Ricky Taylor rolls into Sebring after huge breakthrough

There was just under seven minutes remaining in a 24-hour race when Ricky Taylor made the move that very well might define his career.

That Taylor was even in position to make the race-winning pass in the Rolex 24 at Daytona was an honorable notch on his resume. He got the nod to close out January's season-opening race over sports car ace Max Angelelli, four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and Taylor's brother, Jordan, who typically overshadows his older sibling.

So Taylor found himself with one small opening for a victory, and as he dove around the leader on the inside as they entered a turn, he made a move few thought he had in him. Why? Because Ricky Taylor is "the nice one" of Wayne Taylor's two sons. Jordan is "the funny one ,'' he's fast, and he gets a lot of opportunities that his older brother doesn't land.

Now 27 and in his 10th season racing at the top American level of sports cars, he understands the perception but believes people underestimate his aggression.

''I don't like people not to like me. I am a people pleaser and outside the car, I love racing and I love the relationships in the paddock,'' Taylor said. ''I love everything about motorsports. I just want everybody to be happy, but I also know it's big business, and it can't always be fun and games.

''If I never raced a car, I think I might be mistaken for weak or people would think I'm a pushover. But when I'm in that car, it's the one time for me to go for what I want.''

Taylor made that very clear at Daytona, and the perception in the paddock may be far different at Sebring International Raceway as Wayne Taylor Racing prepares for Saturday's prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring. It's the first IMSA SportsCar race since the team won at Daytona, and much has changed for Taylor in the two months since.

Ricky Taylor cemented his name at Daytona, and people are now taking notice.

Among those who wanted a closer look was Team Penske, which took Taylor to Homestead Speedway in Florida to help reigning IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud test. IndyCar allows a team one test so long as it uses a rookie, so some might have considered the selection of Taylor just an easy way to get Pagenaud some preseason seat time.

No way, said Penske.

''We don't give tests out of generosity,'' said Penske, who will know within months if he'll enter the SportsCar Series next year. ''It gave us a chance to look at him for the future, if we do a sports car program, he'd be a guy we'd consider.''

Penske noted that Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick have deep NASCAR organizations with young drivers and personnel, all developing at various levels before they move to the top Cup Series. He considers those organizations the model right now motorsports and wants to build his own bench.

''We always need to be looking down the road. If we can get him in a car, in our stuff, we can have a benchmark against our other guys.''

Taylor did the test, and his first time in an Indy car was one of the most stressful times of his life.

Pagenaud found Taylor a pleasant testing partner who showed up wanting only to help the team. Many times, a driver can take a similar test and turn it into a self-promoting tryout. Adding to the mix, it was Pagenaud's car and engine for the season-opening race at St. Pete. (Pagenaud finished second.)

''He could have been the selfish driver who looked at it, `I have an opportunity with Penske and I'm going to show them what I can do because I want that ride someday,''' the IndyCar champion said. ''But he went into it thinking about helping the race team. He drove perfectly, didn't make any mistakes, he was on pace very quickly and his feedback was fantastic. He's showed he's a very mature young man, and a great talent.

''I pushed him a little bit, and he enjoyed it because he's so humble. I enjoy working with someone so humble.''

Taylor will tell you that if nothing comes of his test with Penske, it will be OK. Sure he dreamt of fame and fortune as a race car driver, but at heart, he's Wayne Taylor's son and he loves the world of sports cars. The way life has turned since January has been a thrilling ride for Taylor, who for once is getting the some of the spotlight hogged by extroverted Jordan. It didn't help that Jordan has picked up a class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and is the one everyone talked about.

''This whole thing has been a confidence builder,'' Ricky said. ''Obviously, I am same the person. I didn't suddenly learn how to drive. It's just nice to have a sigh of relief to have a win under my belt, and my name is respected, to have that time at Daytona, it's a relief. A big sigh of relief for my career. Me and my brother have both proven ourselves independently of each other.''

Is that enough?

''If I spend the rest of my life racing sports cars, at this level, racing for wins, representing a great company (in General Motor), ''he said, ''that's all I could ever want. I'm lucky to be in that position.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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