IMSA: How the simple approach continues to pay off for Action Express
Even Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson has a hard time believing how things have worked out for his team.
“I mean, think about the championships we’ve been able to pull off,” he says. “There’s two championships available per year [the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup]. In the last five years, that would make 10 championships.
“What I’m hearing is we’ve won nine of those. That’s 90 percent championships if that’s a true number.”
It is, in fact, a true number. Between its No. 31 Whelen Engineering and No. 5 Mustang Sampling teams, Action Express has won all five Patrón Endurance Cups since 2014 and four out of five WeatherTech Championship Prototype titles.
“It just says amazing things about our team and what they do and how they can take complicated problems, break them down and come up with simple solutions,” Nelson says. “To me, that’s a talent. When somebody says, ‘Keep it simple,’ I think that explains Action Express. Don’t get complicated. Just keep it simple.
“What I like about saying that is you can quote it in every story, but the competitors won’t believe it. They’re going to look for a complicated solution to whatever problem they’re faced with. They always think we’re trying to hide some formula that we only know, but I think the formula is spelled, S-I-M-P-L-E.”
So, the secret to success is simplicity? Seems logical, fairly straightforward and easy to understand. And that was the case for the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac DPi team of Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr for most of the 2018 WeatherTech Championship season.
After all, the best way to win a championship is to earn podium finishes and win races when you can. The No. 31 team did that effectively for the first eight races of what was a 10-race Prototype season, with five podium finishes and a victory on Detroit’s Belle Isle in the 100-minute Chevrolet Sports Car Classic.
But the real key was the team’s ability to get the maximum out of their race car on the days where podiums or victories weren’t realistic.
“You’ve got to try and think of different ways to get yourself to the front and give yourself a chance to fight at the end and get the best result possible,” says Action Express performance coordinator and No. 31 race engineer Tim Keene. “That might not always be a win, but sometimes a win can be second or third place, or fourth place.
“You know, if you’ve got a fourth-place car, I expect you to finish fourth. It’s just that kind of thing, just watching out. If you look at the season as a whole, it was really the 31 car and the 54 car were the two cars and teams, I guess, that had the fewest mistakes and ran the most laps out of anyone in the series. That’s what it comes down to.”
What it came down to at the season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans on Oct. 13 was one of the more unorthodox strategy calls one might make while battling for a championship. Coming into the race, the No. 31 team led the No. 54 CORE autosport squad of Jon Bennett and Colin Braun by four points.
That meant the No. 31 team had a slight amount of breathing room but needed to keep the No. 54 in sight to take the title. When the No. 31 developed a late-race issue with making power, Keene determined the best way to clinch the title would be to conserve fuel – even going a lap down to the leaders – in order to make it to the finish without a final pit stop.
“We didn’t really have much of a choice,” Keene explained. “I mean, we could have tried to run harder, but all we would have done was burn more fuel. Things were looking good up until about an hour and a half to go. We went back green after a yellow and Felipe said he just didn’t feel like he had any power. We found out later, big chunks of rubber had accumulated in one side of the engine inlet, so that was like a choke.
“I mean, we didn’t have a chance to race with anybody, so our only chance was to try and make it with one less pit stop and force them to run hard enough that they had to make another pit stop if they had any chance at all. Hats off to them. They did everything they could to make that happen and it just didn’t work out for them and thankfully for us, it worked out right for us.”
Eric Curran, Felipe Nasr and Gabby Chaves had to roll with the punches at Petit Le Mans. (Image by Jake Galstad/LAT)
It was the second time in three years that the No. 31 team would be WeatherTech Championship Prototype champions, as Curran also co-drove to the 2016 title with Dane Cameron. The No. 5 team scored back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015 and won every Patrón Endurance Cup from 2014 through 2017. This year, the No. 31 team took that title as well.
Over the years, Nelson has been known to use some key phrases for the team to rally behind, such as “Expect to Win,” and “Keep the Wheels Turning.” This year, “Keep it Simple” was another one.
“In racing, the way I look at it is, the more simple ways to get from Point A to Point B, the better,” he says. “That’s what racing is. You’re trying to win a particular race, so I kind of say winning races builds your confidence and confidence, then, gets you through the days that aren’t so good, the bad days.
“You get a few more points on those bad days, and getting a few more points on the bad days, that’s kind of where your championships come from. I think both our cars had the ‘Expect to Win’ attitude and the ‘Keep the Wheels Turning’ attitude, but one of them had more bad days than the other one. Keeping all those thoughts in mind through all the ups and downs, I think, is where your points come from. Fortunately, for the No. 31, it worked out.”
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