The significance of the achievement might just have been lost on Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt in the immediate aftermath. As Grisham embraced O’Meara-Hunt climbing out of her class-winning Aston Martin Vantage GT4 at the end of the opening round of the Pirelli GT4 America finale at Indianapolis, it was through blind adrenaline, joy, and victorious relief. In the moment, it probably hadn’t registered that the pair had just made history to become the first all-female crew to win with an Aston Martin in modern GT racing.
It seems hardly a week goes by when the Heart of Racing team doesn’t break new ground. As it continues to expand its multi-tiered motorsport programme, the US-based racing operation (which recently announced it will take works Aston Martin Valkyries to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2025) has added several layers of pioneering achievement along the way. Including Aston Martin’s first class win in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona back in January.
Through its motorsport programmes, Heart of Racing’s bedrock charitable foundation raises awareness, and funds, to help children with heart complications in the United States. That same philosophy of providing opportunity runs like a freshwater stream through all aspects of the HoR landscape.
The team was set-up by principal Ian James, who was given the opportunity to realise his vision by software magnate and philanthropist Gabe Newell. Running since 2020, the team has established championship-winning credentials in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, a competitive multi-car outfit in the leading SRO GT America series and has recently branched into the FIA World Endurance Championship.
So when James, who also manages a stable of drivers, was asked by his wife and daughter why HoR wasn’t putting resources into any female racers he found a typically innovative way to answer the call.
“It got me thinking,” says James, and after some head-scratching with all the team they came up with a contest to provide a fully paid drive for a female racer, culminating in a two-day shoot-out in Phoenix last November.
“I talked to Gabe and Yahn Bernier (another HoR benefactor) and that was the nucleus for it. There are a lot of marketing-led programmes out there, but to my knowledge no-one provides an opportunity that didn’t rely on social-economic backgrounds to some extent. For us, the three key criteria were talent, potential and personality. That need for budget, or to find sponsors… we just took that out of the equation.”
From more than a hundred applicants, nine were chosen for the shoot-out and in the end HoR had a difficult time picking between them. The team decided to run a car in the Pirelli GT4 America Am class for American driver Grisham and New Zealander O’Meara-Hunt.
“When Ian called, I wasn’t going to say no!” says O’Meara-Hunt, who embarked on her second season in cars this year. “The reason this programme is different is because they care. Ian has always done things with a purpose and HoR is like a family; once you’re in they truly care about your progression. Everyone has your back.”
Teamed with the slightly more experienced Grisham, who already knew most of the American tracks, the pair bonded quickly and progressed exponentially on-track.
“I think our friendship off-the-track helped us have a common goal, which is to do better for ourselves and each other,” says Grisham. “As a woman in the sport, growing up there were only really men around you. There is just a different dynamic between us, and we have a mutual understanding of what the other is going through. It bonds us in a different way.”
O’Meara-Hunt agrees: “Lots of people have commented on the strength of our friendship, and for me it was a new experience to have a female team-mate. It certainly made travelling around a new country a lot easier. We worked well together and sharing data and on-board footage, along with the coaching from HoR drivers (Roman de Angelis and James) as well as Gray (Newell’s racing driver son), helped me progress faster.”
Both drivers adapted to the Vantage GT4 – a car renowned for its competitiveness and driver complicity – very quickly and finished in the points from on the first race weekend at Sonoma.
Fast forward to the season finale at Indianapolis and the duo found themselves on the class pole for the double-header. “We’d got pole at Road America, a couple of rounds earlier, but for one reason or another, things didn’t work out,” said Grisham. “But we’d been to watch the IMSA team race at Indy a couple of weeks prior, and that circuit is a little more straight-forward than some we race at. Most of practice was washed out so we went into qualifying fairly cold, but everything just clicked.”
Grisham led the first race before handing over to O’Meara-Hunt, who duly completed the victory with a minimum of fuss. “It was my first win since I began racing cars,” she said. “Having my first ever win, being able to kiss the famous ‘Yard of Bricks’ at Indy, was really cool!”
Twenty-four hours later and the pair did it again in the second race, and this time they didn’t have it easy. “We didn’t have such a great start,” explains O’Meara-Hunt. “There was an accident that we had to avoid that cost us time and track position, and we just picked our way through the field, which was very cool. That showed we were resilient if things went wrong on track, which I’m proud of.”
The season is now over for both drivers, and Heart of Racing is faced with a difficult, if welcome decision for the next phase of its three-year plan. Does it build and develop on O’Meara-Hunt and Grishams’ winning potential or give the same opportunity to more aspiring talent? Whatever comes next, it is clear already that the programme works, and that with the obstacles that often block young drivers’ careers removed, Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt are winning on equal terms.
“I would love to continue with the HoR and Aston Martin,” said Grisham. “My ultimate objective is to make a career doing this. Ending the season on this high-note is a really great step forward. I’m hoping that we can build on the momentum we’ve picked up in the first season, and we know we can deliver consistently next year!”
Images by The Heart of Racing