DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season has gotten off to a tough start for Action Express Racing.
Pipo Derani, Felipe Nasr and Mike Conway, drivers of the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R, lie seventh out of seven full-time Daytona Prototype international (DPi) entries in the points standings two races into the new season. But AXR and its driver lineup are still making headlines.
At the 69th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts last weekend, Derani made an aggressive passing attempt into Turn 17 on the No. 01 Cadillac DPi fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing and driven by Renger van der Zande in the first hour. The move backfired spectacularly.
Derani couldn’t see that there was an Aston Martin GT Daytona (GTD) class car to the outside of van der Zande, and when the Aston turned in alongside the Ganassi Cadillac, it pinched Derani’s Cadillac into the concrete wall at the corner’s apex.
Derani limped the car into the pits, but it sustained steering damage that affected the car throughout the race. The No. 31 was retired after completing 292 laps, 57 fewer than the winning No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Loic Duval and Tristan Vautier.
While the Action Express car was still running, you couldn’t help but wonder whether it would try to exact some kind of revenge on the Ganassi entry – especially after van der Zande blistered Derani in an interview, saying, “He’s just too wild.”
What prompted that uneasy feeling was the fact that memories are still fresh from a pair of controversial incidents that AXR drivers were at the center of near the end of the 2020 season.
Racing for the win with just a few minutes remaining in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, Derani clashed with the Acura driven by Ricky Taylor, costing both cars a shot at victory.
Derani was defiant in the aftermath. “I’m not at a racetrack to make friends,” he snapped. “I want to win the next race.”
In practice for that next race, Taylor’s teammate Helio Castroneves appeared to intentionally crash into the AXR car in the hands of Nasr. Damage was minor, but a message was sent. The skirmish again made headlines and perhaps showed there was a bit of bad blood bubbling underneath the surface of the DPi category.
But you know what? That kind of underlying tension is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as a team or a driver doesn’t take things too far.
Derani isn’t the first young hot shoe to come into IMSA or any other form of racing who ruffled a few feathers.
Max Papis was unknown in America until he earned the nickname “Mad Max” with a storming drive in the 1996 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
In 1981, 21-year-old John Paul Jr. tracked down and passed veteran Brian Redman to win the IMSA Camel GT season finale, a 250-miler also at Daytona.
It looked like a scene from “Days of Thunder.” On the last lap, a back marker blew its engine in front of the leaders, creating a huge smoke screen.
“He kept his foot in it and I didn’t, so he won,” Redman said. “I just lifted off for a second, but it made all the difference. It’s the difference between a 21-year-old and a 45-year-old.”
Derani’s aggressive approach also reminds me of when Juan Pablo Montoya broke into IndyCars in the CART series in 1999.
In practice prior to the second race of the season at Motegi, Japan, Montoya chopped across Michael Andretti, crashing both and making Andretti furious – more for Montoya’s flippant attitude than for the wreck itself.
Montoya was a non-factor at Motegi, but he won the next race at Long Beach in his third IndyCar start and went on to win the CART championship as a rookie.
I interviewed Montoya in late 2000 shortly before he embarked on the Formula 1 phase of his career that produced seven Grand Prix victories. He said something strikingly similar to Derani’s above quote when I told him that a few of us in the media nicknamed him “The Punk.”
“I like that,” said Montoya, who teamed with Dane Cameron to win the DPi title in the 2019 WeatherTech Championship for Acura Team Penske. Now with Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian in an endurance driver role, Montoya co-drove to third place last weekend at Sebring.
“No, honestly, it’s good,” he laughed back in 2000. “To be honest, you can’t expect everybody to love you. I’m not here to make friends and meet a lot of lovely people. I’m here to win. One thing Chip Ganassi told me that actually really works is, ‘You don’t go to the track to make friends. You bring the friends with you.’”
Pipo Derani would concur, no doubt.