A little team out of Austin, Texas, has been making waves in the early stages of IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. The folks at Gradient Racing aren’t the most well-known members of the paddock, but they’ve given the GT Daytona paddock a reason to take notice after playing an interesting behind-the-scenes role to uplift Kenny Habul’s SunEnergy1 Mercedes-AMG GT3 program (pictured above).
Led by team manager and engineer Andris Laivins, Gradient has taken a temporary step back from fielding its Acura NSX GT3 to serve as the operation behind Habul’s effort and so far, the relationship has been a big success. The arrangement is also somewhat different than what Laivins and his colleagues originally envisioned.
Gradient will continue racing its Acura in a few weeks, but as an overarching theme, the team was not formed with the intent of being a shadow service provider to others on pit lane. And yet, thanks to the unique opportunity presented by Australia’s Habul to keep Gradient busy under the SunEnergy1 banner while it readies its NSX GT3, the relationship is flourishing.
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“The deal with Kenny came together out of some work we did with them last year where we supported their Intercontinental GT appearance at Indy, and that went pretty well,” Laivins told RACER. “But it was a struggle because it was a new car that they’d received just the week before the race. And so we spent a lot of effort just getting everything in shape for race day. And it went pretty well. And that snowballed into some opportunity for this year to help them out. They’ve got all the right equipment and assets and some really good people that are there, but they don’t have the full roster of all the warm bodies required to go do something like the Rolex 24 At Daytona.”
While the SunEnergy1 Mercedes didn’t win on its debut with Gradient, it finished a fine second in GTD and gave the program a huge boost to start the season. With superb Canadian talent Mikael Grenier partnered with Habul in the No. 75 AMG GT3, and a decent run to ninth at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, the duo hold fifth in the standings, sandwiched between formidable entries from Pfaff Motorsports and Turner Motorsport.
Andris Laivins. Image courtesy of Gradient Racing
“So we were happy to jump in again and continue with Kenny this year, and I felt a little bad because I had to keep them on a little bit of a long leash because we were hoping to be able to run our own program for the full season,” Laivins said. “Kenny was superb in that regard. Then he said, ‘Yeah, figure out your own stuff. If you can help us, then awesome. We’d love to do it together.’
“It ended up working out. And at Daytona, the race went about as good as it could have gone. So, it’s funny, I pulled Kenny aside after the weekend and I said, ‘Look, man, this was awesome. We’re all super happy. We want to keep doing stuff together. But I can promise you this isn’t just going to keep happening over and over again!’” And he’s been awesome to work with.”
The lofty place they’ve reached in the GTD championship will change once the next race, due in May at Mid-Ohio, is completed. Although SunEnergy1’s plans for the season have yet to be announced, the No. 75 Mercedes is unlikely to be seen outside of IMSA’s endurance rounds.
It means Gradient will fill the sprint race void with the No. 66 Acura, and when the championship-winning ex-Meyer Shank Racing machine rolls out at Mid-Ohio, Laivins hopes the speed they’ve shown with Habul’s program continues with their own.
“This will be the first time we’ve run the Acura on the same tire for two seasons, so we’re exited by what we’ve learned with the Michelins and have Till Bechtolsheimer and Marc Miller back to continue in the NSX GT3,” he said. “Going and running a different car with a different group of people at a big race like Daytona, it was a big opportunity for us. I think it was good for the team to just understand that we’re doing a good job. It’s easy when you’re finishing in ninth place all the time to think that you’re not doing stuff right. It was definitely a refresher to show up and be able to put on the performance that we did.
“We absolutely want to run our own native race program and have it be absolutely top notch. We would love to be viewed as a viable candidate for factory programs as they come up. Over the years, we’ve bid on a couple and feel fine having not gotten them. We understand our place in the world. But the other thing we’ve tried to do aside from run a strong native race team is position ourselves quietly to outside entities as capable of doing other stuff. And that’s born some fruit. Certainly, Kenny’s program is an example of that. We’d love to do more.”
During the long break between Sebring and Mid-Ohio, Gradient — like most IMSA teams — have kept busy with side projects.
“We’re flat-out building Honda Civic TC cars for Honda Performance Development, and we’ve been trying to make sure everybody understands that we actually do a lot of stuff besides just show up and run cars on race weekends,” Laivins said. “We’ve got a very strong car-building aspect of our business. We take care of a lot of customer club race stuff. The Civic builds for HPD are something we’re really proud of because I think it’s a very, very good product and HPD has made it an incredible value.
“And so we are actively pursuing more of that type of business because we have the capability to do turnkey stuff that just totally hands a product off to a manufacturer. We’re doing a little bit of support work on some of the Multimatic Ford GT Mark II track cars, which has been fun. Those cars are just incredible machines. I mean, anytime we have one in our shop, it just takes your breath away. Throughout all this COVID mess, our business has become more diversified and we have a few things going on besides just being a racing team. I think that’s been helpful to us, and we haven’t had the chance to get bored while waiting for Mid-Ohio.”