Penske, Castroneves gassed for new sportscar challenge

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Team owner Roger Penske, left, and star driver Helio Castroneves have worked together for 18 years.

Detroit — After 18 years of competing together as team owner and driver, Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves still just want to go racing.

But time for something new.

And, by the way, would it not be nice to win their first 24 Hours of Le Mans some day?

The two venerable lions of IndyCar racing are running full time for the first time in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) SportsCar Championship this season, including at the Raceway on Belle Isle the weekend of June 1-3.

Five races into their inaugural season, Team Penske scored a huge breakthrough Sunday. Castroneves and Ricky Taylor finished first and Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron second in the Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio.

The first checkered flag for Penske’s new racing enterprise, Acura Team Penske, came after both cars filled Row 1 in qualifying and Castroneves (113.135) seized the pole.

The 600-horsepower, prototype Acura ARX-05s have top speeds of 200 mph.

“Oh, my God, it’s unbelievable,” Castroneves said as IMSA Radio caught him before he headed toward the nearest fence for the “Spiderman” victory celebration he first minted climbing a cyclone barrier in Detroit years ago.

“This is an incredible team effort. Team Penske did a phenomenal job. I’m just so proud to be a part of this organization.”

They are words the great Brazilian, who turns 43 Thursday, has said many times before.

But never after a sportscar race.

Leave it to Roger Penske.

Plan well, secure the best opportunity and bring the best folks with you.

Then win.

More: Detroit Grand Prix yields to Belle Isle daffodils

Racer that he is, Penske is harkening to his roots behind the wheel and on the throttle of sportscars nearly 60 years ago, driving Porsches, Chaparrals and other cars in races like the 24 Hours of Daytona.

He looked for new opportunities to do more of the same as a team owner.

“If you go back to my DNA, I started in sportscars,” said Penske, the founder, chairman and CEO of Penske Corp., a Bloomfield Hills-based transportation service. “I raced at Sebring in the 12-hour race, raced at Daytona, and then moved on into Indy, NASCAR, etc.”

Before retiring from driving to concentrate on the business side of racing, Penske twice received driver of the year honors in what was then the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) series, driving cars like the Porsche 550 and RS60.

Forty years later, he owned a Porsche sportscar team.

“In 2006, we had a Porsche program for three years, won the championship, won the Sebring 12-hour and then Porsche cancelled the program,” Penske said.

“Ever since then, we’ve been looking for a way to get our way to Le Mans.”

The iconic race, along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco, is considered part of a triple crown of international motor sports.

“I raced at Le Mans back in ’63, with Pedro Rodriguez, from Mexico, in a Ferrari,” Penske said.

“Sportscars have kind of been in the back of my mind, and the fact that we could enter into an IMSA program which has a tie towards potentially going to Le Mans — it’s one race that we have not won, from the standpoint of our team.”

The rules of Le Mans are slated for change in 2020. The new ones could allow the Acura prototypes in.

As part of the overall effort, Penske has brought along a familiar, enthusiastic friend.

After 23 wins, 38 poles, three victories in the Indianapolis 500, and finishing second four times in the IndyCar Series, Castroneves is stepping out of IndyCar, mostly, and into sportscars this season.

He practiced last week in his new car in the IndyCar series, which he will race in both Indiana races, the IndyCar Grand Prix, on the road course, May 12, and the Indianapolis 500 May 27, his only scheduled IndyCar races.

Then, Castroneves drove to the pole in qualifying the Acura at Mid-Ohio, before handing the wheel to Taylor during the race with the car in P1.

“It’s definitely, a learning curve for me, and for the team as well, given the last time that they ran was 10 years ago with the (Porsche) Spyder,” Castroneves said, between testing in Indianapolis and qualifying in Lexington. “People don’t realize there is so much more involved.”

Castroneves laughed as he described trying to drive as fast as he can in traffic, and furiously punching an array of buttons on the steering wheel.

In IndyCar, everyone has the same tires, engine and chassis. The difference is the Honda and Chevrolet shops are in competition to squeeze more horsepower out of the engines.

In sportscars, more manufacturers and more kinds of engines add to the complexity.

And drivers not only have traction control, they have two kinds for different kinds of corners, power steering, the ability to change the sensitivity of the throttle and more.

“There’s two things I don’t know yet, to be honest!” Castroneves said, laughing.

“You can actually be running and basically be changing the entire lap, and still be focused, too, on the race car,” he said.

“So, I have to laugh. When the guys say, ‘Hey, change the mapping!’ I’m trying to find where to change it because we have so many buttons.

“I’m going to count how many buttons we have, so people will really understand how difficult it is.

“It’s more than 20! It’s definitely more than 20.

“So, when the Acura guys tell me to do this, I tell them, ‘Tell Ricky to do it! He’ll do it next time. He’ll do it when he’s in the car.

“I know what I need from the car right now!’”

Indy cars are a bit quicker on straightaways, much quicker in the corners and about 5 mph faster approaching them. Meanwhile, sportscar drivers are three or four seconds quicker back on the throttle as they move through a corner.

“It’s more like a marathon,” Castroneves said. “The IndyCar is like track and field.”

Three days before the Ohio race, Penske said he thought the crews broke through the reliability issues and were working on building pace.

“Certainly, going into mid-Ohio here, the guys are getting more familiar with the car,” he said. “We’ve learned, probably, to get more speed.”

Then, in qualifying, and the race, Team Penske did more than win.

It dominated.

“The good news for me is, I’ve been Team Penske for so long,” Castroneves said before the race, “it’s nice to be in the same home, with a different address, maybe.

“It’s cool.”

And Castroneves said he has a surprise in the IndyCar Series for Penske.

“After winning the 500, I’m going to ask Roger to give me more races. So, we’ll see.”

IMSA SportsCar breakdown

The IMSA SportsCar Championship offers two categories of cars.

The Prototype is the state-of-the-art automotive technology, designed for racing. The Grand Touring cars are based on road-driven, production models.

The cars comprise three classes of racing: Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD).

Prototype and GT Le Mans typically feature professional drivers, and the cars bear red marking. GT Daytona features a professional driver and an amateur, and the cars bear green marking.


Top speed: 200 mph

Horsepower: 600

Cars: Acura ARX-05 DPi, Cadillac DPi-V.R, Mazda RT24-P, Nissan DPi, Onroak Ligier JS P217, ORECA 07, Multimatic Riley MK30

Engines: Gibson 4.5L NA V8, Mazda 2.0L Turbo I4, Acura 3.5L Twin-Turbo V6, Nissan 3.8L Twin Turbo V6, Cadillac NA V*

GT Le Mans

Top speed: 180 mph

Horsepower: 525

Cars: BMW M8 GTE, Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, Ferrari 488 GTE, Ford GT, Porsche 911 RSR

Engines: BMW V8 Turbo, 5.5-liter Chevrolet pushrod 2-valve, Ferrari V8 Turbo, Ford EcoBoost Turbo, Porsche flat 6

GT Daytona

Top speed: 175 mph

Horsepower: 500

Cars: Acura NSX GT3, Aston Martin Vantage GT3, Audi R8 LMS GT3, BMW M6 GT3, Ferrari 488 GT3, Lamborghini Huracan GT3, RC F GT3, Mercedes AMG-GT3, Nissan GT3-R, Porsche 911 GT3-R

Engines: Acura V6 Turbo, Aston Martin V12, Audi 5.2-liter V10, BMW V8 Turbo, Ferrari V8 Turbo, Lamborghini 5.2-liter V10, Lexus 5.4-liter V8, Mercedes 6.2-liter V8, Porsche 4.0-liter flat 6