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TAYLOR: A Breakthrough Win for Acura Team Penske

Ricky Taylor files his latest Sportscar365 column following breakthrough first win for Acura Team Penske…

Photo: Mike Levitt/IMSA

Our breakthrough win for Acura Team Penske was the culmination of the hard work and dedication of everyone at Acura and Team Penske.

On top of the first win for the new Acura ARX-05 it was a 1-2 finish to stamp the arrival of the team to the top of the podium in IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship competition.

Thinking back to the beginning of the program when I first joined Team Penske, the common theme here is teamwork.

Mr. Penske and Tim Cindric have done a great job in fostering a constructive learning environment that is bred amongst the team members.

The amount of effort, planning, and hard work that went into these race cars is astounding.

Starting with a trial run at last year’s Petit Le Mans, through the numerous night stints at the wind tunnel, to the test days at Sebring running from 6 a.m. to 8p.m., to building a winning group of team members out of existing IndyCar and NASCAR team members, to finding some of the best sports car racing mechanics in the business, to recruiting other members who had never even seen a race before but were great additions to the team, this win was a long time in the making.

Everyone has had input. It’s a credit to everyone from Acura and Team Penske who have had a hand in this project and have contributed to where the team is right now.

This weekend we knew would be strong for us. We have had great pace all year but just have not been able to seal the results we had expected up until this point.

After two attempts of being snowed out, we went testing about a week and a half before the race event. It was a very productive test and the team was able to learn a lot about the car and work on what we had learned in the previous three race events.

Throughout all four practices, including warmup, we led every session, with all four drivers having their opportunity to lead a session.

We were confident for qualifying that we had a very good shot at pole but made a late decision on which drivers were going to qualify the cars. The decision was made that Dane and Helio would qualify the cars.

Qualifying came and I was not able to watch the session because I was giving hot laps in an NSX (not such a bad deal!). I was left to listen on the loud speakers and really appreciate the colorful commentary of John Hindhaugh, Jeremy Shaw and Shea Adam.

We knew the laptime would come late in the session but I can tell you, just sitting in the car listening to the action over the loud speaker was the most exciting qualifying session I’ve experienced.

Dane Cameron put in an awesome lap near the end of the session and it looked like it would hold up for the remainder of the session but Helio, with a spectacular qualifying performance, pulled out a spectacular run in the final laps of the session, capturing the pole for the 7 car.

Race day came and we would start the race with both Penske Acuras on the front row.

These are the days that really get the nerves going. After all that goes in to this program and the necessity to get a result for Acura, we had to seal the deal with the performance and speed that we’d shown so far.

Helio started the race and had his hands full from the drop of the green as Dane was super strong in the 6 car and both were chased mightily by the two factory Mazdas.

It was a hot four-way battle for the lead in the first 45 minutes of the race. Helio was doing everything to hold onto the advantage and did an awesome job making all of the right calls in traffic to hold them off.

I couldn’t help but think to myself that he’s doing such a great job and is in such a good rhythm, he should keep it going for another stint. But it was not meant to be, the strategy called for me to get in at the first stop and I would be right into the battle.

After the huge effort Helio put in, I had to do everything I could to maintain his advantage. I got into the car, Dane pitted with us and stayed in the car (right behind us) while the two Mazdas pitted a few laps earlier, also keeping their drivers on board.

Just coming out of the pits I took it far too conservatively on the cold tires and Dane went flying by, followed by both Mazdas.

Instantly I was kicking myself for blowing all of that track position but the race was still 2 hours from the end and we had lots of time to make it up.

Once I got back up to the back of the lead train, it was apparent that the leaders were going to catch a bit of traffic and Tim Cindric and the guys made the call to pit early and play our cards on this stop. It turned out to be a great call.

We got 3-4 laps of clear running while the others ran in traffic before pitting and jumped them all on the next stop. We were now the leader and just had to build the gap to maintain the advantage on the final stop.

This was a critical point in the race for just getting in the rhythm and trying to control our race. However, the traffic was such a huge variable that you could gain or lose 3-5 seconds a lap if catching GT cars in the wrong places.

The final stop came and we beat everyone off pit road, so it was one final stint to hold everyone off to the finish.

Montoya was very strong in the final stint and not holding anything back through traffic. The issue really came when catching the lapped cars of Trummer and Derani who were fighting to stay on the lead lap.

We had to find a way around them. By the time we got by both of them our advantage was down to only about two seconds from upwards of eight seconds so the pressure was really on.

The odd part for me is that I felt once Derani lost the lap he would let JPM by but he fought him very hard and it wasn’t until the end of the race that I realized he was still racing the 31 car for 6th place I believe. So he was trying to maintain as much track position as possible.

Either way, having those few prototypes between us was critical to holding him off until the finish to seal our first win of the season for Acura – and my first win for Team Penske – along with a lot of the new team members who joined the team specifically for this program.

Everyone executed beautifully and the team didn’t just execute one winning performance but two.

The 6 car put in a winning performance as well and that was what made a 1-2 finish so sweet. Thank you again to everyone at Acura and Team Penske for the work they put in.

The drivers had the easy job and the pleasure of getting to drive for such an amazing organization.

After the race I was told a fact that still amazes me and one that I am proud to have my name attached to.

The win made me the 50th driver to win a race for Team Penske. What an honor that is! Names like Donohue, Mears, Wallace and Fittipaldi are on that list, along with my teammate Helio.

I have to pinch myself each time I think about that. My hope is that Dane will be the 51st driver to win very soon.

Ricky Taylor (@RickyTaylorRace) is the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype champion, driving for Acura Team Penske.

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