When Team Sahlen won its first career Grand American Road Racing Association (Grand-Am) Grand Touring class race last September at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., the victory capped the team’s rise in GT, the most competitive of sports car racing divisions.
The team’s No. 42 Mazda RX-8 entry, with Dane Cameron and Wayne Nonnamaker co-driving, achieved victory after the pair had come very close to being first to the checkered flag in many previous GT races on the Grand-Am circuit.
Just as the Team Sahlen gang became the life of the GT party with the victory, plans were already in place, with the team at a crossroads, to exit the ranks in pursuit of another Grand-Am endeavor.
During a press conference last August at Watkins Glen, Team Sahlen, which includes Buffalo area businessman and Elma resident Joe Sahlen as one of its drivers in the team’s sister No. 43 or No. 49 Mazda RX-8 cars, announced they were taking on an even greater challenge in 2013 by moving up to Grand-Am’s top class, the Daytona Prototypes.
Beginning today, Team Sahlen will begin participation in the Daytona ranks in one of the world’s most prestigious and difficult sports car road racing events, the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The 24-hour race features each team undergoing multiple driver changes throughout the high speed marathon.
The change from the Grant Touring to Daytona Prototype represented a crossroads for Team Sahlen.
“It was almost a year ago, about February or March, that it was announced that the Mazda RX-8 would no longer be in production,” said Sahlen. “Of course a manufacturer will not support a vehicle in racing that is no longer produced for consumers. This presented us with a problem that left us at a crossroad.
“We could continue with the RX-8 but we would no longer be competitive because the car would no longer be developed. We could buy a whole new chassis with a turbo-charged engine for the new Mazda or we could focus on going up to the Daytona Prototype class.
“From a sponsors perspective, because the Daytona Prototypes are the top class in Grand-Am they get the most TV coverage and attention which is very attractive to a sponsor such as the Sahlen’s name. It gets our brand out there more.”
The team made the jump to DP and by late spring took possession of two Riley chassis cars (No. 42 and No. 43) with two BMW engines provided by that company’s top engine expert, Steve Dinan. The learning curve would be very steep.
The two car Team Sahlen DP effort will feature regular drivers Cameron, (Sonoma, Calif.) and Nonnamaker, (North Canton, Ohio) in the team‘s No. 42 entry.
They will be joined for the Rolex 24 in the No. 42 by Indy Car/sports car standouts Simon Pagenaud, a native of Poitiers, France, and Brazilian native Bruno Junqueira. Junqueira may also appear in the No. 43 car.
The Team Sahlen No. 42 BMW/Riley entry had an outstanding effort in the recent “Roar Before The Rolex 24” testing sessions at Daytona with Cameron turning in the second fastest time of the three-day test, running a lap of 1 minute, 42.101 seconds at 125.523 mph on Daytona’s 3.56 mile, 12 turn road course.
The result got everyone’s attention. Only the Michael Shank Racing No. 6 Ford/Riley was faster, hitting 1:42.058 at 125.576 mph., with Michael Valiante driving.
Sahlen will co-drive the team’s No. 43 entry in the Rolex race with the father-son combo of Joe and Will Nonnamaker along with road racing veteran Tomy Drissi assisting in the driving chores. Joe is also the father of Wayne. Drissi hails from Hollywood, Calif., and previously drove for Team Sahlen in 2005.
“The result in the “Roar Before The 24” was outstanding,” said Sahlen. “Dane has previous DP experience. Of course, our team lead engineer Catherine Crawford did an outstanding job, too. We knew Dane could run that quick and the car was set up well. Wayne is a good driver. Simon and Bruno did well, too. The testing we had done back last fall at Mid-Ohio and then early December at a previous test at Daytona really helped.”
Sahlen is ready to do his part in the No. 43 entry during his driving stints in the 24-hour grind.
“I’ve tried my best to learn how to better drive the Daytona Prototype car compared to the GT cars,” said Sahlen.
“I’ve been a right foot braker all my life and in the Daytona Prototypes I must now be a left foot braker. It is sure exciting to get into a Daytona Prototype car. You get into the corners a lot faster and things happen a lot quicker and the cars react very quickly.
“Physically, I’ve gotten prepared for the 24 hours by doing a lot of neck muscle exercises. I’ve also done a lot of biking. The key is just to know what you’re in for and do the best you can when your turn behind the wheel comes.”
Fans can follow Team Sahlen as Speed TV will carry much of the Rolex 24 event live from 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday. Coverage will resume Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Speed.
Along with the Team Sahlen effort, Sahlen is busy these days working with Watkins Glen officials getting everything in order for the upcoming Grand-Am Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, to be run June 28-30.