The combination of Team Penske, Acura and Honda Performance Development has helped make all three organizations stronger, according to Team Penske President Tim Cindric, who has praised the working relationship forged in the last 18-plus months.
Announced in 2017 and having made its race debut this year, Acura Team Penske has been among the latest powerhouse teams to have joined the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
And while the partnership has been off to a successful start, highlighted by multiple pole positions and a breakthrough maiden win at Mid-Ohio in its first year of DPi competition, Cindric said it’s been the culmination of more than three years of behind-the-scenes work.
The legendary open-wheel and NASCAR operation, which had prior links to Honda in IndyCar, had been evaluating a prototype program since the announcement of IMSA’s DPi formula in 2015, which Cindric felt offered a prime opportunity for Penske to return to top-level prototype racing.
“When the DPi formula came out, it looked like another change. And change is opportunity,” he told Sportscar365.
“In Grand-Am, we didn’t feel there was a lot of factory support and from our standpoint, we wanted to race for overall [wins]; we don’t really want to compete in class. We passed on a few other opportunities within GTLM.”
Talks with Acura and HPD, which had aspirations to join the new-for-2017 platform, soon began, with an agreement reached in late 2016, more than a year prior to the program’s race debut in the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
While considered by many, including HPD Team Leader Allen Miller, to have initially been “one of the worst-kept secrets” in the IMSA paddock prior to its announcement, the Penske partnership has since flourished on and off the track.
“I think everything we’ve done has been transparent,” Cindric said. “There’s no dictation between HPD or Acura and us.
“Steve Eriksen [HPD Vice President and Chief Operating Officer] and I have known each other for a long time. Steve was one of the Honda race engineers on Gil de Ferran’s car back in 2001 in my early days with Penske. We have a mutual respect.
“The timing [of the DPi program] was going to be good in that unfortunately, we’d have to go down one IndyCar, as we didn’t have enough support to continue running four cars, and five at Indy.
“As we sat down and talked, I said to Steve, ‘What we would like to do is have a mixture of three different groups.
“Half of those people [on the team] would be made up of guys that understood our culture and team at different levels. We’d put those in the sports car program equally on each one of the cars.
“Then we’d bring in some up-and-coming guys, ones that come out of tech school and from other places.
“The third piece of the puzzle was to find ones that understood this discipline and had worked in the sport.”
Cindric said their selection for a mix of driver talent, in three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, former CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya and sports car racing aces Dane Cameron and Ricky Taylor, also followed the same approach.
“We looked at who are the veterans, and obviously Helio and Juan had a place in our team,” he said. “We knew them and we’re big believers in chemistry. Individuals don’t win the races; teams win the races.
“I’m still surprised we were able to lure Dane and Ricky into the organization, two past [IMSA] champions. They were really our two top choices to drive with us.
“When you mix those with Juan and Helio, I think they feed off each other, in terms of their different experiences.”
While having worked with HPD on-and-off in CART and IndyCar, most recently in 2011, Cindric’s relationship dates back to the formation of Honda’s California-based motorsports organization more than 25 years ago.
“They made the decision [to enter U.S. racing] in 1992 and I went to work for Bobby [Rahal] at the end of the year, and 1993 was the test year with Mike Groff,” Cindric said. “I was engineering coordinator with the team at the time.
“We were taking Japanese lessons!
“In school, I minored in Japanese culture so I understood some of those things and back then it was still fresh in my mind, as I was only two or three years out of school.
While Rahal’s association with Honda lasted only a single year in competition, Cindric said there’s still a lot of familiar faces at HPD, including Miller and now-Acura DPi program manager Matt Niles, who worked as a trackside support engineer on Castroneves’ Honda-powered IndyCar in 2006.
Niles was also a part of Acura’s previous factory prototype program, which went head-to-head with the Penske-run Porsche RS Spyder operation in the American Le Mans Series.
“A lot of the guys Penske is using worked in 2007-08 in the Porsche program,” Niles told Sportscar365. “A lot of us on this side worked on the Acura [LMP2] program at that point.
“We immediately bonded over that. We had all been through this before and now this was a new opportunity together. They’ve been super professional and it has been great.”
Cindric echoed Niles’ sentiments.
“I think the one thing, when we sat down from the beginning, we said, ‘What’s our number one goal outside of winning?’ It was really to make each other better,” he said.
“We can make both of our organizations better by the way in which we approach different things. We can take the best practices and put them into place.
“Obviously we’re sensitive to each other’s IP when it comes to different formulas but I think there’s a good balance.
“There’s a lot of respect on both ends. We’ve seen it work both ways.”