Gabby Chaves didn’t know what to expect when he received a last-minute call from Action Express Racing. Asked to replace 2018 IMSA Prototype champion Felipe Nasr, who’d tested positive for COVID-19 the day before practice began at Daytona International Speedway, Chaves liked the idea of an unexpected challenge, and rejoined an organization he’d last orbited two years ago in a handful of endurance events.
By the end of Saturday’s WeatherTech 240, the open-wheel and sports car racing veteran had sent another reminder of his talent as he moved the No. 31 AXR/Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R from eighth to the lead before handing off to teammate Pipo Derani. With no rust on display, the Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR pilot stepped up to IMSA’s DPi class and looked like he’d never left as the duo earned a fifth-place finish under the lights at Daytona.
“It was definitely a welcome call; maybe not because of the best circumstances, but a welcome call, nonetheless,” Chaves told RACER. “I got the go-ahead from Hyundai’s perspective, and of course, Bryan Herta was actually very excited for the opportunity so he was very encouraging as well, which is always awesome. I knew it would be a bit of a challenge getting up to speed, especially because while I’d driven the Cadillac, it was never at Daytona, and never on the new Michelin tire, which is much quicker.
“And especially with basically two practice sessions, splitting two drivers in the car, and then going straight into qualifying and a race, we made the best of it. The car felt really, really good in the race, in the mixed conditions. Especially seeing the gap that we were able to open to the [Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac], which was on the same strategy, made it feel pretty fun and pretty awesome.”
The main focus for Chaves was delivering for AXR, all while continually learning the car and track, and tempering his enthusiasm.
“I’d say it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “If you’re too aggressive and you make a mistake, you definitely guarantee the team never calls you back if you crash the car. But by the same token, if you’re too reserved, then no one’s going to be impressed and same thing, they’ll never call you back. So, it’s a balancing act. You got to be aggressive, but you got to do it in a smart fashion. And I think being the conditions we had where it was a wet but drying track and then we went on an aggressive strategy right from the get-go. All I had to do was just do what I know how to do on track and it just worked out. I just went out there and just drove as hard as I could without making stupid moves!”
Chaves credited the team, from AXR manager Gary Nelson, to race engineer Iian Watt, to Derani and Nasr, for getting him prepared to make a meaningful contribution with no pre-race preparation.
“From the very first call, it seems like everything was already in motion, even before we knew exactly what was going to happen and, to be specific, even before they had a test result back for Felipe,” he said. “They had already made the decision that I was going to fly down and be in reserve in case they had a late test result that said either positive or negative, I was going to be there anyway. But then that whole process in itself was very hectic because we had to make sure that all the licenses were up to date and current, find flights, find rental cars. Hotels were pretty much booked out, obviously, 4th of July weekend, Daytona Beach.
“You’d be surprised, even with everything that’s going on right now, how many people were actually down there like there’s nothing going on. So just from the logistics perspective, it was crazy. And then you get into the technical side of getting up to speed, make sure you fit in the car. It was really hectic. But everyone had a role. And I think we all pretty much executed what we needed to do. So, when I got into the car in the first practice session, I felt comfortable. And then all I had to focus on was finding the speed. And that was good. I felt pretty good in the car in qualifying and then the race was obviously even better.”
Nasr has a little bit of time to recover and hopefully test negative for COVID-19 before IMSA heads to Sebring for its July 18 WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race. Chaves will remain ready to assist if there’s another need.
“I would definitely be honored to have the same role again,” he said. “As well, I know that I have to be prioritizing my full-time role with BHA and Hyundai, so if I’m asked to do both, I’d need to make sure it is the right call and talk about it with the teams. But I would, without even thinking about it, in a heartbeat, I’d say yes. That’s the driver in me; I always want to drive as many things as I can. Obviously, the best-case scenario for the team would be that Felipe’s cleared and everything goes back to normal. But I’m ready if they need me.”