By IMSA Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s a busy time of year for every IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team as they gear up for the rapidly approaching season that starts 80 days from now with the 57th running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
But it’s even busier for the new AIM VASSER SULLIVAN team that will debut next season with a pair of Lexus RC F GT3 race cars in the WeatherTech Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class. The team, which was introduced last month, partners 1996 CART Champ Car World Series champion Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan – who also are partners with Dale Coyne Racing in the IndyCar Series – with longtime sports car competitors AIM Autosport owned by Andrew Bordin, Ian Willis and Keith Willis.
“We were involved in one of the original bids with the Lexus program prior to the last team, which did not go through,” Sullivan explained. “The timing wasn’t right for a lot of reasons. Post that happening, we never took our eye off of it. We attended two IMSA events over a three-year period to try to stay close to it and connected to it. I would say since that period, we’ve never taken our eye off the ball.
“We love IndyCar racing, but we think that IMSA, specific to GTD, is just in a great spot with regards to its relevancy to the manufacturer and specific to our program with Lexus. Jimmy is a Toyota dealer, so the tie-in back to the showroom and the sale of automobiles is a personal thing for our partnership. I think that GTD and IMSA as a platform as it relates to that is the best thing going out there, so we’re really excited to be in it for a lot of reasons, but that being one of them.”
This week, Vasser and Sullivan were hard at work in the team’s new headquarters in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. The shop is currently a hotbed of activity.
“We have a lot to do, of course, but it’s very exciting,” said Vasser. “We’ve got the new facility here in Charlotte that’s absolutely fantastic and perfect for us. We have three Lexus RC F GT3s on the ground here. We have things flying around, bodies here working.”
“It was the Change (Racing) GT Lambo shop that they’ve operated out of in the past,” added Sullivan. “The primary boxes that we had to check was, one, it was important for us to have a geographical vicinity to TRD (Toyota Racing Development). It’s still a customer program at the end of the day, but we have TRD as a partner from an engineering perspective and from a human resources perspective. It was not critical, but very important for us to have an operational base that was close to them.
“This shop was on the ground, it was available, and it had already been basically set up as a GTD operation, so it was pretty plug and play for us to be able to move right in and get started right away. As you can tell right now, there’s not enough hours in the day for what it is that we’re trying to achieve. The first step is functionality, but this shop that we’re in now checked all those boxes, so I think it’ll be a great place for us.”
If functionality was the first step, the next step was building the team. Through the combined resources of AIM and Vasser-Sullivan Racing, most of the team is already in place.
“There are a few small pieces, but there’s no less than 12 people out in the shop as we speak working flat out,” Vasser said. “We have the foundation of our team. We’ve got marketing and communications, and we’ve got people working right now on liveries and uniforms. I think we’re pretty well set.
“There are a few small pieces on the team side that need to be fulfilled, but we’ve got a full complement of equipment and the lion’s share of our people. Quite honestly, I think the final pieces are going to be just the driver lineup.”
Vasser expects the team’s full-season driver lineup to be announced prior to a Michelin tire test at Daytona International Speedway on Dec. 11, which the team will attend, with the lineup for the Rolex 24 in place prior to the Roar Before the Rolex 24 on Jan. 5-7, 2019.
However, the team already has one key piece of the driver puzzle in place with the recent announcement that Jack Hawksworth will be one of its full-season drivers. Hawksworth, who won the season-long Motul Pole Award in the GTD class with four poles in 2018, drove the Lexus RC F GT3 in each of the past two seasons with 3GT Racing.
“Contrary to what some people might think or believe, Hawksworth didn’t come with the program,” Vasser said. “It was important for me, being a racer, to have some element of the last two years of the program to be continued in the program, just for continuity and so we don’t get too lost. I mean, I’ve seen it so many times in other motorsports and particularly lived it in IndyCar where if you don’t have one driver or some part of the past, you can get lost easy.
“Early on, it was almost a prerequisite for me that I had to try to keep Hawksworth, because he was the one main professional in the thing that was an asset. We went after that early, actually. That was a decision made on the team side and I was really happy to be able to persuade Jack to still be involved as one of the pros in our deal.”
With 10 career Champ Car victories and the ’96 title under his belt, you might expect Vasser to consider himself as part of the driver lineup. You would be wrong.
“Much to the relief of everybody in the shop, I’m not trying to do this to set myself up for a drive,” he said. “My rating might be lead or aluminum or whatever. Everybody was relieved to hear that I’m not trying to set something up for me to get in the seat again.”
For Hawksworth and the drivers who do end up getting in the seat, they should expect to compete for a championship in 2019 if everything goes according to plan.
“We want to win the championship and we want to win races in both programs,” Vasser said. “Our blood’s in IndyCar and we’re reaching out to the second spoke here in IMSA GTD, which is equally as important to us. Look, we don’t do anything just to participate. We want to be noticed and we want to win races. We have a specific goal here with this program to win the championship, and we think we can do that.”