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Penske ready for Petit Le Mans challenge in sports car return

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As a tune-up ahead of its full-time return in 2018, Team Penske will return to sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans, using an Oreca 07 Gibson while they continue to develop the Acura ARX-05 DPi for its 2018 debut.

As the team confirmed last week, Penske stalwarts Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud will share the driving duties in Penske’s first sports car event since 2009, and its first Petit Le Mans since 2008.

Team Penske ran Petit Le Mans with its Porsche RS Spyders three times in 2006, 2007 and 2008 – and won in the LMP2 class all three times.

Their late entry this year comes on the heels of a test with the Oreca chassis, which Team Penske president Tim Cindric explained was needed before the team could commit to an entry.

“We’ve had this race on our radar for some time, but we wanted to wait until we were able to get our drivers some testing at Road Atlanta prior to committing, as it is a very fast track and these cars are very different to drive from an IndyCar,” Cindric explained.

As noted above, while it has been nearly a decade since they’ve contested the 10-hour enduro, their last appearance was most certainly a memorable one.

Drivers Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, entered in a third Porsche RS Spyder for Penske, claimed victory in the LMP2 class, leading a Penske sweep of the LMP2 podium.

BRASELTON, GA – OCTOBER 04: Helio Castroneves driver of the #5 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder celebrates after winning the LMP2 Class at the American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans on October 4, 2008 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Castroneves highlighted as much when discussing his optimism ahead of the weekend, in the first race of what may well be the beginning of a full-time sports car program with the team.

“The car is a blast to drive as it has lots of power and an incredible amount of downforce. The last time I ran at Petit, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the winning team in our class. It was one of the highlights of my career. Now, I’m looking forward to that challenge again and I’m sure it will be fun racing with these guys in this setting.”

Pagenaud, too, has experienced success at Petit Le Mans, securing an LMP2 class win of his own in 2010 with what was then called Patrón Highcroft Racing. He finished fourth in this race last year with Action Express Racing, sharing the Whelen Engineering Corvette DP with Dane Cameron and Eric Curran.

“It’s a bit of a homecoming to get back into a prototype car,” said Pagenaud of his latest return to sports car racing. “They are great cars to drive and to be paired with Juan and Helio in an endurance event is going to be a lot of fun. This is a chance for me to help Team Penske prepare for next year, while seeing what things we can learn and where we can improve right now.”

Montoya and Dane Cameron have been confirmed for Penske’s Acura DPi program next year, Castroneves was confirmed earlier Wednesday and Ricky Taylor has been strongly linked to the second car as well.

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NHRA: John Force-like motor explosions get contagious during Sunday’s Gatornationals

Photo and video courtesy NHRA
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John Force is rubbing off on others – but probably not the way they or he would like.

The 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion has had spectacular motor explosions in each of the first three races of the new NHRA season, including during Friday’s qualifying for this weekend’s Gatornationals.

During Sunday’s quarterfinals of eliminations, Force’s teammate (and son-in-law and president of John Force Racing) Robert Hight squared off with fellow Funny Car driver Matt Hagan.

As the duo closed in on the finish line, both cars experienced spectacular motor explosions of their own – virtually side-by-side and nearly at the same time.

Hight’s car was the first to explode, tossing its body high in the air. A split-second later, Hagan’s car exploded, also sending the body flying.

Check out the NHRA video:

Hight wound up losing the race.

Hagan, meanwhile, and his crack pit crew rolled their backup car off the hauler, put in a new motor and went on to race through the semifinals and into the finals, losing to race winner “Fast Jack” Beckman.

“We had a pretty great race day, to be honest,” Hagan said. “I’ve never been to the finals in Gainesville.

“We obviously had a huge blow up in the second round, then to watch these guys pull the other car back out and put it together in the amount of time they had, then turn a win light on against Capps (Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the semifinals), then to be able to go to a final, it was huge and it speaks for itself.”

As for Hight, here’s his take on what happened with the motor explosion:

“I couldn’t see (Hagan) over there and it wasn’t like it was hazing the tires or anything else. As it turns out it wasn’t spinning at all. It kicked two rods out when it blacked the bearings in the crank then it hit the valves and blew up.

“The thing gave me no indication at all before that. What really scared me was once I got it under control and I look over and see his body is off his car. I am thinking ‘Oh man, he got gathered up in me.’ Then I stood up and looked and his injector was sideways so I realized he had an explosion as well. We are just lucky we didn’t get into each other.”

As for the guy who has had so much trouble in the motor department, John Force, he lost in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations to daughter Courtney Force.

John Force planned on shutting the motor off on his car at around the 700-foot mark of the 1,000-foot dragstrip, not wanting to risk another motor explosion – even though it meant a likely loss to his daughter.

Now John Force and his entire four-car team, including Courtney Force, Robert Hight and daughter and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, will be off for extensive testing to try and determine what’s been causing the motor explosions.

“We have to evaluate it and go test,” Force said. “We’ll figure it out.”

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