The ‘ST’ of ST Racing, Samantha Tan has been racing since she was 16 years old, and already has an impressive resume to her name after campaigns in the Canadian Touring Car Championship, the World Challenge, and the GT4 America Series. And in 2021, this young Canadian and her eponymous team are aiming for championship glory once again in their first-ever endurance racing program together.
“Wait, your first go on-track was in a Ferrari when you were 13?!”
“Yep! I sat in a 458 Challenge and a Pro driver took me round [Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant], so that was my first go in a race car. But I did get to drive a 458, the regular streetcar, when I was 13 on-track. So technically that was my first track experience. It was pretty crazy!”
We’re one question in and this particular scribe can already tell this isn’t going to be your standard ‘Who Am I?’ series interview. For starters…well, yes, the whole ‘driving a Ferrari at 13’ thing, but on top of that, the collection of performance weapons Samantha Tan has experienced, regularly, in her 23 years is something of an eye-opener.
Back in the early 2000s, a young Samantha rode shotgun to school aboard father Kenneth’s BMW E36 M3 (“I’d always tell him from the passenger seat to keep going faster and faster!”). At age 12, Kenneth began teaching his daughter the basic fundamentals – turns out drifting your electric Power Wheels Jeep when you’re five years old will only get you so far – and at age 15, Samantha had her first official driving lesson in a stick-shift, 335bhp BMW 1M, a vehicle she still drives to this day.
Oh, and if you thought that Ferrari Driving Experience in Quebec was Samantha’s only experience of the evocative prancing horse, think again: in 2018, she celebrated the coming festive season by drifting a 789hp 812 Superfast around her family’s newly delivered Christmas tree.
Safe to say then that ST Racing namesake Samantha Tan, who starts her first full 24H SERIES campaign in 2021, has always had a passion for all things cars and motorsport. An enthusiasm inspired by her father Kenneth.
“My dad is a Ferrari fan, so he has a few in his collection, but we’re both car fans and race fans,” Samantha continues. “Even as a kid, I was just a daredevil and a speed demon – certainly my mom thought that! – and he would always take me to track days. My dad is a big part of that [enthusiasm] and here’s my biggest influence.”
Fast forward to March 2014, and Samantha, just five months shy of her 17th birthday, was on the grid at the Virginia International Raceway for her first-ever race. It was a solid showing too: Samantha, by this time a graduate of the Jim Russell Racing School at Mont-Tremblant, finished 4th despite having no previous racing experience to fall back on, not even in go-karts.
Perhaps more notable though, even with her Ferrari 458 Challenge-donning resume and the 1M daily driver ensconced in the garage, Samantha’s VIR debut took place at the wheel of a ’91 Honda Civic. Bit of a fall from grace, isn’t it…?
“At the time, my coach wanted me to learn how momentum works, and not to just put the power down. So I very much started from the bottom learning the basics. And it was a little daunting: I remember when I first got into the Civic, I wasn’t used to having no systems at all – no traction control, no ABS – and that was pretty scary! But you get used to that quickly.
“I agreed with my coach’s decision, to learn how lower-powered cars drive, but, definitely, because I’d already driven a Ferrari and a couple of BMWs, that was my motivation to keep pushing and to keep learning.”
With the requisite six races in the National Auto Sport Association in the bag, a run that even included a couple of podiums (“I actually podiumed on my first weekend at VIR, 3rd in-class”), a still 16-year-old Samantha signed up for a full campaign in the Canadian Touring Car Championship for the remainder of 2014.
The ’91 Civic was benched in favour of a 2010-spec MINI Cooper S JCW, and it proved a solid season. The native Ontarian completed 13 of the 14 CTCC races she started and even finished inside the overall top 10 on a couple of occasions en-route to 5th in the 22-strong ‘Touring’ category.
“I was also Rookie of the Year, so overall it was a really good season. I had a great team” – Montreal-based Team Octane – “and they were running four or five cars, all with the same spec, so I had a lot of data to go over and discuss with my engineers.
“And everyone was actually very nice. I think at the beginning of the season, I was mostly sticking with my own team, but as the year went on, I started talking more and more with the other drivers, crew members, etc. There was a lot more camaraderie after that.”
