A wave of changes, new drivers and different OEM partners emanated from the surrounding competition of Gary Nelson, but the Action Express Racing crew chief, one of the perennial championship contenders in the DPi class of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship of IMSA, never moved.
Despite upgrading its closest rivals, the fallout from the Acura Team Penske shutdown and corresponding flooding of the driver market – Meyer Shank Racing benefited, as did Wayne Taylor Racing in an aggressive overhaul of its roster and its manufacturer alliance – and the re-emergence of Chip Ganassi Racing’s sports car arm, competing in the DPi class for the first time since 2016, Nelson sees the benefits in continuity.
“Things don’t always work out so well the first time around,” said Nelson, who spent four decades working in NASCAR as a crew chief, team manager and eventually head of competition and R&D for the sanctioning body itself. “Sometimes they do, but in my experience there’s a higher chance that someone won’t get something right, because everything has to be learned.”
For 2021, Nelson has thankfully kept his entire staff, a ‘core’ of 15, in his own words, who built last year’s Sebring Grand Prix winner, a 2-hour sprint race and 40 minutes. Brazilians Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani, chasing the full-season title in the program’s No. 31 Cadillac DPi-VR, are a pairing that has sometimes given the team the upper hand, based on a trait that he considers atypical in the race in the broad sense. world.
“I guess that would be a pragmatism they are showing – giving up a bit here but still being there in the end,” Nelson replied, when asked about the strength of the Nasr-Derani partnership. “It’s how they see the end of the race, from any point, whereas most drivers only see the end of the lap they’re on.”
What Nelson is dealing with is a quantifiable truth. In 2019, Nasr and Derani achieved the second best average in IMSA sprint races despite being the fourth fastest car among those in the DPi class, according to calculations by Motorsport analysis. The only car ranked higher in the final average was part of the Acura Team Penske stable closed before this year.
Nasr, a driver with Formula 1 and IndyCar experience, believes in continuity, on board with his team’s focus.
“I think that’s always key when you talk about relationships, and especially in racing, when you can keep the same group of people, not just drivers but engineers, staff and mechanics,” Nasr said. “Everyone makes a group.”
“Having Pipo for another season, we have known each other for a long time. He’s a great teammate. He’s got the speed, we’ve got the experience, I think we know the tastes of the car and we understand what we need for each other and it’s just that trust, that feeling that you have. to have a teammate like him. And I think it works both ways, easier for the team as well, when we’re trying to make the decision to steer a car in a configuration direction that we want.
Derani’s buy-in is even, but he’s skeptical whether his side’s familiarity offers a seismic advantage in 2021, beyond an early-season beating, a two-weekend truncated schedule for the Rolex 24 At Daytona, which rival team owner Wayne Taylor mentioned. as “chaos”.
“Starting a third year with Felipe helps to have a little edge, but I don’t expect that edge to be there for long,” Derani said. “We have a 24-hour race to start the championship and I’m pretty sure all of these guys will know about it long before the race is over.”
“It shows how strong the championship is and how difficult it is to win every race or fight for the championship every year. Of course having continuity in the team and with Felipe helps, but I don’t don’t expect him to be around for long.
“I think what’s going to make the difference in the end is the fact that we’ve been able, over the last couple of years, to hone in on the little details, which I think will be the ultimate thing that will make the difference in the end.”
Their DPi-VR will start first in the Rolex 24 next Saturday, the result of a 100-minute qualifying race won on Sunday afternoon. Nasr and Derani will be joined by NASCAR Cup Series titleholder Chase Elliott and two-time FIA World Endurance Champion Mike Conway for what is considered the most prestigious sports car race in America.
The arrival of the LMDh, a Daytona-Le Mans hybrid machine replacing the existing DPi and suitable for competition across America and Europe, begins in full in 2023; in theory, Nelson’s aversion to change will soon be tested. Yet he is in no hurry. Action Express, owned by NASCAR President Jim France, delves into the unified era of sports car racing via its manager’s favorite method.
“There are movements and directions (to do), but not so much on personnel,” Nelson said. “From a team perspective, we really like when a new car comes out and we have the same driver line-up and the same staff because that really helps us focus on the new car.
“I think the worst off-season I could imagine would be to have a whole new staff and a new car for the first race, which happens to be the biggest race of the year.