DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – When Andretti Autosport’s LMP3 team took Robin Pemberton back to Daytona International Speedway victory lane Sunday in the Roar before the Rolex, it was emotionally meaningful in many ways.
With a dominant win (lapping the category’s other seven cars) in the 100-minute qualifying race, the No. 36 Ligier JS P320 earned the top starting spot in the LMP3 class for the 60th Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Pemberton last celebrated a pole position at the World Center of Racing nearly 30 years ago as the crew chief for Kyle Petty’s Pontiac in the 1993 Daytona 500.
INFORMATION FOR THE 60TH ROLEX 24: Schedules, start times, entry lists
ON THE POLE POSITION: Wayne Taylor Racing wins qualifying race
“I never thought I’d get back,” Pemberton told NBC Sports with a chuckle. “I wasn’t even looking for it.”
Certainly not with a prototype car in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series.
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Pemberton made his fame and living in NASCAR for nearly four decades, notching 26 victories as a crew chief with Richard Petty, Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Rusty Wallace before a decade-plus run as the executive vice president of competition in the Cup Series (where he famously coined the “Boys, Have at It” phrase while overseeing many critical decisions and projects in the garage).
Jarett Andretti, who started the qualifier before handing off to co-driver Josh Burdon, playfully gave Pemberton some grief. “I said, ‘Not only did you not know if you’d be back here, but you also didn’t know you would in a P3 car, because it didn’t even exist at that time,” Andretti told NBC Sports.
It was a perfect kickoff to Andretti Autosport’s Rolex 24 debut as the team begins its first full season in the LMP3 category, continuing a journey that began three years ago. Pemberton was announced as the first hire in January 2019 by Jarett and John Andretti for their new sports car program (team owner Michael Andretti had promised his first cousin John, who left a legacy at Andretti Autosport, that the team eventually would reach the national level).
It’s been a steady climb over four seasons as Jarett Andretti has made the transition from dirt racing to sports cars. The team started in GT4, moved into Prototype Challenge and joined the big-league WeatherTech Series midway through the 2021 season (entering sprint races and a six-hour event at Watkins Glen to prepare for a 2022 endurance schedule that will include Daytona and Sebring).
“We’re just finding our way,” Pemberton said. “We keep building the team and getting good people to work together.”
And it’s managed the growth amidst tragedy. John Andretti died two years ago following a long bout with colon cancer. Last September, Pemberton’s son Bray died at 35, leaving behind a wife and two children.
Jarett Andretti said the “family atmosphere” of Andretti Autosport has provided a support system for Robin Pemberton, whose personal loss also has become a motivator for the team.
“He’s been through a lot, and he still comes to the shop quite a bit,” Andretti said. “His deal is really tough. I think any time you lose a kid, that’s an insurmountable pain that him and (wife) Lisa had to go through, and that’s extremely unfair.”
Despite his son’s death, Pemberton has remained a fixture as the team ramped up for the LMP3 season. Splitting time between his North Carolina family in Greensboro and Charlotte, Andretti’s shop in Indianapolis and preseason testing at Daytona, he had been on the road for five of the past seven weeks between a brief holiday break.
“(The victory) doesn’t offset anything that we’ve all been through, but it’s nice at least that some work has paid off,” Pemberton said. “You’ll never get though some of these other things that you go through in life, but the last couple of months of working hard and getting to the 24 Hours, so far it’s paid off.”
If the success continues, the stakes might increase. Michael Andretti has designs on landing a manufacturer deal to join IMSA’s new top-tier LMDh category, perhaps as early as 2024, which would put the team on a path to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With entries in multiple series from IndyCar to IMSA to Formula E and Extreme E, Andretti is driven on being a major player in global motorsports. During a recent preseason gathering at the team’s shop, Jarett Andretti was in awe of being among drivers from more than a dozen series.
“It’s crazy this is Andretti Autosport’s first entry into the Daytona 24 Hours, because Michael has so many forays into so many different things,” he said. “So we’re really excited to be part of that first entry, and hopefully we can have a good 1 for 1 batting average when we leave (Daytona).
“I got to meet all the (Andretti) drivers, and it was quite cool to see all these people from different areas. So anyway, if I can be a small cog in the wheel of his, as you call it, world domination of motorsports, then I’m happy to be a part of it and try to help as much as I can.”
