Team Penske President Tim Cindric says they’re using this weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans as a learning experience, as it re-acclimates to sports car racing after nearly a decade away.
The legendary IndyCar and NASCAR operation is fielding an Oreca 07 Gibson in the ten-hour Road Atlanta enduro ahead of a full season return to prototype racing next year with Acura’s DPi program.
The 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will mark Penske’s first full-time sports car effort since a single-year campaign in Grand-Am with a Riley-Porsche DP in 2009, following its championship-winning Porsche RS Spyder program from 2005-08.
Cindric admitted its one-off run with a LMP2-spec car for its IndyCar stars Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves, is largely about getting the team up to speed, in order to hit the ground running with its new factory endeavor next year.
“We’re continuing to learn and being able to do that with an Oreca Gibson chassis really gives us the ability to come here and understand the series itself and all of the different procedural changes that have changed when we were here in the ALMS,” Cindric said.
“We have one entry here and probably two entries worth of people. There’s twice as many people that really need to learn the process and at least experience it.”
With the IndyCar season having ended last month and its open-wheel program set to scale back to three full-time entries next year, Penske has utilized many of its leading personnel for this weekend, and into next year.
Castroneves’ long-time race engineer Jonathan Diuguid will head up the engineering department, with Raul Prados, who engineered Montoya in this year’s Indianapolis 500, also on-board for the Acura Team Penske program.
Former Penske ALMS team manager Jeff Swartwout will return to the sports car paddock after helping build the team’s Virgin Australia Supercars effort, as well as spending time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Cindric, who will be calling race strategy for Castroneves’ car, said roughly 70 percent of the crew here this weekend will be part of the team’s Acura DPi effort next year.
“Our philosophy is to integrate about half of our existing staff with others throughout the series that have come on board with experience,” he explained.
“So we keep our culture but at the same time we learn new things.”
When asked whether they can take any experiences from its previous ALMS program, which delivered three consecutive class drivers, teams and manufacturers’ titles, Cindric admitted there’s not much that can be carried over.
“In that world, it was a long time ago. I think we’re starting fresh in some respects,” he said.
“But at the same time, there’s quite a few of us that have quite a bit of knowledge of sports car racing [but] not the nuances that IMSA has vs. ALMS.
“We all have to learn and be sure that we don’t assume that we know.
“It’s interesting. As we look a lot of people that were involved in the ALMS program, a lot of those people are very key people in our organization, not only within the IMSA program but IndyCar and even the stock car side of it.
“It’s been a really good building block.”
Despite having gotten off to a strong start this weekend, in topping the time charts in two practice sessions and Castroneves scoring pole, Cindric stressed they have one key specific target for the race.
“Our goal for the weekend is to run ten hours, penalty-free,” he said.
“If we can figure out between the drivers, the pit crew, myself and everybody to stay out of the penalty box and run all ten hours, I think we’ll have a shot of racing for something.”