Vasser Sullivan set to claim 1st major motorsports title. Team still eyeing return to IndyCar

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Vasser Sullivan started the IMSA sports car season strong enough that it was quickly apparent a championship was finally in reach for the Lexus factory program.

So when the No. 14 rolled into Canada in early July fresh off a win at Watkins Glen and podium finishes in four of the first five races, confidence was extremely high, especially after the team won the pole.

But the race didn’t go as planned, Ben Barnicoat went off course during the race, and the car finished fourth. Team owners Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan think it might have saved the season.

“We were on an absolute tear, Ben had an off, it was really unfortunate that it happened. However, Jimmy and I are really glad that it did happen because it was a wakeup call, to the two of us and to the team,” Sullivan said. “Because where we were at was controlling a championship, no longer just leading it.

“We no longer need extraordinary. We are no longer shooting to kill. We are waking up like someone is trying to take it away from us, so race accordingly, which is a very measured and disciplined way to approach racing. It’s the first time Jimmy and I had ever been in this position, and controlling a championship is not at all glamorous.”

And yet they’ve pulled it off.

Two years after leaving IndyCar to give their full focus on their growing sports car team, Vasser Sullivan will win its first major championship Saturday when Jack Hawksworth and Ben Barnicoat start the IMSA season finale at Road Atlanta. The No. 14 Lexus only has to start the race to clinch the GTD Pro title.

It’s been a long climb for Lexus, which had been successful in prototypes with 25 victories — including three consecutive Rolex 24 at Daytona wins — with Chip Ganassi Racing from 2004 to 2009. But a title had eluded the luxury automaker since it entered the GTD class when the RC F GT3 debuted in 2017.

Lexus tried a handful of alignments before Vasser and Sullivan came aboard in 2019. They took full control of the program ahead of the 2021 season — they left IndyCar, where they’d won the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with Tony Kanaan, at the end of that season — and have been immersed in the sports car series since.

Vasser Sullivan fields two Lexus entries, the No. 12 in the GT Daytona class and the imminent champion No. 14 car in GTD PRO.

“With Jimmy and Sulli, it was just different. They came to work right away, it wasn’t a hobby for them. It was a passion,” said Jeff Bal, senior manager of Lexus Motorsports. “They want to win and want to establish themselves and be part of the heritage.”

British driver Hawksworth, who has been part of the Lexus GT program since it launched in 2017, said that “it felt like a couple of times we were having to start fresh again” until Vasser and Sullivan took full control at the end of 2020.

“Before 2021 I remember the feeling that we were headed in the right direction,” Hawksworth said. “We were hiring good people, we were based in Charlotte and there’s a lot of talent there, so things were feeling really positive. But its been that core group and Jimmy and Sulli have just done an amazing job of adding to that and getting everybody to gel and taking us off the backfoot to a championship team.”

When they collect the title Saturday night, Vasser Sullivan can then begin discussing its future. The team owners have made no secret of their desire to return to IndyCar — Vasser was the 1996 CART champion, the first of 15 championships won by Ganassi — and have been hoping to convince Lexus parent Toyota to partner with them.

Any return would likely start with a one-off attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, which they’d love to do with NASCAR star Kyle Busch. Vasser Sullivan ran Busch in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2020. And, if the opportunity presented itself, Vasser Sullivan would like to compete in IMSA’s top class.

“Once we’ve won the championship and delivered to Lexus, then we can start responsibly exploring,” Sullivan said. “Exploring it before now was not fair to whomever we partner with (in IndyCar) and it wasn’t fair to our existing partners. When we’re in the hunt for a championship, it’s a distraction.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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