AO Racing came into professional sports car racing with force in 2023, and quickly became a fan favorite along the way with its liveries and drive. Now the team heads into its sophomore season of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with an increased presence and preparing for a step up in competition. Like some dinosaurs evolved into birds, the team that spawned Rexy is evolving as well
Founded by PJ Hyett, a relative newcomer to this level of the sport but a passionate collector and docent of the sport’s history, and Gunnar Jeannette, whose resume in sports car racing is long and distinguished, AO Racing stepped into the fire of GTD in 2023. Hyett teamed with Sebastian Priaulx for the full season, Jeannette joining in for the endurance races. In addition, the team partnered with Project 1 for a full season of WEC GTE-Am competition.
The team held its own in the WeatherTech Championship, but it was the liveries and accoutrements that really ignited a spark among the fans. Making its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the team rolled out its Porsche 911 GT3 R in a retro Swap Shop design, a tribute to the legendary 1983 Daytona-winning T-Bird Porsche 935 that Hyett now owns and for which Jeannette’s father Kevin was the crew chief. But it was the Rexy dinosaur livery, transforming the car into a GT3 “Rawr,” that the Porsche wore from Sebring through most of the season (and at certain races became the pink dinosaur, Roxy), that got a younger generation of fans excited. Combined with the team’s paddock area transforming into a scene out of Jurassic Park – with friendlier T-Rexes – the them was elevated during autograph sessions through the season.
Rexy occasionally appeared as Roxy. Motorsport Iamges
“The inspiration was my kids wanted to do something fun with the helmet,” explained Hyett of Rexy’s origins. “Gunnar’s buddy figured out how to translate that design to the car and it looks phenomenal. But Gunnar is really the mastermind behind all the marketing.
“We’re having fun with it and the fans are responding to that. So it’s just sort of this nice, self-reinforcing positivity circle where we’re having fun, the fans are having fun … so we want to have more fun and do more fun things. That’s great for us, because it gives us another reason to be excited to come come to the racetrack every weekend.”
Certainly a reason guys like Hyett spend their money in motorsport is because racing is fun. But almost every racer will tell you that racing is more fun when you’re winning. AO didn’t achieve that in 2023, but few teams do in their rookie season in a championship and class as competitive as IMSA GTD. The lack of victories, however, doesn’t quell the sense of pride over what they’ve accomplished so far.
“Lots of new things this year, the largest one for us being this entity, AO racing, right?” said Jeannette. “We really didn’t officially know that we were starting an IMSA race team until late August, early September of last year. And we were in … what Adam Wareing, our crew chief and sort of head guy that that helped us put all this together, termed as sort of miracle mode to get to Daytona.
“While the results haven’t been what we wanted for a good part of the season, the thing that I’m happiest about is the team and the organization and the people that we have here. I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in professional motorsports, in one way or another, basically all of my life. And this is one of the best programs that I’ve ever been with, and definitely some of the best people. So we’re really looking forward to building this out into a long-term, successful program.”
AO, like other teams running the car, struggled a bit with the new 992-generation 911 GT3 R. Daytona was rough for all the Porsche teams, but it got better as the season went on. During the latter part of the season, AO was usually in the top half of the field, and just missed a top-five finish at VIR.
“The brand-new 992 GT3 R has been a challenge – normal new car stuff that we’re trying to figure out. And then also a brand-new team. So we’ve got a lot of moving parts that are all brand new this year. But we hired a lot of people that knew what they were doing. So we we’ve been working hard at trying to not just make a splash, but also perform well on the track. So in some sense, it’s been a very, very long season. It’s been the longest, shortest year of my life,” declared Hyett.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he decided to double down for 2024. The GT3 Rawr is moving to GTD Pro with Priaulx and Laurin Heinrich at the wheel for the full season. Hyett is moving to LMP2 with Paul-Loup Chatin, the French driver who took this past season’s LMP2 title with Ben Keating.
AO Racing wasn’t the only Porsche team to contend with typical new car teething troubles. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images
“It’s a piece of cake compared to getting ready for this year. Not worried about it,” Hyett laughs before Jeannette chimes in: “I wouldn’t say that’s my comment.”
“I like to trivialize a huge amount of work in order to run a two-car program just like I trivialized getting the car ready for Daytona last year,” Hyett continued, with a chuckle from Jeannette. “It’s a ridiculous amount of work. There was a confluence of things that happened, one being the lack of a [FIA driver rating] Bronze mandate in the GTD class. I wanted to be more competitive and P2 was the place to go do that.
“But we feel like we’ve created something extraordinary with Rexy and the fans’ response to that, and I wasn’t prepared to retire that that happy, loving dinosaur for all of the IMSA fans out there. So figuring out how to put two cars together is a massive undertaking, but I think we are capable of doing that and we can make it happen.”
Hyett’s confidence comes from the team that he and Jeannette have put together. Both say they are proud of what the team has accomplished in its first year, and that all comes down to the people.
“A race team is the sum of its parts,” stated Jeannette. “And both Adam [Wareing] and myself had sort of ‘retired’ from racing. You know, I spent a long time with WeatherTech, and David [MacNeil] offered me a position inside of the company. And I was doing that for a number of years. Adam was one of the key people in CORE Autosport, which turned into the Porsche factory program in North America. And for us to sort of want to do this on our own. you have to have the right people involved because it’s a lot of hard work.
“You’re away from your home and family a lot of the time so you better enjoy the people that you’re you’re being around and trust in them. And so that’s been a big sort of heart and ethos and philosophy of what we’re creating here.”
AO Racing’s freshman season has been full of challenges, some of them easy to overcome, others much more difficult. The definition of success for an established race team is usually victories and championships. For a new team, quantifying achievement is much more difficult. But each obstacle conquered adds another check mark to the chart, and elevates the collective knowledge of the team. That growing arsenal of information makes the team stronger, Hyett declares.
“The season itself has been such a massive undertaking for us,” he said. “We run into problems all the time, and to kind of work through them is, I think, the biggest thing we’ve been able to overcome as a new organization, just like being able to knock them down one at a time. I’ve made my own mistakes behind the wheel, we’ve made mistakes outside of the car. Just trying to figure out how to work them through, one by one, to make the team stronger and better and more efficient.
“So that hopefully gets all reflected on the track. I think that’s been the biggest challenge for a new team. Again, we have a lot of experienced people on the team. But it’s still guys who haven’t necessarily worked together before, whether it’s the drivers or the crew themselves. So trying to make it all work cohesively as a unit, it has been a challenge. But I think our success on track … the results will come for sure, based upon how well the team has started to really click towards the end of the season.”
Beginning in January, AO Racing will have twice as many chances to show that, or to learn new lessons.