One year later, in one of four ‘guest’ appearances with Octane that season, Samantha took her maiden CTCC class podium around the streets of Toronto, about an hour south of the family home in Gormley. By then though, attention had already turned to the World Challenge with reigning TCA-class champion, Kinetic Motorsports. Across another impressive year with an equally precipitous learning curve, Samantha finished in the top five in-class four times on her way to 6th in the TCA standings.
Admittedly, it was not the smoothest of seasons. Alongside, what would turn out to be, a brief switch back to front-wheel drive machinery with the Kia Forte Koupe, mechanical woes eliminated the Toronto(ish) native from all three races on her debut weekend at the Circuit of the Americas. The step up in competition from the CTCC took a mental toll as well, one all too familiar with any young driver climbing motorsport’s gruelling career ladder…
“I think when I moved to [the World Challenge], the sense of competition was a lot higher than in the CTCC. And that was one of my biggest problems, thinking about all these other drivers who have so much more experience and wondering, ‘how am I going to beat them?’
“I wasn’t very confrontational in the paddock either. But on-track, I learnt their behaviour quite quickly, so I knew how to deal with them during a race. Basically every weekend I was learning, about the car, about the track, and about my competitors.
“I still struggle with that today – it’s a lot better than it was – and I think being one of the younger people in the paddock, worrying that people won’t treat me the same way or with respect, or will think I’m a push over… it all inspires me to prove my doubters wrong.”
A sophomore year in 2016 – now in a ‘Samantha Tan Racing’ run Honda Civic with father Kenneth as team manager – yielded another 6th in the TCA standings come season’s end. There was even time for one last CTCC cameo at Belleville in a Ste Rose Honda Racing Civic Si.
For a solid if slightly underwhelming 2017, the now renamed ‘ST Racing’ made a step up to the TC class with a pair of BMW M235iRs, but 2018 would prove the turning point in the young Ontarian’s budding endurance racing career. Now sharing a BMW M4 GT4 with new teammate, and former three-time CTCC class champion, Nick Wittmer, Samantha secured her first category podium in the World Challenge on her maiden weekend in the SprintX GTS division.
Understandably, during her chat with CREVENTIC, Samantha is quick to point out the significance of the team that bears her initials towards this success: the crew’s efforts in 2018 for example helped one-off teammate Aurora Straus secure two GTS Am category wins that year aboard the sister M4. Samantha does admit though that her driving style more readily suits the BMW M4 and the GT4 class in particular.
“Honestly, I think GT4 racing suits me. As you move up the classes, the quality of racing is definitely much higher. I think people are more respectful, and obviously it costs more money so you need to be more cautious!
“We just have a really, really great team. There’s a lot of experienced members and there’s always a lot of talent in our driver line-ups. It also helps that we’re friends off-track, and that camaraderie has helped put ST Racing right up there and helped us produce great results.”
Of course, few at ST Racing could predict just how wide open the metaphorical floodgates would creak in 2019. In the rebranded GT4 America Series, the Canadian team took three class wins in the opening four races, new ST Racing running mates Harry Gottsacker and Jon Miller adding three more wins and three runners-up spots thereafter to secure a commanding title win in the West Pro-Am Cup. Samantha, now teamed with former TCA-class champion Jason Wolfe, added seven more class podiums to her World Challenge tally to finish a comfortable runner-up in the standings.
Expectations were high then, despite a general lack of endurance racing experience, when the Canadian team rolled up for its first ever 24-hour motor race at the Hankook 24H COTA USA in November 2019. The first stop on, what Samantha Tan hopes will be, the Road to Le Mans.
“I’ve been sprint racing my entire career, but my end goal is to be at [the 24 Hours of] Le Mans. It’s one of the top races you can compete in, it’s always been a goal, and the 24H SERIES is a great transition to endurance racing.”
There’s a momentary pause before Samantha, suddenly inspired, jumps back in…
“…actually let me rephrase that! Formula 1 used to be the goal – I did get to drive a formula car once and Ayrton Senna is one of my favourite drivers – but after competing in sports cars for most of my career, I think it’s a platform that’s more fitting for me. Also, I think European racing is very intense, and it would be an amazing experience to go over there and race.”
