Action Express Racing becomes sports car powerhouse

Throughout the 1980s, Denver was the home to U.S. Tobacco’s motorsports effort, first with Hal Needham as Harry Gant’s team owner and then, later, with the Jackson brothers and Travis Carter taking over the NASCAR flag.

In the past few years, however, the Lincoln County community on Lake Norman’s west shore has become the home of one of the powerhouse teams in professional sports car racing, Action Express Racing.

Owned by Bob Johnson, the team is a mixture of NASCAR and sports car racing veterans who have guided the operation to two Rolex 24 victories, including the one at Daytona last month.

Gary Nelson, crew chief on Bobby Allison’s 1983 NASCAR Cup championship team and the former Cup series director, is the team manager. Elton Sawyer, who won two Nationwide Series races during his 20 years competing on that circuit and later became the research and development manager at Evernham Motorsports, is the director of race team operations.

Scottish-born engineer Iain Watt is the team’s technical director. A graduate of the Cranfield Institute of Technology in Bedford, England, Watt has worked with numerous open-wheel standouts, including Max Papis, Dario Franchitti, Christian Fittipaldi and Tony Kanaan. The team acquires its powerplants from ECR Engines.

“I am a little surprised with how quickly we’ve been successful, but not as many changes as you might think (have occurred),” said Johnson, who began working with the late Bob Snodgrass on the Brumos Racing Daytona Prototype teams in 2002, providing them with financial and business management consulting services.

“We have a lot of the same personnel, even carrying over from the Brumos days. I mean, we have people that have been a part of the organization from the beginning of when Brumos started racing.”

In 2009, Brumos campaigned two Daytona Prototype teams, with the No. 58 Porsche Riley winning the Daytona 24-hour race. However, at the end of that season, Brumos Racing decided to cut back to one team, running only the No. 59 Daytona Prototype for 2010.

Johnson took ownership of the other team and created Action Express Racing and the No. 9 Porsche/Riley Daytona Prototype. The new team pulled off a major upset in its first outing in 2010, claiming victory in the Daytona endurance event.

Brumos Racing decided to leave the Daytona Prototype class at the end of that season, opening the door for Johnson to take over the remaining team. He created the No. 5 Action Express Racing team and expanded it to a two-car operation.

In 2011, the team posted a victory at Virginia International Raceway and recorded four other podium finishes. During the next two years, Action Express snared four victories, two in each season; Detroit and Watkins Glen in 2012 and Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen last year.

“We have accomplished a lot in a short time, but, again, it’s just because of all the hard work and people like Gary Nelson and Elton Sawyer and Coyote, and the whole organization is behind us,” said Johnson, a practicing CPA for more than 43 years.

“When we had the problem with the car and did all the significant damage to it in November, if we hadn’t had Coyote behind us to put another chassis in place very quickly, we couldn’t have put the car together and been racing again as quickly as we did. It’s part of the organization and that’s what makes it possible.”

The team’s next event is the March 12-15 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in Florida.

East Lincoln Speedway

East Lincoln Speedway will open for its 2014 season on March 29. It has scheduled its American Cancer Society Relay for Life night for April 26.

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