Pemberton, who jokes he’d be ready to go for Le Mans “as long as you can get me a good translator,” said the timing has been right.
“All around the world and the United States, road racing has taken off, and you’ve got clubs and all this other interest in it, and Michael works real hard,” Pemberton said. “With his visions, he makes stuff happen. So not knowing exactly what he wants to do, but knowing Michael like we all know him, there’s something big that he wants to do. He’s after anything he can do in the motorsports world. It’s really been a pleasure to be around him.”
Pemberton and Jarett Andretti believe they slowly have positioned the LMP3 team well for the future. Pemberton spent the first 18 months living and working full time in Indianapolis assembling a foundation “that runs a little bit different than stock cars. It was just getting people in the right spots.
“Right now it’s the best group we’ve had in four years as far as guys working together,” he said. “But this is a bigger project than we’ve done so far. Trying to run the 24 Hours is a whole season in itself. Right now it’s been pretty rewarding.
Robin Pemberton worked as NASCAR’s executive vice president of competition for more than a decade (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports).
“Sports cars is quite different on its own. It’s a different discipline to learn. It’s hard to go back to school after you’ve gone four decades doing something completely different. But it’s still been fun.”
As always, the cars are the appeal for Pemberton (who also enjoyed working on McLarens at the outset in IMSA), though the vehicles present a much different challenge. He was personally involved with the design and development of two generations of stock cars as well as countless hours building cars with teams.
With strict homologation rules, IMSA allows less autonomy in car construction.
“You can’t work on certain things, and it’s tough,” Pemberton said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow, when you see something, and the first thing you want to do is remodel it, and you can’t. So it has its degree of difficulty, but that makes it rewarding also.”
Sports cars also have been a major adjustment for Andretti, who actually made his Rolex 24 debut 10 years ago in a Mazda RX-8 with his late father. While celebrating in Daytona victory lane Sunday, Jarett Andretti had a flashback to sitting in the 2012 prerace drivers meeting with John.
“It’s really cool because that was my dad’s last race, and he did it with me, and obviously he’s a big part of this program,” Jarett said. “So there’s a lot of good feelings when you come back to Daytona.”
Though he made a detour “into left field” with USAC sprint cars and midgets from 2013-17, he always kept his eye on a return to the Rolex 24 and road racing.
“I always liked it, and that’s where I grew up,” said Andretti, who also made a 2019 start in Indy Lights at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Even though this is way different than running Kokomo on a Sunday night, I always wanted to get back here, and I just didn’t have the opportunity, and then we were kind of able to cultivate that.
“The sprint car racing was great, though. It teaches you so much racecraft. It helps you a ton in traffic, and I really enjoy it. So I lean on that quite a bit. People don’t think it translates, but the racing there is so hard, it’s just like racing here in the multiple classes.”
He and the team also rely heavily on Pemberton, whose job has evolved into a jack-of-all trades executive.
“The first year or two, it was team manager, and it really doesn’t matter what it is, but I’m not that now,” he said. “I know my role, and it’s not that top guy. I work with the tire guys and the engineers just trying to be the guy that fills the little voids and gets people to work together. Mainly consulting, but it’s more than just a consulting job.
“During race, you just talk about stuff and have the time to make decisions and bring up ideas, but the more you’re together, the people learn their roles and get more experience actually running races and getting the strategy down. They get better as time goes on.”
Pemberton might not have an official title, but Andretti has a label for his position.
“I always call him our rudder,” Andretti said. “Like on the boat, he keeps everything steady and moving forward, and he’s got so much experience, we lean on him quite a bit. He was basically the person No. 1 that Dad and I hired to run the program when we started in ’19, and he’s been there ever since.”
The constant presence of Robin Pemberton helping to prepare for the Rolex 24 during a turbulent four months after Bray’s death both impressed and touched the team, Andretti said.
“Robin hasn’t missed a beat on our program, and part of the reason is that we’re very familiar and have a family atmosphere,” he said. “We just we want to run good for Robin, too, and help ease his pain and suffering that he’s had this year.
“So I feel like there’s a lot riding on this, and we’re excited about it.”