’t have the funding to do that. I had a sponsor that had known me since I was young, Bob Corliss and Robert Talbott Clothing that wanted to take me back road course racing and had a visual to go to Europe.

So, I went and ran IMSA Prototype Lites for a year on a shoestring budget the way the sponsorship worked out.  Sure enough, I met Enzo Potolicchio (owner of 8 Star Motorsports). Enzo gave me a chance to run the last ALMS race (Petit Le Mans, 2013) in PC.  I showed up and finished second.

After that, I was set in the sports car mold. At one point, sports car racing was seen as a fall back plan, but it turned into my livelihood and how I make my living.

I thought I was going Indy Lights racing, but the money didn’t come through that was said to be there. As a result, I ended up out of the seat for five or six months.

Enzo called me up and funded me in order to say, “hey, let’s make this team look good so that we can get customers and get young kids to drive these Indy Lights cars.” I ended up winning a couple of races in a part-time schedule, which re-established whatever open-wheel career I had after Skip Barber. I had no testing and no real experience. I was just lucky to have really good engineers and good people around me.

I can say that there are one or two times out of the 15 teams I’ve driven for where I wasn’t really comfortable or didn’t have the right group. That’s what made me such a good pro at a young age. Just being blessed to be around good people.

Allaway: Last year, you and teammate Falb won the ELMS LMP3 championship.  Very competitive with 18 cars running full-time. Vast majority of the teams ran the Ligier JS P3 like you did, but your team was one of the few running a two-driver lineup. Was there an advantage derived from that?

Rayhall: I wouldn’t say it was so much an advantage as it was one less denominator to worry about. Basically, it opened up the drive-time for John.

John’s whole goal is to run Le Mans in LMP2. When he says “run Le Mans in LMP2,” it means to go there to win. So, our basis for everything we do around John and John’s career is to make him a better driver. As close to a pro-caliber driver as a bronze-rated driver can get.

So, by opening up that time and not having a third driver, John gets to practice more. It also serves more of a development purpose in his career because we were thinking [that we were going to be full-time] in LMP2 in 2018. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out, but we’re still happy to be back with United Autosports].

[Thanks to the two-driver] lineup, John has really stepped up and has become one of, if not the best bronze-rated driver in the United States and Europe. He stepped into the Acura here, had never run a GT car, and was one of the fastest bronzes right out of the box.  That says a lot about everything we’ve done with him since 2013 in developing him.

Allaway: Are you Falb’s personal driving coach?

Rayhall: I was John’s driving coach and turned into his co-driver, best friend and man in charge of shenanigans we get into. It’s a really good relationship. There’s a lot of trust here. It’s not really just a job to go to the track with him. I take a lot of pleasure in seeing John progress. I’m super excited at how much he’s come along since 2013. I think I opened up a door to allow him to really excel.

John’s come up to another level of driving in the past year. 2017 was a year of being there and proving it. 2018 is going to be the year that he gets to step up to a LMP2 car at Le Mans and be comfortable with it.

Allaway: By winning the ELMS LMP3 championship, doesn’t that come with an auto-invite to Le Mans?

Rayhall: We got the auto-invite, which United Autosports will use for their LMP2 program. It doesn’t technically go to the driver, it goes to the team. The team will keep that and try to run both cars this year instead of just one.

Right now, our plan to run the Le Mans Cup support race in LMP3. One thing we do try to do is not to get too scatterbrained. We’re going to be doing some LMP2 testing this year.  Yes, this GT thing is pretty cool, but this is January. After this, John’s going to be full-on just on the P3.

We don’t want him to do Le Mans too soon. We want to be in a situation where John’s running ELMS full-time and he’s comfortable enough from driving the car week in, week out so that when shows up to Le Mans, it’s nothing new.  I feel like this year would be premature if we’re going there to win.  It’s better to wait.

Allaway: HART’s schedule for this year is all four of the endurance races. Are you going to do the other three?

