“We stand together, we fall together. That’s his saying,” Wolf Henzler says, reflectively, of Derrick Walker and his mantra for the Team Falken Tire unit.
“And my saying is you’ll miss us when we’re gone,” he then adds, in perfect deadpan to produce a room of laughter featuring Walker, longtime co-driver Bryan Sellers and two team members.
The latter comment may have been a comical moment, but the departure of Team Falken Tire once the checkered flag falls in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda is no laughing matter.
The former comment about the power of this team still rings true, as one of sports car racing’s top privateer squads bids farewell – at least in its current guise – for the foreseeable future.
When Falken Tire first entered the American Le Mans Series in 2009, the tire competition was an entirely different world.
Michelin was still the predominant tire partner, but Dunlop had a factory presence with BMW, Yokohama partnered with Panoz Team PTG and Falken was the new kids on the block, the Japanese company based in California.
Flash forward to 2015 and Continental is the tire technical partner in the Prototype, Prototype Challenge and GT Daytona classes of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, while Michelin loses its sole competitor in the GT Le Mans class after the race.
Michelin hails competition as one of the reasons why it races, and for the last six years, the single Falken Porsche has grown into a formidable force.
Saturday’s race will mark the team’s 61st career start between the ALMS and TUDOR Championship. In the previous 60 races dating to 2009 (missing only the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona due to late arrival of new Porsche 911 RSR), the team has six wins, 10 podiums, 19 top-fives, and 54 top-10 finishes in the class known either as GT2, GT or now GT Le Mans.
It’s done so as just a single-car effort, led by Walker and team manager Phil Howard, and with Henzler and Sellers growing into one of the most memorable driver pairings of this generation.
“I think it was a good pairing from the beginning,” Sellers told Sportscar365. “Everything seemed to work out. We drive a similar race car. A lot of it is down to simple ergonomics, like not having to change belts, having buttons on the steering wheel in the same place.
“And then more importantly we’ve had all the stuff off track, dinner and breakfast. For six years, every race, we’ve spent a lot of time together. You hate to say it this way, but it’s like a marriage.”
Henzler, who as a Porsche factory driver would in theory be part of a two-car lineup, explained the strengths and weaknesses of the single-car program.
“The good is that the team can concentrate on the one car. Some places, we struggled,” Henzler told Sportscar365. “We could have gone different ways with setup. But we had no idea to compare.
“We were always strong on street courses. The Falken tire worked well at Long Beach for example. And then Baltimore, yeah, another street course with a good tire. Back then, we knew we had a good rain and street tire, but we needed a better one for a normal track.
“We did well with only one car, and when we went out and tried tires, we pushed each other, and went fast and brought the car to the limits.”
Walker took over team operations prior to 2011, and the team immediately improved from a 2010 season where it didn’t score a single top-five finish in class in its first full year.
Despite Falken’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the TUDOR Championship, Walker hailed both Falken’s development commitment throughout its tenure and the team’s resilience in tough times.
“I think if you look over the five years we’ve been running it, the team, the company never gave up on it,” Walker told Sportscar365. “It can be very frustrating running a tire program because you have to develop good and bad.
“But the team has had the same attitude. It hasn’t forgotten all the parts of the program, working on pit stops and reliability. They did it all. Looking back, it’s been rewarding.”
Each of the team’s six career wins carried a special meaning. While Falken was the acknowledged rain-masters in the ALMS days, back-to-back wins at Baltimore proved the team could win in the dry. The back-to-back Petit Le Mans wins and another win at Watkins Glen this year all proved the power of the team on its day.
Team Falken Tire heads into Petit Le Mans seeking its third consecutive win in the fall classic, incidentally with its third different driver lineup.
Henzler and Sellers are the mainstays but Nick Tandy (2013) and Marco Holzer (2014) having been on board the last two years. Patrick Long is this year’s third driver in the No. 17 Porsche 911 RSR.
As Sellers noted, going for three wins in a row at the same track is both a blessing and a curse.
“It’s an interesting situation to be placed in,” said Sellers, who lives in Atlanta. “When you have two (already), people assume you’ll win a third time. If you do win, you were supposed to. If you don’t, you’ve failed.
“While we’ll do everything we can to win, we’ll do it the same way we’ve always done, not because of what people outside of us have said. Knowing this is our last weekend won’t change us for the negative.”
The team signs off with the personnel facing uncertain futures. Walker will keep his staff on payroll through December; Henzler remains in the Porsche fold while Sellers, a free agent, would be a massive get for any available team.
“While everyone else may have doubted us, no one in the room doubted each other,” Sellers said.
“There’s always been a special feel about the program. From my perspective I’ve been proud to be a part of it, to do as much with as little as we’ve had.”
Added Walker, “It’s fun to be on a program where you’re the only one. When it works, everyone who’s wrote this tire off, or this thing off a long time ago, they start to change their perception.
“It’s fun to be part of a program that takes on the impossible and a multi-car team as a one-car team.”