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Penske vs. Acura now shifts to Penske with Acura for IMSA return

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The halcyon years of the American Le Mans Series, from 2006 through 2008, saw Team Penske’s last major factory effort with the Porsche RS Spyder in the LMP2 class debut the 2005 season finale and the full 2006 season, then witness Acura ramp up its efforts for a 2007 debut with the first iteration of the ARX chassis, the ARX-01a LMP2 car.

Much has changed since. The economic crisis of 2008 had a major impact into 2009 and by that year, the Penske and Acura factory efforts were out, and the ALMS needed to create a spec, lower cost prototype class called Prototype Challenge to keep its car count afloat.

A merger happened in 2014, bringing together ALMS and the GRAND-AM Rolex Series into the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (then called the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship), and the late 2015 reveal of the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) format promised a new rebirth for the top flight of prototype racing in North America.

That period has seen Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan debut DPi programs this year and with Acura’s fully fledged return in 2018 with Penske, it brings together the two past rivals in a united goal for overall glory, and an attempt to topple the existing manufacturers.

ST.PETERSBURG, FL – APRIL 4: The #6 LMP2 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder driven by Sascha Maassen and Patrick Long during practice for the American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg on April 4, 2008 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

“Back then really the interest we had as Penske in getting involved wasn’t so much the P2 class, but it was Porsche was working towards a customer program at the time,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric told reporters on a Tuesday teleconference.

“What we were interested was competing towards overall wins… and we could compete against Audi for those overall wins. And that was before Acura got in. Once Acura got in, that raised the bar – before that, we just were P2 versus Zytek cars, in a privateer setting.

“We were fortunate to race against the Audis and I think that made it fun to try to understand when the underdog could compete. Once Acura got in, it was super competitive, with that second year. Unfortunately that type of racing, that class (at the time) fell apart.

“For us, we see three other manufacturers in. The DPis do allow the privateers to compete with P2 in WEC-type form. There’s a lot of competition. I’m really surprised that only one manufacturer (Cadillac) has won, but that will change as others catch up. For us, it’s not a slam dunk we’ll be winning races right in the beginning.”

LEXINGTON, OH – JULY 19: Timo Bernhard, drives the #7 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder during the American Le Mans Series Acura Sports Car Challenge on July 19, 2008 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Honda Performance Development Art St. Cyr backed up that assessment.

“That’s a great thing about working with Team Penske – there’s a uniform sense of purpose to win overall races,” he said.

“In P2, we had a P2 car that won overall victories. But in P2 we were about winning P2… then moving to P1 was everything we had, with the Muscle Milk Pickett days. It was about how could get stay in front.”

HPD’s recent decade of top flight sports car racing sees the new ARX-05, set to be developed in-house at HPD and based off the successful Oreca 07 chassis, comes after a period of four prior models that raced from 2007 through 2015.

The previous generation ARX-01 had a five-year life span from 2007 to 2011 with various iterations primarily in LMP2 spec and then a one-off LMP1 spec at the 2011 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – where ironically, it finished second to an Oreca-run privateer Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. The HPD ARX-03 achieved success in both LMP1 and LMP2 specifications, primarily with Muscle Milk Pickett in ALMS as mentioned and also with Tequila Patron ESM, Level 5 Motorsports and Starworks Motorsport (won the LMP2 title in the first FIA World Endurance Championship season of 2012), but the ARX-04b, a new LMP2 car developed by Wirth Research for the 2015 season, raced only once at that year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona before being tossed aside following significant weight and teething issues.

