It’s deja vu all over again for Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell, as the defending GT Daytona class champions head into this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in an all-too-familiar situation that had struck them — in nearly identical fashion — just two years ago.
The longtime co-drivers, who were coming off the GTD class victory in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona with Level 5 Motorsports, were forced to switch to AIM Autosport for Sebring and the remainder of the year after the team had pulled the plug on its IMSA program just one race into the season.
Fast forward 24 months and Sweedler and Bell were faced with the same dilemma, with their 2016 season-long deal with O’Gara Motorsport falling apart after Daytona, leaving them to pick up the pieces yet again.
“It felt like Groundhog Day again,” Sweedler told Sportscar365. “Between what happened in 2014 and what’s now happened in 2016…
“We had top-level talent across the board with crew, engineers, data engineers, drivers, you name it. We had everything. Tom [O’Gara] had invested a significant amount in making sure that his team was at the highest levels.
“And all of a sudden in the middle of the race, Tom was off the stand and back to LA. He ran into some issues with his dealership, which was the primary sponsor on the car.
“Within a couple days, the crew, Townsend and I were notified that it didn’t look like we’d be able to continue the season. So it was a shocker to say the least.”
Sweedler quickly reached out to multiple teams in and out of the WeatherTech Championship paddock, but thanks to the support of Lamborghini and Boardwalk Auto Group, went with Change Racing for Sebring.
However, the deal with the Robby Benton-led squad, which had also debuted a Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of its own at Daytona, was only finalized ten days ago.
“And there were a lot of things that had to be done,” Sweedler said. “There are only so many GT3-spec Lamborghinis [around] and we had to get the car that we were using at O’Gara and somehow move that from the O’Gara camp that has their financial issues [to] over here.”
Then there was also the challenge of assembling a crew, in near record-time, for the around-the-clock endurance classic.
Former O’Gara crew chief Steve Ragan and lead mechanic Sam Williams were the only transfers, with a mix of other mechanics having been drafted in from all corners of the sport.
Sweedler, Bell and third driver Richard Antinucci have gotten off to a tough start this weekend, with various minor issues leading to limited running time, which has re-adjusted their expectations.
“Every team is prepping post-Daytona, probably a day or two after. And we didn’t start prepping until probably ten days ago. So we’re definitely behind the eight-ball,” Sweedler said.
“We’re hopefully to make a good showing this weekend. We have to be mistake free. Obviously with a lack of practice, and putting the whole team together late in the stage, those odds go up.
“But Townsend and I, we feel the grey hairs now in endurance racing. We’ve done it for quite some time together. And we’ve got a lot of sage advice that we’re trying to impart on the team as it comes together.”
As for the future, Sweedler said it’s their hope to continue with Change for the remainder of the season, in what is now their fifth different team they’ve worked with over the last two years.
“There’s still things that we’ve got to work out, but the goal would be to continue in IMSA,” Sweedler said.
“We’ll see what happens, but Robby appears to be serious and wants to field a two-car team. So we’re working through that, and we’re hopeful that we’re going to have that going forward.”