Penske returns to its roots, making its sports car return at Petit Le Mans
The Petit Le Mans celebrated its 20th running and the Tequila Patron ESM team enjoyed the fruits of victory after both of its cars showed strongly. A pair of controversial penalties assessed in the final half-hour of the 10-hour event at Road Atlanta, including a rough driving call levied against ESM’s star driver Pipo Derani, handed victory to the sister car shared by Brendan Hartley, Ryan Dalziel and Scott Sharp.
But the story of the Road Atlanta weekend was the return to sports car competition of America’s most successful team – Penske Racing, as a preview to its all-out attack on the IMSA WeatherTech Series in 2018. Penske will serve as the Acura factory team in the Daytona Prototype International class in 2018 fielding a modified ORECA chassis with a Honda V6 turbo. For the Petit, the team entered a standard P2-spec ORECA-Gibson and nearly stole the show. Hélio Castroneves claimed pole position and the all-star line-up that also featured Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud finished a close third, the product of a stirring comeback drive after the car lost a lap in the first 15 minutes of the race when Castroneves was bumped off the damp track by a lapped GTD-class car.
Penske has a long history in sports cars; in fact, it’s where team principal Roger Penske got his start as a driver in the late 1950s. Though most famous for its successful Indycar and stock car efforts, Penske Racing’s formative years were spent racing various forms of sports cars. Mark Donohue won multiple SCCA Trans-Am and USRRC championships, and he gave a Penske-prepared Ferrari 512M some memorable runs in the early 1970s prior to dominating the SCCA Can-Am in Porsche’s turbocharged 917s. Team Penske also developed the Porsche RS Spyder P2-class car that earned several championships and scored a number of overall victories over more powerful P1 class cars.
The Penske-Acura alliance was one of the year’s worst kept secrets, as was the transfer of Montoya (after a year on the sidelines) and Castroneves from Team Penske’s IndyCar Series operation to the new sports car division. Dane Cameron has been confirmed as Montoya’s team-mate for one car, and Ricky Taylor (who along with brother Jordan clinched the DPi driver’s championship at Road Atlanta despite a DNF for their Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac) is expected to be nominated to partner Castroneves. Expect Pagenaud and Penske’s newly crowned IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden to co-drive in the endurance races.
Castroneves was competitive to the very end of his 20-year Indycar career, but he never stitched together a series championship in CART or IRL/IndyCar competition. However, Penske will still field a car for the Brazilian at the Indianapolis 500 as he attempts to win Indycar racing’s biggest event for a record-equalling fourth time.
“When Team Penske was racing Champ Car and decided to go to the IRL [in 2002], it was a very similar situation,” Castroneves related. “Roger gave me an option and said, ‘We can continue moving forward, whatever you want to do.’
“This is my team and my family, and my career has been building toward this,” he added. “Driving is my passion; it’s in my blood, and if this can continue moving forward and prolong my racing career, I’m all up for it. So I’m really, really excited for this new opportunity.”
The fact that Team Penske was instantly competitive at Petit Le Mans speaks volumes about the organization’s ability. But at the same time, WTR, Patron ESM (not IMSA full-timers, but stalwarts for the endurance races) and other IMSA regulars like Action Express Racing are setting a high bar for Penske’s return to full-time sports car participation.
With stout prototype competition (albeit without the P1 class) and an extremely healthy GT class that includes factory entries from Corvette, Porsche and BMW, the IMSA series is potentially on the brink of entering a golden era.
“We’ve been really impressed with the teams that have run there; certainly the Cadillacs and now some of the foreign vehicles that have come in have made the series very strong,” said Penske. “Acura wanted to join the series, and with their background in the series, we felt we had a formidable partner. We talked to other manufacturers, but this seemed to be the right place for us. We have seven Acura dealerships across the U.S., so to represent a brand on Sunday, then go sell on Monday obviously helps my situation as an auto dealer.”
Castroneves joined Team Penske in 2000 and scored all 24 of his race wins (and 49 of 50 poles) with the legendary outfit. He lobbied hard to remain in Indycars, but Penske couldn’t put together a business case and will downsize to three cars in 2018 for Newgarden, Pagenaud and Will Power.
“Roger and the organization have been with me through the high times and the low times and to me, it’s a no-brainer,” Castroneves remarked. “I feel honored to be in this position. I still have a lot more fuel to burn, and now we’re going to be burning it in a sports car.”