With the news officially released that the program is happening will come a summer and fall of preparation before the DPi car’s race debut at the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Details were sparse today, but here’s the bullet points from today’s call:

  • No drivers have yet been signed, nor was a timeline given for their reveal. But if we’re thinking logically, the Verizon IndyCar Series season ends in mid-September, and Roger Penske said at the Iowa weekend he decides on (or reveals) his lineup once a season is over. We’ll know by then whether Helio Castroneves has won his elusive first championship or not, and Juan Pablo Montoya’s excited Instagram post with the combined Penske and Acura logos today was as good of a confirmation of his expected role. Between current Acura sports car drivers and talented sports car veterans who may be available, there’s a lot of intrigue to come here.
  • Full testing begins next month. Cindric confirmed the first shakedown at Paul Ricard at the end of the month before the car is shipped Stateside, ahead of its Monterey reveal in mid-August. Cindric said the car he hopes will be on track by the end of August. St. Cyr also said the engine will be slightly different than its previous prototype run.
  • What does this mean for other Acura/HPD programs? St. Cyr wouldn’t entirely bite there but did tease there will be “some announcements in the near future.” Full factory support/branding from Acura to its pair of NSX GT3 teams, Michael Shank Racing and RealTime Racing, is expected to be drawn down at year’s end. He also said it was premature to talk about customer programs for the Acura DPi.
  • How does Penske balance Acura/HPD (sports cars), Chevrolet (IndyCar) and Ford (NASCAR)? Like always. “For us it’s old hat,” said Cindric, who described all the internal safeguards that are set up to preserve IP and keep a clear separation of church and state.
  • Does Petit Le Mans happen with a separate car? Possibly, maybe, potentially. Cindric wouldn’t rule out the potential of running a standard LMP2 spec car at this year’s Petit Le Mans but only if the preparation and testing goes well enough with the DPi. “We wouldn’t rule it out, but we’re a long way from confirming it or saying it would happen.”
MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 18: Ryan Briscoe driving the #5 LMP2 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyderchases Franck Montagny driving the #26 LMP2 Andretti Green Racing Acura ARX-01B during the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 18, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Overall though today’s announcement brings to an end the saga over how long the return has been in the pipeline and concludes the waiting for the official news to drop.

“During this iteration of the Acura Motorsports programs, it’s been a three-step revival,” St. Cyr said. “It started with the TLX GT car, the NSX GT3 this year and now the DPi program we’re announcing today.

“It started really when the DPi formula was released, we started talking about this vehicle and making it part of Acura’s precision crafted message to align everything… and to have Acura Motorsports be the capital P of performance. Roger Penske being one of our largest Acura dealers created the synergy.”

Cindric added, “On behalf of Roger and everyone at Team Penske, we appreciate the confidence Acura and HPD have in our organization. Sports car racing is where our heritage began. We enjoy competing in it. We haven’t been since 2009.

“When the DPi formula was announced it looked to revive the prototype racing formula in the U.S. It was a natural fit to find the manufacturers in the future. We were interested from day one… now it’s happened. It’s a good format for us. It’ll be competitive and a good challenge for us.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay is all-in in bid to win second IndyCar championship

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The third time has truly been the charm for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

After back-to-back mediocre seasons in 2016 and 2017, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida resident is back where he belongs in 2018: in the hunt for what he hopes is his second Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Hunter-Reay won the title in 2012. But he suffered through a 12th place finish in 2016 (the second-worst in his 12-year IndyCar career) and a ninth-place showing in 2017.

While he earned three podium finishes in both 2016 and 2017, he hadn’t reached victory lane since 2015.

That all changed just over two months ago when he and his Andretti Autosport team came through to take the checkered flag at Belle Isle.

Hunter-Reay celebrates after his win at Belle Isle in June.

Now, in addition to that win, Hunter-Reay has four podium finishes, his most since six each in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

And now, with four races left on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule – starting with this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway – Hunter-Reay is enjoying the fruits of his success.

And he hopes there’s even more success to come in those four races, including – with the fortuitous opportunity to earn double points in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway – the potential to win his second championship.

The 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner heads to Pocono ranked fifth in the points standings, 95 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

“I think overall we’ve been pretty strong, competitive everywhere we’ve gone,” Hunter-Reay said on Tuesday’s IndyCar media teleconference. “We’re back up at the front regularly fighting for podiums, and that’s important.

“No doubt, the past couple races have been missed opportunities (after finishing runner-up at Road America, he’s scored finishes of 19th at Iowa, 16th at Toronto seventh two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio).

“More often than not we show up at a racetrack and we’re contending. It’s been a strong season in many ways. There’s been some missed opportunities in there, no doubt. Hopefully we can close out the season.”

