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Nelson Helping “Keep the Wheels Turning” at Action Express

Inside the key ingredient to success at Action Express Racing, according to team manager Gary Nelson…

Photo: Rick Dole/IMSA

Want to know a secret to success that not only can be applied to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but can be words to live and applied anywhere in daily life?

“You have to keep the wheels turning.”

That’s the philosophy used by Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson.

And if the team’s performance since the inaugural WeatherTech Championship race – the 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona, which was won by the No. 5 Action Express Racing Corvette DP and co-drivers Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais – is any indication, it’s a philosophy that works.

In the 17 Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup races held since 2014, the No. 5 team has six victories, 13 podium finishes and top-five results in all 17.

The No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R team scored its most recent victory in January’s Rolex 24 At Daytona with Barbosa, Fittipaldi and new full-season driver Filipe Albuquerque leading a 1-2 Action Express sweep ahead of the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R co-driven by Eric Curran, Felipe Nasr, Mike Conway and Stuart Middleton.

Just for good measure, the No. 31 team (which was the No. 9 team in 2014) has a strong endurance racing record of its own, with seven podiums and 12 top-five results in those 17 races, including another 1-2 sweep for the team in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen back in 2016.

Overall, the No. 5 team has won all four season-ending Patrón Endurance Cups handed out so far and won back-to-back WeatherTech Championship Prototype titles with Fittipaldi and Barbosa in 2014 and 2015.

The No. 31 team took the 2016 WeatherTech Championship Prototype crown with Curran and then-co-driver Dane Cameron. Between the two teams, they’ve won 13 WeatherTech Championship races since the start of 2014.

It all goes back to keeping the wheels turning.

It’s a philosophy that Nelson brought from his previous experience as a crew chief in NASCAR, where he won two Daytona 500s – in 1982 with driver Bobby Allison and in 1986 with Geoffrey Bodine – and the 1983 NASCAR Cup Series title, also with Allison.

“If the things we’ve learned through many years of racing in NASCAR, we can apply them to get everybody on the team thinking big picture and taking a pragmatic approach of what you do now will affect you later,” Nelson said.

“I think I’ve made it as simple as I could by saying, ‘You have to keep the wheels turning.’ If the car stops, if the wheels stop turning, you have to get them turning again.

“That sounds pretty simple, but that means you have your spare parts ready. It means you have your mindset ready. It means you can keep your wits about you when things don’t look like they’re unfolding properly. There was a saying in basketball that, even if you get an elbow in the ribs, you still have to make the shot.

“So many things can distract you, but if you have this core value to keep the wheels turning, you’ll do better in endurance racing.”

It’s a core value the Action Express drivers have bought into as well.

In fact, Fittipaldi, who is looking for his fifth straight Patrón Endurance Cup in the cockpit of the No. 5 while transitioning to a new role as the team’s sporting director, uses the same phrase.

Nelson recalls one time where a driver – at least momentarily – lost sight of the credo during a race.

“We had a driver one time spin out and the car sat for – what seemed like forever to me – but it was a short time,” Nelson said.

“When the race was over, I asked him, ‘Would it not start or what was the matter?’ He said, ‘I was just so upset, ‘cause I had spun out, that I had to compose myself.’

“I said, ‘No! No! You don’t do it that way. You can’t do anything about what happened, all you can do is move forward from where you are. Sitting there trying to figure out how this bad thing happened is wasting your time. Get going. Get the wheels turning.’”

This season, the team has an opportunity to measure itself not only against the high-quality teams it has competed against for the past several years in the WeatherTech Championship, but some high-profile newcomers like Acura Team Penske and Mazda Team Joest. They’re looking forward to it.

“Back early on in my career, when I was beginning as a crew chief, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, in the NASCAR world, were the ones to beat,” Nelson said.

“I didn’t want to run in the Saturday show. I wanted to be in the Sunday show and beat those guys. I didn’t think that being the fastest, lower-level series was as rewarding.

“If we could be the best at the highest level, and on that same day we beat the best when they’re at the top of their game, that’s the goal I’ve set since I was a little kid. We don’t want it handed to us. We want it to be a worthy win.”

“A lot of people made a lot of hype about Daytona this year, the European teams and this and that, and Penske and everything, and Action Express, in my opinion, was back to its own,” Fittipaldi added. “We were competitive throughout the whole race. Both cars were running in the top four the whole race.

“Yeah, there was some attrition the last five hours, but we were in the mix also. We figured out a way to baby our stuff, and that’s part of endurance racing. I’m happy to be back in the position that we are at right now. We’re definitely going to try our very best and try to make it two in a row when it comes to Sebring.”

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