Photo courtesy of IMSA

Acura Team Penske pushing, learning hard in Daytona testing

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There are a lot of standard, run-of-the-mill quotes used to describe the challenge of racing the Rolex 24 at Daytona that largely focus on endurance, persistence and compromise.

And then there is this gem from Juan Pablo Montoya offered during a break in testing for Acura Team Penske today at Daytona, to describe what this race entails.

“The best way to describe is it go down I-95, at 150 mph, running away from the police… that’s kinda the feel you get here,” Montoya said, to lead off a session with reporters Friday, which IMSA was gracious enough to stream live on Facebook.

“You feel like you’re being chased – or chasing someone. They stole your life and you need to get it back and you’re driving the wheels off it, in meantime people get in the way and you’re bouncing into people. It’s pretty cool.”

Canned quote that is not, and for Montoya, it’s also the precursor to both his and Acura Team Penske’s aspirations of coming in hot for the race debut of the new Acura ARX-05 at next year’s Rolex 24.

Penske’s drivers are completing a two-day test this week at Daytona and a two-day test next week at Sebring to continue the intense preparation for the 36 Hours of Florida out of the box to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. The Acura program joins Mazda among DPi manufacturers testing this week at Daytona.

Montoya’s already hailed the car’s early reliability from the first round of testing.

“The reliability of the car has been unbelievable. Acura came out with an engine that just runs. I think the pace we still need to work on it. It’s still early days for the car,” he said.

Montoya and Helio Castroneves are the two star attractions in Penske’s full-season lineup but both are well aware and focused on the fact it’ll be co-drivers Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor that will ease their respective sports car transitions.

Montoya will share with Cameron (Simon Pagenaud is third driver), Castroneves with Taylor (Graham Rahal is third driver), and the older drivers are moving into a new position of being the relative newcomers learning from their significantly younger but championship-winning sports car veteran teammates.

“Yesterday for example, we were done running and we went for dinner just to talk about cars and get that relationship together,” Montoya said of Cameron, the 2016 Prototype class champion. “The two of us we can talk about what I like and he likes, and what I hate and he hates. So we stay away from the things we hate we can get to a nice compromise.”

Castroneves added, “People don’t realize they’re champions in the series and they have more experience than Juan Pablo and me. So having them as a reference to learn details is key… we’re talking about traction control, electronics and a lot of things we don’t use. We have to smooth it out. We have the current champ in my car. And he has another champ in his! We’re older guys, but we’re rookies.

“I’m not very good at sharing. But it’s another thing. Transitioning from IndyCar to sports car takes time. You gotta share the driving position, driving style, the setup. There is so much. At end of the day it’s a compromise. Like marriage. We all know that. Right now Ricky is phenomenal and Dane is as well. I’m looking forward to 2018.”

Team Penske’s maiden sports car race in its return, Petit Le Mans with the LMP2-spec Oreca 07 Gibson, was a hugely valuable learning experience for the team. Castroneves won the pole and the team recovered from Castroneves getting hit early on to finish third.

The work done this offseason is key in the preparation to ensuring the new car is ready to star out of the box at both next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 and crucially, the Rolex 24 itself.

“The competition level from other teams is incredible,” Castroneves said. “The rhythm in the race was stronger than we expected. We know what we need to do know. Focus on qualifying gets you to the front. There, 10 hours, weather changing, there’s so many different adversity. It was a great learning curve.

“Sure it’s a new team but not new in sports cars, or new in many aspects. We have experienced people around us. That’s one of the reasons we did Petit Le Mans. We’ll face different (challenges). There’s a lot to be prepared for. We’ll do everything in our power.”

Beyond their full-season bow in IMSA, Castroneves is confirmed for a return for next year’s Indianapolis 500 in a fourth Team Penske car.

Montoya’s options now seem limited to a fifth, as the primary Chevrolet test driver under INDYCAR’s directed 2018 Dallara universal body kit program would be highly unlikely to be released away from Penske and Chevrolet to a Honda-powered IndyCar effort. He updated his status today, following on from his most recent comments to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix last month.

“I don’t think I will (race Indianapolis) at the moment,” Montoya said. “I think with Roger … I could either run with him if he wants; if not, I don’t think he’ll let me run anywhere else.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).