Nasr’s Road To Recovery Ends In Victory Lane

Felipe Nasr (right) and Pipo Derani won the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring after Nasr was diagnosed with COVID-19. (IMSA Photo)
Felipe Nasr (right) and Pipo Derani won the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring after Nasr was diagnosed with, and overcame, COVID-19. (IMSA Photo)

SEBRING, Fla. – This is a story of persistence and perseverance. Of anguish and exasperation. Of triumph and exultation.

This is a story of a racer who wanted only to race but couldn’t until he could prove he didn’t have a dangerous and highly contagious virus. And the story ended in the best possible way.

As he drove from his Miami home to Daytona Beach for a race in early July, Felipe Nasr felt a bit off. He noticed that he’d lost his senses of smell and taste, and just didn’t feel right.

He decided it best to stop by a hospital before going to Daytona International Speedway. He was tested for COVID-19, and the result came back positive.

His first response upon hearing the news was twofold: Tell his teammates and stay away from them. Nasr knew he wouldn’t be able to race that weekend in the IMSA WeatherTech 240 At Daytona, so his first instinct was to protect his co-workers. He called his bosses at Action Express Racing and told them about the test.

“The better way is always the truth,” Nasr said. “The truth is always the best way to get things together. That was my first reaction. I called everybody. … I was pretty conscious of what I was doing. I didn’t want to put any of my team members at risk, so I never had contact with anyone.”

Nasr got back in his car and returned to Miami to self-quarantine. Under IMSA regulations, he would have to test negative twice before returning to racing at Sebring in two weeks. His symptoms were mild, only lasting a few days.

Then the waiting began. The team raced without him that weekend at Daytona, as Gabby Chaves stepped in as Nasr’s replacement with Pipo Derani, Nasr’s teammate in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi V.R.

“The hard part wasn’t just missing the race,” Nasr said. “I had to come back home and go through all of those emotions. … I went through a lot of emotions, but the day that I tested positive I put it in my mind that I wanted to be back at Sebring. I told myself every day, ‘I want to be back at Sebring.’ I just kept that energy going.”

Less than 48 hours before the start of the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring last weekend, Nasr was scheduled for his second and final test for COVID-19 before the decision about racing could be made. His result from the first test of the two was negative. Pass the second one and he’d be cleared. Test positive and he’d be sent back to Miami.

“It was going to be our final chance,” Nasr said. “And it worked out. It worked out. I can’t tell you what it felt like. Even the nurse was happy. … That was my first step. Now I could focus on the race weekend. Until then, that was where all of my energy was focused. I just kept telling myself that I was going to get through this. I just wanted to be at Sebring. I asked God, as well. I think I used up all of my credits with God.”

As racing at Sebring Int’l Raceway often goes for Nasr’s team, it ended in victory lane. Derani started Saturday’s 2-hour 40-minute IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race from the pole position, and Nasr finished the run ahead of the field for his second consecutive win at the historic circuit. Derani won for the fourth time in five races at Sebring.

The track is an extreme challenge for even the best professional racers. Its bumpy surface rattles the soul. Its changing surfaces make grip come and go. Its difficult turns require technical precision. And, as they did Saturday, heat and humidity turned the cars into rolling ovens.

“It’s so intense, up on the wheel,” Nasr said. “You’re always thinking a corner ahead, how you’re going to take the next one and how you’re going to approach the bumps. I think that place is so complete. It’s wild, it’s intense, it’s technical and it’s physical. I just love every corner of it.”

That’s from someone who knows. The 27-year-old Brazilian’s résumé is full of highlights: Three years in Formula One, the first as a reserve driver for Williams in 2014. The following year, he signed with Sauber. At the opener in Australia, he finished fifth – the best debut by a Brazilian driver in F-1 history.

In 2018, he joined Action Express in IMSA and helped the team win the Prototype championship. In less than three full seasons, he’s helped the team win four races, including two at Sebring and the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. In March, Nasr was scheduled to make his IndyCar Series debut with Carlin, but the race was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also has the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans and three seasons of GP2 in his bio.

Now, Nasr has an astonishing story of recovery and triumph to add. It comes with a message, too.

“It was something I couldn’t control,” he said of the virus. “Everybody is vulnerable to it. We all want to go back to racing — the fans and the racing family — and if we all do our part of taking all the precautions, we can get through this. I know it’s frustrating at times, but right now it’s the only way we are going to get through this. Everybody has to do their part. Wear your mask.

“This virus can react in so many different ways. It is so unknown right now. We have no certainty of anything right now. I’m just spreading the word to everyone to do their part to protect themselves and their families.”

The best way to send that message?

From victory lane, while wearing a mask and holding a trophy.