Sean Rayhall walked away from professional racing in December and, at the time, had no plans to be back in a race car of any kind.
After years of being passed over for opportunities he hoped to attain and burned out in many different facets, the fun was gone and Rayhall was ready to focus on business ventures he hoped would shape his future.
Then, an old friend gave the 24-year-old native of Winston, Ga., a call — and just as quickly as he was gone from the racing scene, Rayhall was sucked back in.
“I was done. I was completely done when I walked away,” Rayhall told SPEED SPORT. “It wasn’t fun anymore; I wasn’t having fun and I was ready for a change because I felt like, if I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, then why do it, you know?
“I grew up ripping sheetrock out of walls and working in construction when I wasn’t racing because it was what I needed to do, but racing was always something I was passionate about. When I left at the end of last year, that passion wasn’t there anymore. It felt like a job more than it did something that I was doing because it was fun to do.
“I knew that if I was going to come back, I had to find something that would spark the same kind of passion for the sport that I had when I was a kid, and I found that when T.J. Michael finally called me.”
Michael, a longtime friend of Rayhall and his family, put a driving offer on the table. The only catch? It was a type of car that Rayhall — despite his diverse racing résumé — had never campaigned.
It proved to be enough of a lure, however, and Rayhall will be going sprint car racing for the first time this year.
The former Indy Lights winner and European Le Mans Series champion plans to compete in 15 to 20 winged sprint car events later this season. He’ll drive for the Michael Racing Group, a team Rayhall calls his “second family” and “a group that I can have fun with” as he jumps back into the driver’s seat.
“I helped T.J. in Legend Cars a little bit, years ago and I actually even took his older sister to Homecoming down in Texas, back in the day … so I’ve always been really, really close with the Michael family. I call him my little brother, but he’s taller than me now,” Rayhall joked. “They always knew that when I went back road-course racing, it was more to make a living, than it was necessarily to go racing. I enjoyed what I did for a while, but it just wasn’t for me. After a while, it didn’t fit my ideals anymore.
“We’d been talking and flirting with the idea of me driving one of their cars for a while, so when T.J. called me and asked what I thought, I told him, ‘Man, I want to go racing,’” added Rayhall. “Sprint cars have always been a passion of mine, even though I haven’t been able to race them full time or anything like that, but he and I talked about the idea and finally, we sat down to have dinner and decided that this just felt right to go and do.
“Sometimes, when it just feels right, you have to jump on an opportunity … and that’s how I feel about this deal.”
Rayhall, who celebrated his 24th birthday in March, has one of the most diverse racing résumés in the country, even though he’s still on the younger end of the age spectrum.
He started go-kart racing at age 7 and moved to bigger cars five years later, joining the Skip Barber Southern Series in 2007 before winning his first major race as a 14-year-old in 2009.
Rayhall added Legend Car championships at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010, as well as a class victory in the prestigious Legends Million at CMS before moving to late models and competing with the USAR Pro Cup (CARS Tour) and UARA-STARS Series in 2011 and ’12.
The following year, Rayhall began his six-year sojourn in sports cars and open-wheel formula cars, the stint of his career with which most fans are familiar. He claimed the L1 Class title in IMSA Lites during his debut season in 2013, later moving into Prototype Challenge competition with the American Le Mans Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
A short-lived Indy Lights stint that produced two victories in 2015 paved the way for a move to the European Le Mans Series, where Rayhall teamed with John Falb to collect the LMP3 class championship on the strength of two wins and five podium finishes in six events.
Rayhall even got the opportunity to run a Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car, sharing the seat with Charlie Kimball during a test at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, but opportunities to advance to the top level of open-wheel racing in the United States never panned out for Rayhall.