Ford GT

Addition of IndyCar drivers gives Petit Le Mans an ‘All-Star Race’ vibe

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As the IMSA WeatherTech Series wraps up its season in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, the addition of many top drivers and team owners from the NTT IndyCar Series gives this event the feel of an “All-Star Race.”

The 10-hour race is similar to the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the IndyCar stars include this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais, IndyCar race winner Graham Rahal, 19-year-old rookie sensation Colton Herta and promising driver Spencer Pigot.

But it’s another former IndyCar Series driver who is closing in on the championship in the No. 6 Acura Team Penske Dpi, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1999 CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya. He is one of the drivers in the No. 6 along with Dane Cameron and for the endurance races, Pagenaud. Acura Team Penske’s No. 7 entry features three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and (for this race) Rahal.

Watch all 10 hours of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports App and NBCN. Coverage will begin on NBC at 12 noon ET with three hours of action. At 3 p.m. ET,  it will switch over to exclusive coverage on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App. The final five hours of the race will be on NBCN beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.

NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App will provide live, flag-to-flag coverage of the entire race.

Coverage of the 10-hour race will feature a cast of 10 NBC Sports commentators, headlined by NBC Sports’ lead IMSA commentating team of play-by-play voice Leigh Diffey, former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver A.J. Allmendinger (analyst), and former IMSA GT driver Calvin Fish (analyst). INDYCAR on NBC analyst and current IMSA driver Townsend Bell will be competing as a member of the No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus team in the GT Daytona class and also will serve as an analyst for portions of the race.

NBC Sports’ IMSA commentary team will also include IndyCar on NBC analyst Paul Tracy. NASCAR on NBC reporters Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast and Dillon Welch will join IndyCar on NBC reporters Kevin Lee and Jon Beekhuis in providing commentary from pit road.

In addition to Montoya and Acura Team Penske’s pursuit of the Dpi championship, another IndyCar Series team, Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 86 Acura, is leading the championship in the GTP class.

By taking on the world’s top sports car drivers, it gives the current IndyCar drivers and teams a chance to display their skill in a completely different racing discipline.

“I like the uniqueness of it because it bookends most people’s season,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports.com. “You are able to watch drivers from other series race against each other in what should be equal cars. It’s always fun to watch at the beginning of the year and toward the end of the year.

“It might be considered as a throwback, but it’s during the present tense in 2019. It used to be that drivers like Scott and Sebastien would one race one weekend in a sports car, the next weekend in an Indy car, the next weekend in a Formula One car and the next weekend in a Trans-Am car and so on. Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais in particular adapt themselves very quickly and work on drive style to match the features of the race car they drive. It’s really unique to do that.”

It’s also the final race for Chip Ganassi Racing and the Ford GT program in IMSA. The highly successful program concludes with a storied legacy of accomplishment.

“It was a great adventure,” Bourdais told NBCSports.com. “We all wish it wasn’t the end, but it’s a manufacturer deal, and they tend to be that way. It was a fun time and a great era. We’ll just have to find a new chapter.

“It would be great to send Ford out as a winner in its final GT race. We enjoyed some successes in the first couple of years with Le Mans and Daytona. It would be great to add Petit and finish in style.”

Hull has been part of the Ford GT effort at Chip Ganassi Racing since it began in 2016 when it won the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. With the Ford program concluding, CGR will add a third Honda to its NTT IndyCar Series program with the addition of former Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson, who drove for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2019.

“You never want things to end when they are going well,” Hull said. “We talked about that with the drivers. In your lifetime in racing, you are seldom able to maintain a talented group of people for the length of time we have where all of them have remained unselfish. That is a big denominator to where we are with the program and why it is difficult in terms of it ending.

“We’ve had great partnership with Ford, and that started six years ago when we started the DP program with them to develop the engine and the engine accessory package and all the things it takes to drive the engine before that engine was transferred into the GT car. We’ve had six years with Ford, and it’s been a fantastic partnership.

