I’m not ready to mention their name alongside the Brumos Racings and Electramotives of North American sports car competition, but Action Express Racing is certainly flirting with greatness after its latest triumph.
The new-look IMSA series has only known two champions within its Prototype class since it launched in 2014, and from those five seasons, North Carolina’s AXR owns four titles. Founded by Jim France and led by Gary Nelson, the team has only surrendered one championship, and that came last year when the Wayne Taylor Racing team reeled off five straight wins at the dawn of the Daytona Prototype international era.
In typical AXR form, it rebounded and chased WTR home to secure second and third in the standings with the Nos. 5 and 31 Cadillac DPi-V.Rs. Four IMSA titles and a runner-up result on the one it missed has AXR standing by itself among champions in other major domestic series over the same period.
Team Penske’s IndyCar Series operation has taken three titles from 2014-2018, and in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series, four different teams have won while a fifth is close to being determined in the coming weeks, leaving AXR in a spotlight of its own.
Armed with the tubeframe Coyote chassis sporting Corvette DP bodywork, AXR’s first two IMSA titles were earned while taking down Chip Ganassi Racing and its factory Ford DPs, Michael Shank Racing’s Ligier-Honda, Mazda’s Lola/Multimatics, and Corvette DPs from WTR and Spirit of Daytona, among others. Veterans Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi led AXR from the cockpit from 2014-2015, and had everyone from Sebastien Bourdais to Burt Frisselle helping during the endurance events.
In 2016, AXR achieved what I consider to be its most impressive feat by winning the championship with a Pro-Am driver pairing. Facing stiff opposition from its sister entry of Barbosa/Fittipaldi and WTR’s Jordan and Ricky Taylor, Dane Cameron and teammate Eric Curran toppled the Prototype class in the No. 31 AXR/Whelen Engineering Corvette DP. Given Curran’s late start in the sport and limited background outside of touring cars and GTs, the quality of the organization behind Cameron and Curran was further illustrated as Pro-Pro line-ups were humbled.
Humility also played a part in AXR’s growth at the dawn of the new DPi era in 2017. Presented with the choice of paying for Dallara’s technical support package to complement its engineering team, AXR declined and relied on its own staff to get the most from the Dallara-built Cadillac DPi-V.R. It’s the only significant mistake that comes to mind in recent years.
WTR opted in for Dallara’s added layer of expertise, and with those five straight wins in hand, the team was quick to credit the Italian constructor for an advantage that AXR and the rest of the DPi field could not overcome by the end of the season. As a testament to Iain Watt, AXR’s supremely talented technical director and race engineer, it only took half of 2017 to find the Cadillac’s sweet spot, and once the Scotsman caught up to the WTR/Dallara group, an immediate end was brought to their winning streak at Round 6.
Standing on equal footing for its second season with the Cadillac, Watt, Nelson, the reconfigured full-time No. 5 combo of Barbosa and Filipe Albuquerque and the revised No. 31 line-up of Curran and Felipe Nasr with performance coordinator/race engineer Tim Keene ruled the 2018 championship from start to finish.
AXR’s two opening titles with its full-pro entry were impressive, but if you consider the championship with Cameron and Curran in 2016, the runner-up spot taken by the same duo last year, and the title this year with Curran and a newcomer like Nasr who was visiting most IMSA tracks for the first time, the first-second-first with the No. 31 from 2016-2018 could be its defining achievement.
If there’s an aspect of the team’s rise to IMSA dominance that’s often ignored, it’s the shift from AXR’s status as kings of the low-tech Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes to masters of high-tech DPi machinery. Building on decades of NASCAR experience, Nelson preached simplicity during AXR’s formative years, and with the rudimentary DPs in mind, the philosophy was unique and effective. Although it didn’t result in earning championships, AXR won six races from 2010-2013, including the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, as it grew.
Bolting on proper aerodynamics to the DPs for IMSA’s first season under the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship banner saw the team thrive as genuine speed and performance entered the DP equation. From 2014-2018, 15 more wins were taken, with five coming from Cadillac DPi-V.Rs. Whether it’s cutting and welding DP metal or grasping all the complexities of DPi carbon fiber and advanced electronics, AXR has evolved to become IMSA’s gold Prototype standard.
Its place as IMSA’s dominant force in IMSA’s Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup — the four long races at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Road Atlanta — is another key component of its success.
A second Rolex 24 win in 2014 opened its IMSA account and eased its path to the title; a win at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2015 and at Petit Le Mans were firsts for AXR, which cemented its second consecutive championship. Another Sahlen’s win at The Glen was part of the 2016 championship run; its fourth Sahlen’s 6 Hour win came in 2017, and to get the 2018 season rolling, its third Rolex 24 victory was secured.
On the biggest stages, AXR has distanced itself from its rivals, adding four straight TPNAEC crowns to its four Prototype championships. The 2018 titles were also taken while the No. 5 dealt with adversity as Barbosa missed three races due to injury, and with Team Penske in the DPi field on behalf of Acura, plus Team Joest representing Mazda.
Minus the steady 1-2 punch from both AXR entries at every round, the No. 31’s Pro-Am combo still managed to add another pillar to the team’s IMSA legacy. As we settle into the new offseason and celebrate all that took place from Daytona to Petit Le Mans, AXR’s five-year run in Prototype stands out as something rather extraordinary to acknowledge.
Even scarier, with a fully healed Barbosa and Albuquerque in position, and ESM Nissan DPi star Pipo Derani coming to join Nasr in 2019 as Curran steps back to part-time status, AXR will return with more strength and depth in January. I won’t be surprised if by this time next year, we’re talking about the No. 31’s finishing first-second-first-first.
It will take another championship or two to earn its spot, but at AXR’s current rate of progress, it won’t be long before this team joins the other legendary sports car programs in the pantheon of all-time greats. How fortunate we are to witness the ascension.