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Through Prototype Era Evolution, Action Express Success Remains Constant

AXR Reflects on Sixth Prototype Title in Last 10 Seasons, with No Plans of Slowing Down

By Tony DiZinno

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In the last decade, through three iterations of top-level IMSA prototype class racing, Action Express Racing’s championship presence has been constant.

 

That it’s endured through a 10-year run is thanks to the tireless work ethic of the ever-evolving team and a consistent hunger to prove that the next championship is the best one.

 

The team somewhat flies under the radar cast against a quartet of historic motorsports name entrants (Ganassi, Penske, Andretti and Rahal) within the IMSA paddock as a sports car-only team, but it fully embodies its “Expect to Win” motto.

 

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The Title Rundown

 

As an organization, Action Express Racing (AXR) has secured six top-class IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship titles since 2014, the most recent being the first in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class era this year. AXR added team championships in all those years, plus seven IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup driver and team championships apiece over the same period.

 

What often goes unsaid or perhaps unrecognized is that the majority of those championships have come with new drivers, new crews, new cars or some combination thereof taking up residence at the Denver, North Carolina-based team.

 

The total of 26 titles won since 2014 breaks down to 12 driver/team and 14 Michelin Endurance Cup driver/team, achieved with nine different drivers and three different cars.

 

The team’s partner-first approach has also led to a shift in branding. Action Express isn’t often identified as such, but more frequently as Whelen Cadillac Racing or previously Whelen Engineering Racing and Mustang Sampling Racing.

 

“One of the biggest compliments I receive on behalf of the team was an unintended compliment at the banquet: ‘You guys have been on top for a long time,’” explained Chris Mitchum, AXR director of race team operations.

 

“It’s impressive how that’s gone. But there’s been so much change at the team over the time. This year, a lot of guys had their first championship. We’ve had change in personnel, process and car, but we’ve kept our nucleus together. People don’t realize there is that difference.”

 

Mitchum, who’s been with the team since 2012 and in his current role since 2014, has seen that shift but realized the culture has fostered a coherence that brings all the new crew together. He identified the four people who’ve been at the team longer than he has: team manager Gary Nelson, technical director Iain Watt, crew chief Bill Keuler and special projects manager/gearbox Brian Hay.

 

Winning the 2023 Crown

 

The 2023 title was unique in that the aforementioned No. 31 Whelen Cadillac V-Series.R didn’t dominate as in other seasons. If anything, consistency and resilience stood out more than outright pace.

 

A standout moment occurred off track, as the Cadillac team worked to repair its chassis after Alexander Sims suffered an accident in race morning warmup at Road America. As impressive as the sub-60-minute rebuild that took place was, the overriding thought was that the pace set by Pipo Derani in Saturday qualifying was lost.

 

“It was massively impressive,” Mitchum said. “But it was just our guys doing their job, and them doing other jobs out of their comfort zone to keep us going.

 

“Great as it was, we came back asking how do we get the car at the same level it was in qualifying? Still, it was a defining moment … and it kept us in the championship.”

 

Nelson added, “This is a tough one. I’d felt like we should have won that race, so I came away thinking, why did we not win the race? It was amazing the guys put the car together, but I had that perspective.”

 

When it came down to the Motul Petit Le Mans, the season finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, nerves were high as the No. 31 Cadillac was one of six mathematically eligible GTP cars in championship contention. Mitchum told the team going into the race to expect drama rather than perfection and focus more on beating competitors than worrying about winning.

 

Drama certainly occurred. Sims rebounded nicely after a pit lane incident, as the crew went to work repairing the rear tail of the car and the team was assessed a stop-plus-60-second penalty. Then near the finish, as Derani took the reins of the No. 31 Cadillac, he survived the passing attempt of Filipe Albuquerque in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti Acura ARX-06 that essentially secured the title. Race officials ruled no further action after reviewing contact between the cars that sent Albuquerque into the Turn 1 barrier.

 

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Mitchum hailed Derani’s growth as a person in his five years with Action Express, noting Derani is now married and has his first child, and is part of the team family. He reiterated Derani wanted to close out the race and the team made the necessary rotation adjustments to do so, to give him the opportunity he didn’t have in 2021 when Felipe Nasr finished that race in a similar battle with Ricky Taylor in the No. 10 car for the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) championship.

 

“He (Derani) got to prove it. And internally we knew he could do it,” Mitchum said. “The entire team was on his shoulders, watching from the timing stand, where it worked out for his first title he was on the timing stand.”

 

Reflections on Other Titles

 

Asked to reflect on his favorite title, Mitchum laughed, “The one similarity championships have with kids is they’re all different!”

 

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But he recalled the 2015 battle between the Nos. 5 and 31 cars in the waterlogged Motul Petit Le Mans, where at any point the two different strategies between the two team cars could produce a different champion.

 

“We had to cover both strategies to cover both situations, and no one knew when the race would end. We knew one side of the house would be thrilled and the other one gutted; but that was the first proof when the congratulations (for the No. 5) was from everyone, together,” he said.

 

“We had the natural competition between the No. 5 and 31 cars to be that open and strive to compete with full rein to race.

 

“Those years as a two-car team helped us prepare for our relationship with the No. 01 (Ganassi Cadillac) this year, which is very unique and open thanks to the GM leadership from Laura Klauser and the established relationship we have with a lot of the Ganassi crew.”

 

What Comes Next?

 

As they look ahead to 2024, when Sims moves back to Grand Touring Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) with Corvette Racing, endurance driver Jack Aitken slots into a full-time seat alongside Derani and Tom Blomqvist joins as third driver for selected Michelin Endurance Cup races, both Mitchum and Nelson know they’ll need to be better to make it a convenient seven titles in 11 years.

 

“I ask myself this question all the time: Why didn’t I go out and celebrate the 2023 championship like I may have the first championship?” Nelson said.

 

“I ask myself why not sit back and relish what we just accomplished? But I’m right back at work figuring out how to get the next one.

 

“Over the years, the championships are more valuable to me to the point where I don’t want to lose a day in preparation for the next one.

 

“I think it means the last championship made me evaluate how we got it and how we get the next one. I use each one as that motivation.”

 

Action Express Racing Championship Record

 

Driver and Team Championships:

  • 2014: Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, No. 5 Corvette DP, Prototype (P) class
  • 2015: Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, No. 5 Corvette DP, P
  • 2016: Dane Cameron, Eric Curran, No. 31 Corvette DP, P
  • 2018: Felipe Nasr, Eric Curran, No. 31 Cadillac DPi-V.R, P (DPi chassis)
  • 2021: Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani, No. 31 Cadillac DPi-V.R, Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class
  • 2023: Pipo Derani, Alexander Sims, No. 31 Cadillac V-Series.R, Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class

 

Michelin Endurance Cup Driver and Team Championships:

  • 2014: Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, No. 5 Corvette DP, Prototype (P) class
  • 2015: Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, No. 5 Corvette DP, P
  • 2016: Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, No. 5 Corvette DP, P
  • 2017: Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi, Filipe Albuquerque, No. 5 Cadillac DPi-V.R, P (DPi chassis)
  • 2018: Felipe Nasr, Eric Curran, No. 31 Cadillac DPi-V.R, P (DPi chassis)
  • 2019: Felipe Nasr, Pipo Derani, Eric Curran, No. 31 Cadillac DPi-V.R, Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class
  • 2023: Pipo Derani, Alexander Sims, Jack Aitken, No. 31 Cadillac V-Series.R, Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class