Smiley back as NI races onto BTCC grid for first time
Chris Smiley is to re-join Colin Turkington in next season's British Touring Car Championship - and he will drive for the first Northern Ireland-owned team to appear in the series.
The former Mini Challenge champion from Carrickfergus has joined BTC Norlin Racing who have been granted TOCA licences to field two Chevrolet Cruze cars in 2017. A second driver will be named shortly.
A Belfast-based private equity group, Norlin have taken over BTC Racing, a team founded and run from Bichester by Bert Taylor. It has been involved in the BTCC since 2006 and will continue to be led by the experienced Taylor.
He has worked with Smiley in the past and is happy to have him on board.
"I have seen first-hand what an outstanding talent he is," said Taylor. "He is committed to his career with a strong passion for motorsport that permeates throughout the entire team.
"As well as bringing on board two high-calibre drivers, we have invested heavily in recruiting experienced backroom staff and engineers who have worked with the likes of RML and Triple Eight.
"We have invested in two Chevrolet Cruze cars, which we know well having run them before, and have proven to be highly-competitive in recent years.
"The cars are currently being prepared at our Bicester base, and Chris has already tested the first car at Donington."
Smiley, 24, who drove an older generation Toyota Avensis for HARD Racing in the early rounds of this year's BTCC series before switching to the Renault Clio Cup, sees this as a fresh opportunity to establish himself in the BTCC.
"For me, this is the start of my BTCC career. I didn't really get enough running this year to learn anything, so I am starting afresh. I will be able to properly attack the championship in 2017.
"I am grateful to the people who have stood by me - and the guys at Norlin have been so enthusiastic. They are family friends and we have been able to put together a team of highly talented people."
Chief Executive Richard Irwin says the BTCC, Britain's top racing category, represented an opportunity to showcase the Norlin brand.
"With ITV and online viewing figures of BTCC growing year-on-year, coupled with trackside audiences of up to 60,000 people, this is an exciting time for a Northern Ireland team to be joining the championship," he said.
"For years Northern Ireland sportsmen and teams have been challenging the leaderboard at a global level, and motorsport is no different.
"Norlin's acquisition of the BTC team is very much a strong vote of confidence from us not only in the team, but in Northern Ireland's ability to extend its global reputation as a key player in sport further into the world of motorsport.
"We want to build a brand that our fellow sponsors, Propiteer, our team, and indeed Northern Ireland are proud to be associated with.
"Our aim will be to challenge for the independent drivers' championship."