“We are a great match. We do what we do well, and they do what they do well. We’ve only tried to get to the next level together with what our strengths are and not where our weaknesses are.

“It’s been a fantastic program.”

Another unique aspect of IndyCar’s participation in the IMSA race is drivers are competing with teams they race against in IndyCar. Although Dixon is the star driver at Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar, Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan in IndyCar. Graham Rahal drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan in IndyCar but is part of Acura Team Penske’s effort this weekend.

Herta drove for Harding Steinbrenner Racing in IndyCar this past season but will be part of Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s BMW team this weekend. And Spencer Pigot, who drives for Ed Carpenter Racing in IndyCar will be part of Juncos at Road Atlanta.

It’s a great chance for drivers to learn the processes of how the other teams operate.

“On the Dale Coyne side, we have a relatively small amount of people in the group, and that is the biggest difference,” Bourdais said. “You have projects depending on how many people you have. Chip’s team is a very well-oiled organization with a lot of high-quality people, and it’s a pleasure to work with those guys, and they make you feel welcome right away. They give you what you need to perform to the best of your abilities. I’ve been blessed to work with great teams over my career and very professional ones, as well as small teams. You can definitely tell the differences.

“It’s not lack of trying on either side. It’s the hard truth and reality of racing.”

The ability to bring over Dixon and Bourdais for this weekend is like going to the Baseball Hall of Fame and having them step up to the plate in a Major League Baseball playoff game.

“What’s really great about it with Sebastien and Scott is the measurement of their teammates,” Hull said. “Their teammates are doing the same job these two guys do. If their teammates happened to come from where Scott and Sebastien have come and drove Indy cars, they would be comparable to Scott and Sebastien.

“They are able to read the racetrack together and individually. They understand how you create track position; they understand race craft itself. They understand how to get the most out of the car, and they are unusually gifted when it comes to driving the race car. That is parallel to Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais.

“It’s a terrific mix, and it’s great to view it up close and personal, to actually see how much ability Joey Hand, Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Dirk Mueller have. We’ve been lucky enough over the last four years to witness that.

“What is really terrific about it is all six of those drivers have grown in their craft and driving race cars. It’s very measurable and fun to watch.”

Here is a look at current drivers, past drivers and teams that have NTT IndyCar Series and Indy Lights connections that will be participating in the Petit Le Mans:


Current Drivers:

Simon Pagenaud (No. 6 Acura Team Penske DPi)

Graham Rahal (No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi)

Spencer Pigot (No. 50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPi)

Colton Herta (No. 25 BMW Team RLL GTLM)

Sebastien Bourdais (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM)

Scott Dixon (No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM)


Past Drivers:

Mike Conway (No. 5 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi)

Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 6 Acura Team Penske DPi) – CHAMPIONSHIP LEADER

Helio Castroneves (No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi)

Rene Binder (No. 50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPi)

Tristan Vautier (No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac DPi)

Jan Magnussen (No. 3 Corvette Racing GTLM)

Ryan Briscoe (No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM)

Townsend Bell (No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus GTD)

Jack Hawksworth (No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus GTD)

Katherine Legge (No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing Acura GTD)

Bia Figueiredo (formerly known as Ana Beatriz) (No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing Acura GTD)


Teams:

Penske (Acura Team Penske – Nos. 6 and 7 DPi) – NO. 6 LEADING CHAMPIONSHIP

Juncos Racing (No. 50 Cadillac DPi)

Rahal Letterman Lanigan (BMW Team RLL – Nos. 24 and 25 GTLM)

Chip Ganassi Racing (Ford Chip Ganassi Racing – Nos. 66 and 67 GTLM)

Vasser Sullivan (AIM Vasser Sullivan – Nos. 12 and 14 Lexus GTD)

Meyer Shank Racing (No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Acura GTD, No. 86 Meyer Shank Acura GTD, leading championship)

Scuderia Corsa (No. 63 WeatherTech Ferrari GTD)


Indy Lights

Dalton Kellett (No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports LMP2)

Aaron Telitz (No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan GTD)

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500