While the Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 makes its North American debut in this weekend’s Nissan Grand Prix of Texas, the story has been of the team’s massive effort just to make the grid for the Pirelli World Challenge season opener.
Announced less than three weeks ago, the partnership between Always Evolving Racing, AIM Autosport and Nissan North America has seen the group in a race against the clock in putting all of the pieces together for the factory backed program.
“It’s been a compressed timeframe,” AIM co-owner Ian Willis told Sportscar365. “Fortunately we were in a position where we could jump in and do this. I think that’s been great for both AE and AIM to put this program together in such a short period of time.”
Willis, whose Canadian-based squad was unable to continue its program in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, joined forces with AE’s Erik Davis, who laid out ambitions of stepping up to the PWC GT class after two seasons of campaigning Ford Mustangs in GTS.
Davis had been in the planning stages for a multi-car program with the Japanese manufacturer during the off-season but a proposed alliance with Andretti Autosport fell through, opening the door for AIM to step in at the last minute.
“My goal was to get into GT and I started to work on the effort last year,” Davis said. “The Nissan affiliation was an obvious one for our brand.
“AE has always had somewhat of a friendship with Nissan, with one of our past founders being a huge Nissan fan. To have a formal partnership is very exciting. I couldn’t think of a better manufacturer for us to partner with.”
With the deal only finalized last month, Willis and his crew chiefs flew to England two weeks ago to meet with JRM Group, builders of the GT-R, and begin their fast-paced education of the V6 twin-turbo-powered beast.
While James Davison’s car had been Stateside for a few months and was featured in Nissan’s Super Bowl commercial filmed at COTA, the second chassis for inaugural Nissan GT Academy USA winner Bryan Heitkotter arrived only last week.
It left the team with virtually no pre-season testing, other than a brief shakedown at Harris Hill Raceway in San Marcos, Tx. on Tuesday, before unloading at COTA for the start of on-track activities on Thursday.
“Literally the first time Erik and I formally met was here, so there’s been a lot of faith placed and we appreciate that,” Willis said. “Hopefully we can deliver on that faith placed on us.”
While both the team and drivers lack experience with the GT-R, they’ve quickly come to grips with the V6-powered beast, thanks to some help from recent Bathurst 12 Hour winner Wolfgang Reip as well as JRM chief engineer Gustavo Beteli, who are both on-site this weekend.
“The fortunate part is that we’ve got a car that’s already proven in GT3,” Willis said. “We’ve got JRM support and we’ve got an experienced team that’s worked well over the years. We’ve been able to execute so far. We’ll see as we go into the races.”
For Willis, who is also serving as race engineer alongside brother Keith, adjusting to the unique characteristics of the GT-R, after years of engineering Ferraris, has been one of the early challenges he’s learned to overcome.
“The biggest thing for me to get my head around is that it’s the opposite,” he said. “It’s like the Seinfeld episode where George does everything backwards. It’s kind of that.
“All of the weight is in the front, it’s turbo powered, the car makes speed in different parts of the lap compared to a mid-engined car. But it’s a very nice piece.”
Despite the baptism by fire, both Willis and Davis are optimistic about their chances this weekend, particularly after a strong performance in qualifying by Heitkotter, who scored GTA pole for this afternoon’s opening round.
Both Davison and Heitkotter, meanwhile, are set for full-season, championship attacks in GT and GTA, despite some initial clashes with IMSA events, which Davis said has since been resolved.
As for Davis, who took part in the last two seasons of GTS competition as a driver, he hasn’t ruled out making an appearance behind the wheel of a GT-R before the end of the season in what would be a possible third entry.
“We want to make sure the program is successful, first and foremost,” Davis said. “I’d love to get my rear in a seat but whether it’s the end of this year or 2016, I don’t know yet. But definitely for next year.”
In the meantime, the entire focus is developing the program, which has gotten off to a fast, but encouraging start this weekend.
“I’m very pleased with how the whole team has gelled,” Willis said.”The AE people combined with the AIM people and the drivers… We literally all met here this weekend. I can’t say enough about how well it’s come together.”