DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After back-to-back years of poor results at Daytona Int’l Speedway, KohR Motorsports finally was given a reason to celebrate.
Finishes of 23rd in 2018 and 27th in 2019 in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Grand Sport class followed the team into 2020, and the odds seemed stacked against them once again this year.
In a surprising announcement the week before the season-opening BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona last month, the longtime Ford competitor made a switch to Aston Martin, so much so even the team was surprised at the decision.
However, a closer examination of Aston Martin’s ladder system caught the eye of Mike Stacy and his 20-year-old son Nate, the latter of whom has driven with KohR and co-pilot Kyle Marcelli since his IMSA debut in late 2017. The team had brief conversations about the Aston Martin previously, but nothing extensive until learning more about the marque’s driver development program.
“The topic of the Aston Martin came back, especially with Aston Martin debuting the GT3 program,” said Team Owner Dean Martin. “Aston Martin does have a Driver Academy, and there are a lot of opportunities with the Aston. We talked about it, and I said to Mike, ‘Let’s sleep on this and wake up tomorrow with a clear head and fresh eyes after we’ve really had some time to think about it and then decide.’
“Around about 10 in the morning, I got a text to me, Nate, Kyle and one of our other guys that said, ‘Welcome to our new Aston Martin program for 2020.’ That’s when my life went sideways. You know, we were coming up on the holidays. We hadn’t even spoken to Aston Martin about being able to get a car.”
In an ironic twist, KohR hadn’t planned to run at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 At Daytona test on Jan. 3-5, but only because they still had their Ford Mustang GT4 and the car’s data from past years. They wound up not attending because they wouldn’t take delivery of their new Aston Martin Vantage GT4 until Jan. 9.
A handful of testing days in the next two weeks would be all the drivers and teams would have before racing at Daytona. But it was enough.
Stacy would go on to qualify the No. 60 “Race for RP”-liveried Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the fourth position and between him, Marcelli and the team’s work in the pits, KohR held on to a fifth-place result.
“Coming into Daytona, it was a big question mark on if we had a long-distance car, and I think considering the small amount of testing we had, it went spectacularly,” said Stacy. “The car ran smoothly, and we had a clean, solid finish for our first race of the season. Compared to the last two years of my IMSA career, this is the best I’ve ever finished Daytona. Starting the season off with 26 points instead of 8 could be a serious game changer.”
Marcelli echoed his co-drivers sentiments, as especially the 2018 race at Daytona continues to haunt KohR.
“We are pretty thrilled to start the season with a top-five because we have left Daytona the past two years with a DNF, and that makes for a long season of playing catch up,” said Marcelli. “We were able to rebound pretty quickly in 2018 and go on to finish second in the championship, but in 2019, we struggled to just get back inside the championship’s top-five by the end.”
While they did squeeze in to finish fifth in the standings by eight points, this year’s race at Daytona makes it a little easier to go after the 2020 championship. Also, making it more accessible is how the transition to the Aston Martin has been an overall positive experience.
“Switching to the Aston Martin has been amazing so far,” Stacy explained. “I couldn’t ask for much more support from the factory, and I have to thank the guys from KohR Motorsports for being so adaptable with all the new challenges. The Aston is a very user-friendly car, finding the limit isn’t too difficult. It’s just a matter of maximizing its strong suits.”
“The Aston is a very well built and well-engineered car, especially as a race car, it’s very easy to work on,” Martin agreed. “Learning the little nuances that this car likes is the challenge. It responds well to changes, and the electronics are extremely well engineered and designed.
“As the year progresses and we’ve got to work on the car more and more, we’ll learn it. We’ve got a great group of guys with a lot of experience, so it hasn’t been very difficult. But in fairness, we haven’t had any real challenges with the car to date.”
With the team’s dark cloud of Daytona turned bright, they are focused on the upcoming races and securing a title. As far as which rung Stacy is at in Aston Martin’s ladder system, Martin speaks highly of the one he’s on.
“If you’re trying to progress your career in racing, Pilot Challenge is the only place to be,” said Martin. “You’re racing against the most talented guys, and even some of these guys are (IMSA) WeatherTech (SportsCar Championship) drivers and WeatherTech pros. The depth of talent in the Pilot field is pretty significant. In my opinion, if you’re going to develop as a driver, this is where you need to be.”