With 2019 ST Racing regulars Samantha, Gottsacker and Wolfe sharing driver detail with Anthony Lazzaro and John Boyd, the BMW M4 GT4 made an impressive start to the Hankook 24H COTA USA by securing 4th place on the grid in its category. The AmeriCanadian quintet had even opened up a three and a half-minute advantage in ‘GT4’ as the race went into its traditional overnight intervention, aided, it must be said, by Samantha adapting quickly to tyre management, extended stints at the wheel, and, crucially, driving in the dark.
“Doing multiple stints was probably the biggest thing for me: during my [World Challenge] races, it would be 30 minutes and done for the day! So to be in the car for an hour, an hour and a quarter – I think that’s how long our stints were – was definitely different from a mental and physical standpoint as well. In endurance racing, it’s not just about having the fastest times: in sprint racing, you can hit all the kerbs and be really rough with the car, but when you’re running a 24-hour race, you have to be more precise, consistent, and prioritize the preservation of the car.
“COTA was my first time racing at night too. And that was an experience: being almost blinded by lights in the mirrors as cars come by; the limited amount of visibility, especially on some stretches of the track where they don’t have the overhead lights. But I think I adapted pretty quickly and I had a lot of fun.”
Ultimately, Samantha, Gottsacker, Wolfe, Lazzaro and Boyd gave everyone at ST Racing plenty to celebrate at COTA by securing the team’s first 24H SERIES class podium on its 24-hour debut.
Well, when we say ‘everyone’…
“I actually missed the podium ceremony! I was still in university and I had an exam the next day that my professor would not budge about, even though I told her I was registered for a 24-hour race that weekend! So I had to fly out right after the race unfortunately.” – Samantha has since graduated from the University of California Irvine with a degree in Economics – “But I was so proud of the team, and very proud that we came 3rd in our very first 24-hour race. It was sad that I couldn’t be there for the podium but Sabrina [D’Amico], our logistics manager, went up for me.”
With no time to rest on its, presumably, weary laurels, the ST Racing M4 was immediately shipped to the United Arab Emirates for the Canadian team’s first international event, the 2020 Hankook 24H DUBAI. And once again, the BMW’s pace was eye-catching: on a circuit at which he’d never competed before, a returning Nickolas Wittmer, who joined the now-four driver line-up alongside Samantha herself, John Boyd and Jon Miller, put the #438 M4 on ‘GT4’ class pole position. At quarter-distance in Dubai, the BMW was still battling away for 3rd.
Race-ending levels of rain at the Dubai Autodrome unfortunately meant the 15th annual Hankook 24H DUBAI was unable to restart, and after just seven hours of racing, ST Racing, having gone off strategy to the GT4 frontrunners, was eventually classified 7th. As far as Samantha’s concerned, it’s an unrepresentative result, with another class podium, and maybe even a win, having been on the cards in the UAE.
“There was definitely more potential in Dubai. Our strategy was to run me and John Boyd during the daylight hours, and then Nick [Wittmer] and Jon [Miller], as our two faster drivers, would do all of the night sessions back-to-back for six or seven hours. I’m pretty confident we would have been on the podium. I’d even like to say we could have won, but that just gives us motivation to come back in 2021 and do it all again.
“I was actually in the car when it started raining. It was crazy to say the least, to see all the water flooding turn three all the way to turn six. I actually cut T6 at one point because I couldn’t see the track anymore!”
An (ahem) ‘fraught’ year meant Dubai would be ST Racing’s sole outing with CREVENTIC in 2020, though the Canadian team did follow-up its 2019 title win in the GT4 America Series by securing the Teams’ championship in the SprintX Silver division as well. For 2021 though, all focus is on ST Racing’s first-ever endurance racing campaign in the 24H SERIES. And unsurprisingly, championship gold is on Samantha Tan Racing’s radar.
“Definitely the previous experiences we had with CREVENTIC, as well as my own personal goals, helped our decision to do the full season. It’s a great calendar with a lot of incredible tracks, especially Spa-Francorchamps, which is a dream track I’ve always wanted to go to. Plus, all the seat time we’re going to get and the overall experience is a big incentive, both for myself as a driver and for the crew in terms of strategy and race prep.
“We’re definitely aiming for the GT4 championship, the Junior Cup, and the Ladies Cup. And a lot of podiums! After that, who knows? Hopefully we’ll be racing for a long, long time together.”
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba, Samantha Tan Racing,and Luca Scarfone