Fusion of fun, focus set for AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus

January 15, 2019

Fusion of fun, focus set for AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus

January 15, 2019

One of the more intriguing new teams in the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship teams is the AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus outfit. The team fields a two-car entry in the highly stacked GT Daytona class.

The team’s blended elements, now based in Charlotte, are new. Its individual components are not.

AIM Autosport has achieved a wealth of success in sports car racing for more than a decade. The trio of Andrew Bordin, Ian and Keith Willis lead the AIM effort.

The Vasser Sullivan pairing of Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan have brought flair, fun and wins to IndyCar going back nearly a decade. The group’s top success came with a 2013 Indianapolis 500 victory, in a car driven by Tony Kanaan.

The manufacturer that ties it all together is Lexus. Lexus enters its third season in GTD having had a breakthrough 2018 season with previous team 3GT Racing. Lexus won twice and had the class’ outright fastest driver in Jack Hawksworth, who won poles and set fastest laps with frequency.

Jack Hawksworth is the lone driver to continue from 2018 into 2019 with Lexus under the AIM Vasser Sullivan banner. Photo: Michelin North America

This collaboration of players also brings together past GTD class champion and regular NBCSN IndyCar broadcaster Townsend Bell, his frequent co-driver Frankie Montecalvo and former Atlantic and Porsche Supercup driver Richard Heistand into the full-time lineup. Bell and Montecalvo are in the No. 12 Lexus RC F GT3 with Hawksworth and Heistand sharing the “all-H” No. 14 Lexus.

Bell and AIM won the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona when AIM was providing technical support to another team. He raced for Vasser’s IndyCar team on multiple occasions and had his best finish at Indianapolis in 2009, coming fourth.

He explained how the group came together and how Vasser and Sullivan are learning the sports car world.

Townsend Bell’s class experience and team insight should aid AIM Vasser Sullivan in 2019. Photo: Michelin North America

“The familiarity of the people streamlines the process,” Bell said. “There’s a dynamic with Ian and AIM, and Jimmy and ‘Sulli.’ Jimmy I raced with at Indy before. The class is robust as ever!

“They’re experienced winners and professional team owners,” he added. “They bring an intensity and youthful focus to team ownership. I’m thrilled they’re here. I have had to educate them on the nuances… as you know it can be complicated. The explanations can be somewhat long winded on class structure, BoP, rules, driver rankings, all those things. But they’re picking it up fast.”

Jeff Segal’s veteran presence bolsters No. 12 Lexus RC F GT3 at Daytona. Photo: Michelin North America

Another driver aiding in the team’s fusion is Jeff Segal, a past class winner at the Rolex 24 and 24 Hours of Le Mans with Bell. Segal is only confirmed for the Rolex 24 as a fourth driver in the No. 12 car but has a wealth of sports car experience to draw upon.

“There are a lot of question marks when you see the terms of puzzle pieces fitting together,” Segal said. “But I have a good history with Townsend, Frankie and the AIM portion of the team. There are lot of familiar faces. I’m pretty confident in this group. I think that’s one of the strengths we have. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, as co-drivers and the team.”

Bell, Montecalvo and Segal have raced with Michelin in other categories, namely at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team was present at December’s Michelin “On-Track Opportunity” day at Daytona to gather data and get a bit of a head start before the ROAR. As Bell explained, the harder part for the group was managing seat time rather than learning the tire.

“It was one day, with one car, and four drivers. So it’s limited time behind the wheel,” Bell said. “But the Michelin tires were perfect as usual. It was fun to get a basic feel for the car and figure out how to come back. I did maybe 15 laps, but I learned so much in that. Great opportunity to get that first layer of data down.”

The partnership between Michelin and Lexus on the O.E. side was present at this week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Open-wheel ladder veteran Aaron Telitz makes his sports car debut. Photo: Michelin North America

Beyond Segal, the team has a trio of intriguing young drivers also in for Daytona. Aaron Telitz, in for the Michelin Endurance Cup, is a driver to watch. The Wisconsinite’s developed some fun components outside of racing between painting and knitting. Known not just for his pace but his finishing record, Telitz will look to add an artistic flair to the No. 12 car after a five-year career on the Road to Indy ladder.

In the No. 14 car, it’s Austin Cindric and Nick Cassidy that round out the lineup. Cindric’s “drive everything” nature goes back to USF2000 when he finished second to Telitz in a 2014 race at the Lucas Oil Raceway oval. Alas, he’s raced in NASCAR, open-wheel, rallycross and sports cars all before the age of 21. Cassidy isn’t a household name in the U.S. but the 24-year-old Kiwi has finished first and second with Lexus in the last two Super GT seasons – no small feat.

Cooper MacNeil and Townsend Bell chat during Michelin “On-Track Opportunity” at Daytona in December. Photo: Michelin North America

This blend of drivers coupled with the collective team experience makes Bell bullish on their chances, starting in a 23-car GTD field at the Rolex 24.

“The competition is always fierce in this class. The last two years, it continues to step up,” said Bell, who won the 2015 GTD title co-driving with Bill Sweedler.

“There are some great cars. Then with the consistency of the manufacturers, teams and people, there’s a lot of depth there.

“Many drivers have come to realize GTD is such a good place to race. With Michelin now, the gap between GTLM and GTD should be pretty small.”

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