Rayhall: That’s a good question. We’ve talked about it. Right now, I’m signed up for Daytona and our main deal was, let’s get through Daytona. That’s our deal and I’m sure we’ll have talks next week after however this ends up.

There is a chance that you could see that. It’s a good opportunity [here] for me, but nothing’s signed and nothing’s committed. Just some small talk.

It’s a good program and Ryan Eversley’s one of my best friends. I feel really at home with these guys. You hear the stories about how these guys work for Honda on a weekly basis, but everyone’s highly motivated here. They’re really switched on.

 

Allaway: A number of the team members here helped with Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian last year. I believe that’s part of the reason why they’re so well prepared.

Rayhall: All these guys care so much about it. When they were at Shank, they had this bigger picture in mind. They weren’t looking at it like a part-time job. Once they got their hands on the Acura, they were studying it and making sure that they as mechanics/engineers, etc. were at the level that they needed to be to make this work.

Allaway: Given the fact that this is a team comprised mainly of Honda and Acura engineers, is it a different feel as compared to other squads?

Rayhall: Coming from short track and oval racing, that makes you a very team-oriented driver. You are the least of the variables that’s going to win a race. That’s what I was raised on.

That’s why [HART] is such a good fit. You step into some of these pro teams and you just stay in a driver role. You don’t hang out with the guys; you’re not really involved. This is like a full-circle team of that style where we have a very good relationship and good morale with all the mechanics, engineers and everyone. Ultimately, that is what’s going to pay off at this team.

Allaway: How are preparations for 2018 with United Autosports going?

Rayhall: The program’s looking good. We have the same engineer as last year, Gary Roberts-Shaw. He’s having some health issues right now and is having surgery in a couple weeks. As a result, we’re putting off testing to make sure he’s thereabouts.

To be honest, we ended last year looking really good and winning the championship, but I also know that there are things that we could have done differently as a team that would have made us even better.

We’ve compiled a list of where we can be better. Right now, we’re just cleaning up some small things so that we can be picture perfect, no bad days. If you have a bad day, it won’t look like one. Kind of like what happened at Spa. We got taken out at the start and fell back to 12th.  From there, we recovered and finished on the podium.

Things like that and cleaning up the mistakes is really what this year is about in order to go for another championship. It’s one thing to win it once.  It’s another to be able to stay there and repeat.

Allaway: What’s the atmosphere in ELMS like?

Rayhall: I would compare it to IMSA. When you go over there, the European fans are similar to the die-hard IMSA fans, except that’s as a whole. All the fans are energetic.

I would say that it’s pretty heavily watched. There are a lot more people than you can see. [The races] are streamed on the computer in America just like IMSA races are streamed on the computer in Europe. In Europe, the ELMS is very well covered. When you show up, it’s like going to Road Atlanta down Interstate 85. There are signs everywhere to let everyone know about the race, even when you’re landing at the airport two hours away, you’re hearing about it. It’s a big thing.

I like that and you don’t really get shoved off to the side like you might with NASCAR over here. There, it’s F1, and then the ELMS.  The FIA World Endurance Championship only comes once a year at best, so this is like their “second WEC.”

We have a lot of people like Vickie Millers that are huge supporters that come to every event. We’re able to gel with them, knowing the same faces.

Unfortunately for HART fans, Rayhall was not able to work out a deal to continue in the endurance races with HART. However, he has a new ride for this weekend. Last month, 3GT Racing announced that Rayhall will join regular drivers Jack Hawksworth and David Heinemeier Hansson in the No. 15 Lexus. With new sponsorship from Basecamp, Rayhall’s No. 15 will be red and chrome as opposed to the blue and chrome the team has used since the beginning of last season.

 

The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts is scheduled to start at 10:40 a.m. Saturday morning.  Coverage begins on FOX Sports 1 at 10:30 a.m., then shifts between FOX Sports 2 and FOX Sports GO.

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About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor. Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.