DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – They’re fierce rivals in the IndyCar Series, but this weekend they will be fast friends in the IMSA Series championship, sharing rides for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Alexander Rossi, who drives for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar, will be driving a DPI for Acura Team Penske, which features three drivers (Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya) who have battled Rossi in the Indianapolis 500 over the past three years.
In the GTLM class, Chip Ganassi Racing will field one Ford for its defending IndyCar series champion Scott Dixon and another for Sebastien Bourdais, who competes against Ganassi in IndyCar with Dale Coyne Racing.
So how exactly does this work?
Well, it wouldn’t in every situation, according to Dixon, who revealed he once had a sports car option with an IndyCar rival that was quashed.
“It depends on the teams, really,” he said. “The Penske-Ganassi thing doesn’t work really. I was going to be doing that job, but I was told no.”
It has gone swimmingly for Penske with other teams’ IndyCar drivers, though.
Rossi took a spot on the No. 7 Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype International that belonged at last year’s Rolex 24 to Graham Rahal, who was about a half-inch too tall to return to this year’s car.
Though they don’t cooperate in another series, Andretti (which fields Hondas in IndyCar) and Penske have a common tie through Acura that makes them allies in sports cars.
“Team Penske” is the team name, and the Acuras are built in the same Mooresville, N.C., facility as Penske’s NASCAR and IndyCar teams. But Penske’s IMSA program is viewed as a completely separate division by Rossi – and not as an IndyCar counterpart.
“I know it looks like that on paper, but at the end of the day, this is an Acura program,” Rossi said. “And there’s a lot of same people in the engineering truck that I’ve worked with in the past in Honda and IndyCar. So a lot of familiar faces from that standpoint.
“As far as actual day-to-day operations, Team Penske runs DPI as its own thing. It’s in a completely different area of the workshop from the IndyCar program. So it really doesn’t feel like much crossover. Which is great. I think that’s why it’s able to work as well as it does. But at the end of the day, this is an opportunity to develop my relationship and continue my relationship with Acura and Honda and make that stronger for the future. It’s a good opportunity to drive for a great team and hopefully win one of the big ones.”
The 2016 Indy 500 winner said he hardly talks with his Penske teammates about being strange bedfellows, but the communication has been constant and productive since Rossi joined the team last month.
With the Californian making his second start in the Rolex 24 and adapting to a DPI car for the first time, Castroneves can provide valuable advice on making the transition after moving to IMSA full time last year after a 20-season run in IndyCar.
“It’s so funny, Graham Rahal did a phenomenal job last year for us, and it’s amazing because these guys are special to me,” Castroneves said. “I raced them 20 years in IndyCar. Last year was the first year I wasn’t full time. All these guys you compete against, and you know them as your competitor, and all of a sudden they join forces and it’s, ‘Hmmm, what am I expecting?’
“Graham was amazing. We had a great time. Unfortunately, because he’s too big … he texted me and said, ‘I’m just not feeling comfortable.’ These cars are not easy to get in, well they went out there, found the second-tallest driver, which is Alex.”
Rossi quickly got up to speed in the Roar at the Rolex test sessions a few weeks ago, in part because of the insight gleaned in many Penske conference calls. Though he shares little in common with Castroneves (“We’re polar opposites of each other, which hopefully works well in a race car as teammates.”), Rossi has been amused by the Brazilian’s sense of humor.
“Helio’s great; it’s been really nice to have Helio and Ricky (Taylor) as teammates,” Rossi said. “They’ve been superwelcoming from Day 1 and me being an outsider, and not knowing much about endurance racing or how their program operates, they were willing to answer a lot of questions. We’ve been really good teammates from that standpoint and helping me get up to speed as quickly as possible.”
Said Castroneves: “I understand the incredible scenario (Rossi) is going through about the brakes, the turning, the power steering. All of a sudden, you’re driving a different car. I want him to be as comfortable as he can and quick as he can because it’s all about teamwork.”
Staying focused on that instead of the potential awkwardness of any IndyCar division is easy, Castroneves said, because “at the end of the day, we’re racers who want to win, not to be secret about what we’re doing. We’re hoping whoever we hired comes with the same mind and professional way so we can execute it.”
Castroneves said he was impressed by Rossi’s feedback at the test, noting he was “coming out of his shell a little bit” while adapting to working with drivers he usually races.
“You compete against these guys, and now you’re teaming up with those guys. The gloves are still a little bit halfway up, just in case! But now I hope he feels even more comfortable with us, and we can get the watch for all of us.”