Meet the upstart Canadian team shaking up the endurance racing circuit
If you’re a sports-car racing fan who hasn’t yet heard Samantha Tan’s name, it’s time to pay attention. The young Canadian has been racing for a few years already and her eponymous team, ST Racing, has recently posted major wins on the global stage.
I was introduced to Samantha when she was a teenager just beginning to embark upon her career as a racing driver. Perhaps her love of cars and driving was inevitable, as the daughter of a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast, but she has clearly developed an automotive passion all her own. Samantha began racing Minis in the Canadian Touring Car Championship in 2014 and soon took on challenges south of the border, competing in Pirelli World Challenge the following season in a Honda Civic.
Early on, Samantha also drove my team’s Honda Civic in the National Auto Sport Association’s Performance Touring E category, getting more wheel-to-wheel seat time in a quick front-driver and working with Sam Myers, a Honda racing specialist who’s now a spotter for big IMSA teams like Pfaff Motorsports.
While my team’s Civic is likely now eligible for vintage racing, in the mid-2010s it had a proven pedigree, the knife-edge balance of a quick front-driver, and a similar power-to-weight ratio to Samantha’s pro-racing Civic. Driving our Honda for those few races in NASA gave her critical front-wheel-drive racing experience as well as a preview of the circuits at which she’d later compete in Pirelli World Challenge.
As Samantha gained more experience, she moved up the sports car ladder, driving for Kinetic Motorsports in its Kia Forte Koup, again in Pirelli World Challenge. To successfully compete in the top levels of motor racing, however, she had to be fluent in the language of rear-wheel-drive race cars.
With what could be described as perfect timing, BMW introduced the M Motorsport-built, competition-ready M235i, which especially was appropriate because Samantha had been daily driving a 1M (she still does). Now 23, she divides her time between studying at University of California Irvine while dedicating considerable effort to training as a professional racing driver.
Ken Tan, ST Racing team principal and Samantha’s father, has a passion for BMWs, so the fact that Samantha motors around in Bimmers was only natural. (Ken also has a predilection for Ferraris, but we don’t hold that against him.)
After some time with BMW’s smallest race car, ST Racing moved up to compete in BMW’s excellent M4 GT4, which is the next logical rung on the ladder. I can confirm that the M4 GT4 is truly excellent, because Samantha generously let me take it out for a few laps at Virginia International Raceway over a couple of days of testing.
Like the M235i, the M4 GT4 is built by M Motorsport and based on the road-going production car. The GT4 racer starts with the same body-in-white, engine, and transmission as its street-legal sibling but diverges into pure racer from there. With similar power output to the road car, the lightweight GT4 is a formidable performer, but with the roll cage and driver’s seat fixed to the floor, visibility is compromised. Going wheel-to-wheel in one of these is more challenging than drivers of street-spec M4s might guess.
Coming off championships in 2019 and 2020 in the Pirelli GT4 America Sprint X series, ST Racing has firmly landed front and centre on the global racing stage in 2021. This little Canadian team won the first two races of the 2021 Creventic 24H series, a Dutch-organized, FIA-sanctioned endurance racing series that runs everywhere from Sebring and Barcelona to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It’s the big leagues.
Success in motorsports takes a particular sort of passion and commitment. Ken Tan, a successful businessman in his own right, has those qualities in spades. He plays to win. When ST Racing arrived in Dubai for the season opener, Ken was so confident in the team that he let it slip that this little operation from Canada intended to win the championship. “We’re here to win. We’re going to win the championship,” Ken told some competitors.
What were their rivals’ reactions? “Most of our competitors don’t know us because they’re mostly from Europe. They laughed at us,” Ken says. “And I’m not kidding!”
Ken’s conviction comes from the team he’s assembled, from the technical staff to the drivers. Samantha’s codrivers include American pros Chandler Hull and Jon Miller, as well as Nick Wittmer, a member of the Wittmer family racing dynasty from Quebec.
Winning the 24-hour race in Dubai wasn’t as easy as showing up—though physically getting the equipment and personnel halfway was a daunting task in itself. Before the race, the team faced some near-catastrophic misfortunes. When they pulled the M4 out of the shipping container, they were already behind the eight ball: The radiator was leaking. While on-track during practice, the car wasn’t making full power and the car was 20 seconds off the quickest GT4s. In racing, two seconds is a lifetime; 20 seconds is an eternity.
“For two hours, we couldn’t figure it out,” Ken says, “and we were tinkering with this and with that. Guess what it was … the intercooler was low on water, so we put water in and—boom—power came back.”
Then, Nick Wittmer reported a massive vibration throughout the car every time he opened the throttle. The team had only a three-hour window between practice sessions to fix the car.
“We have one of the best mechanics, and he figured it out,” Ken says. The race car was three years old, and going into its fourth: The transmission mounts had deteriorated. With a set of new rubber mounts, the horrible shaking disappeared.
The drama wasn’t over yet. During another practice session, the team suffered a tire failure, but the Hankook slick itself wasn’t to blame. They chased the problem back to the shock, which had failed prior to the tire. In went a new shock.
In hindsight, these are all good problems to have in racing—as long as they occur during practice, and not during the race.
“For us,” Ken told me, “it all just basically comes down to really good mechanics. They understand the problem [and are] to be able to assess it correctly and realize what needs to be done. And that’s really what allowed us to win the 24. You can’t afford a mechanical failure … It’s the difference between first place and third place.”
For Samantha, both the Yas Marina circuit and the race format represented new territory. “It was my first full 24-hour race,” she says, “And it was difficult, to say the least. The team front-loaded me and my teammate Chandler, so I started the race, then I was out of the car for an hour and a half, then I hopped back in for another hour-and-a-half-long stint. Those stints were pretty mentally taxing—and also physically taxing because of the hard, hard braking. In Dubai, they have at least four really hard braking zones.”
“Overall, it was a great experience and I think we did very, very well for our first 24-hour race,” Samantha says. That’s quite the understatement, too. This upstart team from Canada beat a slew of highly experienced teams with rosters filled with proven drivers.
What did ST Racing do next? The following week, it loaded up the cars and travelled to Abu Dhabi to win the Creventic 6-hour, non-points race. Two victories right out of the box have cemented the reputation of this upstart Canadian team among the highest ranks of sports-car racing.
It’s a long season, but the team’s goals are clear. ST Racing is focused on four championships in the Creventic 24H series: team, driver, the Junior Cup for drivers under twenty-five, and, naturally, the Ladies Cup.
Ken is certainly proud of the team’s achievements to date, but with Samantha’s goal of winning Le Mans, there’s a long road ahead. “I’m very proud of what she’s achieved, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Where we are today and compared to where we have to go, I would say we are 75 percent of the way there.
“I’ve been with her every single step of the racing journey since she was 14 years old—now she’s 23. That’s 9 years so far, and I would say that I’m a very proud dad.”