One of the big storylines of 2015 has been the rise of DragonSpeed, which has gone from a modest single-car Pirelli World Challenge squad into a massive four-car operation, while also expanding into the Blancpain Endurance Series this year.
The off-season transformation for the South Florida-based team, led by former open-wheel star Elton Julian, sees three Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3s and a single Porsche 911 GT3 Cup entered for this weekend’s season-opening Nissan Grand Prix of Texas at Circuit of The Americas.
According to Julian, the biggest challenge wasn’t necessarily securing the drivers for the customer effort, but in fact assembling a top-caliber crew that can mount championship attacks in the GTA and GT Cup presented by MOMO classes this year.
“I’m super happy in some particular areas,” Julian told Sportscar365. “Getting the customers is actually easier than finding the crew. It’s counter-intuitive but in reality it’s fantastic that you find the right guy to pay your ride. Now who’s going to be his No. 1 mechanic, his No. 2 mechanic and engineer?
“I’ve been able to put together a group from top to bottom that everyone could be a No. 1 mechanic. I’ve won races and championships with many of them and with Mark [Schomann] on an engineering front, so it’s fantastic to keep them together.”
2014 GTA runner-up Henrik Hedman returns to DragonSpeed, but swapping his Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 for a brand-new gull-winged Merc, one of the final SLS AMG GT3s to come off the production line.
He’s joined by two former TUDOR United SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge pilots in Frankie Montecalvo and Eric Lux, both whom had worked with Julian in the past, as well as 18-year-old Puerto Rican Victor Gomez, who makes his series debut in a Porsche.
While having driven for numerous top-flight sports car racing teams over the years, Julian said he was highly motivated to put together a serious effort that didn’t cut around the edges.
“I wanted to grow but I didn’t want to grow grubby,” he said. “I wanted [top caliber] tire carts and the right carbon bottles, so that was the big chunk that I had to bite off and say, ‘If I do this, let’s do this right.’
“But the scary thing is that am I ever going to run four cars at the same time again? Probably not.”
That makes this season even more special, as the team sets its sights on the GTA championship, with three drivers that are no strangers to success.
“The field is obviously ten times stronger in the Am class than it was last year,” Julian admitted. “We know that. But I’m bringing better weapons.
“And I believe my guys are true Ams in the sense that they’ve brought their money from their families and paid to drive. There’s no secret.”
In addition to its multi-car PWC effort, DragonSpeed is also set for its Blancpain Endurance Series debut this year, as the only American team to take on the pinnacle GT3 championship.
It’s resulted in an equally ambitious effort, which has seen Hedman’s ex-PWC Ferrari being shipped to Europe for the five-round championship, which kicks off at Monza next month.
What’s more, Julian will return to the wheel, sharing the Pro Am Cup class entry with Hedman and Thomas Kemenater, with Ryan Dalziel and Anthony Lazzaro joining the team for the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
“The reality is that I’m looking forward to it. I’m really excited,” Julian said.
“It’s been against my philosophy [to drive] for the team and the reason I retired from driving because I don’t think the team would be what it is today if I hadn’t stopped.
“But Henrik has become a really close friend and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Julian said they recently moved into its European base at Octane126, a Ferrari and Maserati service center in Zurich, Switzerland, an organization that he connected with when competing in the Ferrari World Finals last year.
With all of DragonSpeed’s No. 1 mechanics in PWC also working on its Blancpain effort, it’s resulted in a tight turnaround from this weekend’s season-opener at COTA to the official pre-season test at Paul Ricard, which gets underway on Wednesday.
Two crew members, in fact, will leave Austin halfway through Sunday’s race to fly to Europe, with the remainder of the team jetting off to Marseille on Monday to begin their European adventure.
It’s one of four “hot spots” on the calendar this year, which sees PWC and Blancpain races on back-to-back weeks. Luckily, a date change for the Paul Ricard 1000km has avoided any direct date conflicts between the two series this year.
While having previously competed overseas, Julian is hoping the Blancpain effort could be only the start of things to come for the team in Europe.
“I’m more comfortable abroad than I ever was at home,” he said. “I know where I want to end up and it’s not on this continent [in North America]. It only seems natural for me to go back to Europe because I’ve always felt like we fight against the grain here.”
The immediate focus, however, is on the team’s ambitious 2015 program, in what could result in a history making effort for one of America’s globe-trotting sports car racing teams.
“I’m stoked,” Julian said. “The mix is there, the camaraderie as well, and we’re already having fun.”