From spotting back to driving for Stephen Simpson at Indy, Detroit

Hildebrand's Indy 500 had Simpson spotting. Photo: IndyCar

Drivers often find any way they can to keep scratching that itch to be at a race track if they’re not driving. Coaching and spotting are two of the ways. South African driver Stephen Simpson manages to do all three depending on the weekend.

He’s the full-time driver of the No. 85 JDC/Miller Motorsports Oreca FLM09 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but he entered the Detroit race last weekend off spotting for JR Hildebrand’s No. 6 Preferred Freezer Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet in the 100th Indianapolis 500. The driver of the No. 6 car ultimately finished in the same position.

You often hear stories about how drivers make it through the race, but not as many about how spotters view it from the spotter’s stand high atop the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Turn 1.

We caught up with Simpson in Detroit to get his take on what it took to spot for this year’s race:

“JR is a good friend of mine, so spotting for him was great,” Simpson told NBC Sports. “I really working with him and spotting for him for the whole month. It’s something I really enjoyed doing. If I’m not going to be driving the car myself, which is still on my ‘to-do’ list at some point.

“To me, spotting is real enjoyable. I love learning from the teams and the other drivers and just being a part of the whole program. I think I’ve been spotting for four or five years before that. I’ve spotted for Alex Tagliani, Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden a couple years back. So yeah, I’ve been involved in it for the last couple years and just love being a part of the 500.”

Simpson (far left) played spotter for Hildebrand in Indy. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Simpson (far left) played spotter for Hildebrand in Indy. Photo courtesy of IMSA

For Simpson, the dream of driving the Indy 500 after moving back from the spotter’s stand could be achieved. As he related, the driver he stood next to last year, Stefan Wilson, moved into the driver’s seat this year.

“Some of the guys have been spotting for a very long time and they have their ways,” Simpson explains. “As far as I’m concerned, I just stick to myself and do my thing.

“What has been good to see over the last couple years, I remember last year for the race, I was standing up in Turn 1 and spotting and standing next to Stefan Wilson, who was spotting for his brother and then the following year, he’s in the race.

“A couple years ago, I was sitting next to James Davison in Turn 3 and having long conversations about wanting to be in that race at some point, and then it was great to see him get a couple of opportunities, too. It’s different but enjoyable up there.”

Hildebrand, in the third Ed Carpenter Racing entry, was in top-five contention late before contacting Helio Castroneves’ left rear wheel pod. But it didn’t necessarily take the Californian out of the race.

“JR was doing a great job. The first couple of pit stops, the guys were making changes on the setup. Then, with about 100 laps to go, he didn’t want any changes, he was really happy with the car,” Simpson said. “The track started getting hotter and his car started coming in a little bit more than some of the others. Yeah, the second half of the race, he was strong and only getting stronger. With about 20-30 laps to go, we all felt that we actually had a genuine chance of winning this race.”

“I was watching in my binoculars and I think it was just one of those things. I don’t think he was checked up at all by Helio. I think from speaking to JR and watching the race, when the guys come out of Turn 4 and go to the middle of the track, the driver behind that is wanting to make the move is trying to decide whether to go high or inside or outside, and I think maybe JR was initially thinking about going to go outside and then went inside and then unfortunately clipped Helio. It was just a minor little incident that unfortunately ruined one of their races.”

The panoramic view of seeing more than 350,000 people present – IMS doesn’t release attendance numbers but that was the estimate – is something Simpson will never forget.

“It’s fantastic. Race day this year, I went up to the spotter’s stand nice and early. I was up there about 10 a.m. I just wanted to be up there and watch everything happen,” he said.

“It was just great. Before the race started, there was literally not an empty seat open. And then to look down at Turns 3 and 4, just to see a sea of people, it was great, it was fantastic.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

Simpson’s Detroit weekend didn’t go according to plan in the PC car he shared with Misha Goikhberg. Goikhberg had nowhere to go in the Saturday morning warmup when a Mazda spun in front of him, which meant damage to the No. 85 JDC/Miller car was too substantive to be repaired before the race.

The team sourced a backup chassis from BAR1 Motorsports to weld that chassis and part of the JDC/Miller car together, with the JDC/Miller car’s electronic updates paired with the new BAR1 tub. It was a heroic effort to put the “Frankencar” together – more info on the whole process here can be found via Sportscar365 – and it didn’t drive right most of the race when it was on track.

That being said, the team made the minimum drive time to score points and are just nine back of championship leaders Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow. If they win the title, they can look back to this race as how they stayed in contention.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”