But Hunter-Reay also admits he’ll need some help.

Being 95 points down to Scott, what needs to happen now is we need to go on a run and he needs to start having some bad luck, some difficult races, some circumstances going against him, things like that, which it can do,” Hunter-Reay said. “You just have to keep your head down.

“In this series, it’s the same way in a race, you could be starting mid pack, back of the pack. If you go into it with the right mindset, keep your head down, be tenacious, persistent, you can win races, any of them, and you can win championships.

“Just have to keep focused and make the most of it. Number one thing we have to do is go on the offensive and make a run for it.”

Even with Dixon’s sizable lead, Hunter-Reay isn’t giving up his pursuit of the championship. In a sense, his battle this season is similar to what occurred in 2012. There were those who counted him out, and yet when the dust had settled, he emerged with the title.

“I learned a lot in my racing career, especially through the 2012 season, fighting for the championship with Helio (Castroneves) and Will Power,” Hunter-Reay said. “Once you thought somebody really had an upper hand, thought they were running away with it, everything turned around. There’s still a lot of racing to go (this season).

“Absolutely, we’re going for it, no doubt. We have to focus on every session, make the most of it, race wins. That’s what’s going to get you there.

“Going to Fontana (the 2012 season finale), nobody really had us at a shot of winning it. I forget what the points deficit was. At the end of the night we ended up winning by three points. It’s not over till the last lap, especially with double points on the line, could be a huge swing race.”

This weekend’s venue, Pocono Raceway, has been good to Hunter-Reay the last three years, winning in 2015, finishing third in 2016 and eighth in last year’s race.

“I think we have a great chance (for success at Pocono),” Hunter-Reay said. “I mean, the Pocono race is different than Indy. It is its own beast. It’s very particular in that in turn three with banking, it’s a true handling corner. Feels almost like a Milwaukee type of corner, but going twice the speed.

“You have to set your car up for that. You have to set your car up for turn one, which is a massively banked, tight radius corner. It comes more down to a handling aspect to balance, trying to get the setup right.

“I think we’re going to see a different type of race. I don’t think it’s just going to come down to top end speed, although that will help at Pocono. I think it’s going to be more of a handling race.”

However, with limited practice at Pocono – just two sessions on Saturday – his team will have to scramble to get things right as soon as they unload off the hauler.

“Yeah, it’s a major time crunch,” Hunter-Reay said. “(It’ll be) really hard to get all that done in a short amount of time. It’s really the compromise between turns three and one. That are polar opposites. One corner feels like it’s got no banking, no support to it, the other one is massive banking and a tight radius. It’s very difficult to get those two corners right and get the compromise right with the car when you’re along.

“Once you get into traffic, things change a lot. There will be a qualifying setup, a race setup. We have to do all this with two hours total track time. It will be very difficult, no doubt.”

Hunter-Reay points to the new-style IndyCar this year for his and his team’s uptick in performance in 2018 over the last two years.

“I think as a team we kind of struggled during the aero kit years,” he said. “Now that we’re back on a universal aero kit like we were when we had some success in 2012, ’13 and ’14.

“You show up on a race weekend, you know you have a chance. You’re going in there and the team is going to be able to give you the car that you potentially need to win.

“That makes all the difference really for a driver, just knowing week in and week out that you’ve got a shot at winning and making that run for the championship. I think that’s what we showed this year. It does a lot for your confidence and it really keeps you motivated, no doubt.”

While most race car drivers deny they worry about the standings or points race, Hunter-Reay refreshingly said he’s well aware of where he’s at in the IndyCar rankings – and will be looking forward to the end of Sunday’s race to see where he’ll be heading into the final three races.

“You can’t help but notice where you are (in the standings),” he said. “You really have to be focused on yourself and just winning. You can’t worry about who is where at what time in the weekend. You got to absolutely focus on putting yourself up front.

“After the race, first thing I ask is, ‘where are the guys that we’re fighting in the championship, where did they finish?’ It’s just a curiosity standpoint. You just have to stay focused on yourself.”

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