I expected the 2013 Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype championship to go through one of four teams: Ganassi Racing, Wayne Taylor Racing, Bob Stallings Racing and Starworks Motorsports. But a fifth team has now entered the fray, with Action Express Racing making a pair of back-to-back statements in June with wins by drivers Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi at Mid-Ohio and again during last weekend's Six Hours of the Glen.
The AXR team also won a pair of races in June of 2012, including the Six Hours at the Glen, but never had the look of a title contender. Yet with a few key changes to the program – most notably in the cockpit, the North Carolina-based outfit has quickly matured into a genuine threat to earn the DP crown.
AXR's rapid growth has been a pleasant surprise to observe this year, but as team director Elton Sawyer tells RACER, the signs that better days were coming was there the entire time.
“For sure, it's not a surprise to us,” he says. “I think it would be a surprise to some of the fans, to some of the competitors, but it's not a surprise to the team itself. I think it's well overdue; they're now reaping the benefit of some really hard work that they put in for the last couple of years in preparation and hard work at the shop. We took a hard look at ourselves after last season and decided to make some tough changes…uncomfortable changes to get to where we are today.”
Those changes caused quite a stir at the time – especially in the Rolex Series, where some drivers were thought to have guaranteed rides for life.
JC France, son of series founder Jim France, was a permanent fixture at the Brumos Racing DP team (which became AXR in 2010), but got the axe in the offseason. David Donohue, son of racing legend Mark Donohue, was also one of Grand-Am's “made men,” but was also dropped at the conclusion of the 2012 season. The most unexpected departure came with Darren Law, also a Grand-Am devotee, but one whose pace and demeanor was rarely in question.
The only driver to survive the cuts was Portugal's Barbosa, one of the fastest and hardest competitors in the series. Former open-wheel standout Christian Fittipaldi, who had driven for the team at Daytona on two occasions, was drafted into the team on a full-time basis to share the No. 5 Corvette with the incoming Brian Frisselle.
The new lineup was completed as Burt Frisselle was signed to partner with Barbosa in the No. 9 entry but, initially, the chemistry experiment didn't go completely according to plan. Moderately acceptable results were produced through the first three rounds, but it was AXR's decision to move Barbosa into the No. 5 with Fittipaldi, and to unite the Frisselle frères in the No. 9 for Road Atlanta that unlocked the potential we're witnessing today.
“We had to make a few moves just before Road Atlanta to team Christian and Joao together, and along with Iain Watt, who is our technical director and makes all the decisions on the car side, and so far, those guys are just really, really complementing each other,” Sawyer explains. “Iain's doing a great job with both cars and making sure the setups are what the drivers need and then the drivers are going out and doing their jobs. And our pit crews are doing an excellent job on pit road. Everything is coming together.”
The bold choice to alter AXR's driver combos, combined with the highly underrated Watt looking after the engineering, has proven to be the biggest move of the season. Whether it's the commonalities shared between the trio – all three come from strong open-wheel racing backgrounds, or Barbosa and Fittipaldi literally speaking the same language – the experiment seems to be working.
And, I'm happy to admit that I've been proven wrong about the addition of Fittipaldi (RIGHT), a driver whose best days I reckoned were behind him. While I'm still less than convinced the No. 9 entry will deliver what the team is looking for in its quest for a championship, the Brazilian has sparked to life alongside Barbosa.
“That's very true,” Sawyer declares. “We had the opportunity for the last couple of years to have Christian drive our cars at the 24 Hours in Daytona, so we knew what we were getting there. He's worked with the team, he has a history with Iain going back to when he drove for Eddie Cheever and I've known Christian from his NASCAR days, so he was a good fit for our company. He and Joao obviously get along well... This is exactly what we were looking for.”
With the team's championship bid effectively starting at Road Atlanta, more wins and top finishes will be required for AXR to achieve their ultimate goal. The challenge for Sawyer and company is to keep the momentum flowing as the season winds down. Winning a pair of races in the middle of the championship has energized the entire operation, but the results from Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen are by no means a guarantee the trend will continue.
“Obviously, we've run seven races now and really we felt like we turned the corner at Road Atlanta,” he says. “With Joao and Christian, that's a good bond, good chemistry there, and I don't think that's going to change. They like the same thing in the car. They adapt to whatever the car's doing and what each other needs from it.
“And our sport is no different than any professional sport. Momentum is really critical. It's not a light switch; it's not something you can turn on and turn off. Rght now we're fortunate to have it – we're doing all we can to keep it. We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole early in the season from a championship standpoint but, we're taking it one race at a time. That's our plan, and we're excited about our future.”