By any measure, Action Express Racing has enjoyed a successful 2021 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship campaign, what with three wins and a pair of second places in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.
That record places drivers Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani and the No. 31 within striking distance of the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) driver and team championships, as they trail Ricky Taylor, Felipe Albuquerque and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05 by just 19 points heading to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for the Motul Petit Le Mans season finale next week.
Although no small measure of the team’s success stems from the talents of its drivers, mechanics, engineers and the potent Cadillac, race fans might be surprised to learn another element to Action Express’ banner season is the key role it played in the development of NASCAR’s Next Gen (Gen-7) car scheduled to begin Cup Series competition in 2022. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say the Next Gen program helped keep the doors open at AXR during the pandemic-influenced days of 2020 and enabled the team to hit the ground running this year.
“Every schedule was changing when COVID hit last year, and so I wanted to keep our shop open,” AXR team manager Gary Nelson says. “I knew shutting down, it’s a lot harder to start it back up, especially with people needing jobs for their families (and possibly moving to) other states.
“So we split our team 50/50. Half of the guys worked for two weeks and the others were off for two weeks, and we would alternate that way. That way if one guy got COVID, he would know that within two weeks and that group could be separated rather than the whole team being taken out. We had such a great group – it’s so hard to get a good group and you certainly don’t want to see it go away.
“Then I had to find things to do to keep the team going. A lot of the teams were not able to stay open at all, so there was no work being done on the NASCAR Gen-7 car. So I asked NASCAR if we could take that project on and they said yes because nobody had put together a road course version of it yet, and we’re road racers.”
Under Nelson’s direction, AXR constructed a chassis to Next Gen specs, equipped it with a generic body and tested it on the Daytona International Speedway road course in Nasr’s hands in July 2020. Subsequently, AXR developed the car to the point that it could be rapidly changed from road course to oval specifications, and vice versa. Later that summer, several NASCAR drivers tested the AXR-developed Next Gen car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, first on the ROVAL and then the oval.
“We’re road-race experts, so first time out we focused on the road-race car,” Nelson explains. “Then we said, ‘If we were going to convert it to an oval car, what would we need to do?’
“NASCAR was very interested in running the same car on the oval track that you could on the road course. A race car is a race car: steering wheel, engine, four tires and a body, but you adjust differently for an oval since you’re only turning one direction. By the time we went to Charlotte, we were able to switch it over in a day.”
The AXR “road-race experts” had a little help when it came to developing the oval version of the Next Gen car.
“The NASCAR guys came to our shop almost daily and so we were able to tap into the current practices,” says Nelson, whose resume reads like a greatest hits of NASCAR, including stints as chief mechanic at DiGard Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Sabco Racing before he was named NASCAR Cup Series director and, later, NASCAR Vice President of Research and Development. Thus, he says overseeing development of the oval-spec Next Gen car was “like riding a bicycle.”
The Next Gen project has, of course, progressed from those early efforts by Action Express. Likewise, Nelson and AXR have moved on from the days when the project provided a lifeline.
“We were happy to help out,” says Nelson. “I think the (Next Gen) project has moved on now to where they’re getting the car to all of the teams, all of the teams are open again and they’re building their own cars. But in that interim period, we needed to keep our guys working and the NASCAR folks needed some work to get done, so that worked out pretty well for both of us.
“And when it was time to go racing again (in IMSA), everybody was current. We knew how much fuel was in the hauler, we knew the uniforms were at the dry cleaners, we knew all the names were right, so when we ramped up, everybody could hit the ground running.”
In fact, they’re still running. The No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi will be out to give the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura a run for the money and the championship at the Motul Petit Le Mans.