When you assemble one of the most-talented motorsports lineups in the world there is going to be pressure to perform. Add a new partnership with a premium brand like Acura that has a successful legacy in racing and the expectations were certainly high for Acura Team Penske in its first season competing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2018.
Expectations, however, are nothing new for a team that is part of a global motorsports organization that’s produced a combined 500 victories in its racing heritage.
With a talented two-car lineup, Acura Team Penske produced a solid freshman season in America’s premier sports car racing series in 2018. While adapting to the IMSA landscape and learning the nuances of Daytona Prototype International (DPi) competition, the team generated an important victory with one team while the other fought for the series championship up until the final race of the season.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, former INDYCAR champion and NASCAR race winner Juan Pablo Montoya teamed up with winning sports car driver and former IMSA champion Dane Cameron as the drivers of the No. 6 Acura ARX-05 Prototype in 2018. Montoya and Cameron carried the historic number 6 that represents one of the most successful digits in Team Penske history. Team Penske INDYCAR driver Simon Pagenaud rounded out the No. 6 Acura lineup for the IMSA endurance races at Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta. Three-time Indy 500 champion and longtime Team Penske INDYCAR driver Helio Castroneves was paired with accomplished sports car star and former IMSA champ Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 ARX-05 Prototype, with INDYCAR regular Graham Rahal joining the team for the endurance races.
Much like its NASCAR sister series, IMSA opened its racing schedule at Daytona International Speedway with its biggest event of the year – the Rolex 24 – and Acura Team Penske came out of the gate in a strong way at the twice-round-the clock event. Both team cars raced at the front of the talent-laden field throughout much of the night at Daytona before mechanical challenges – not uncommon in a 24-hour endurance race – knocked both teams out of contention for the win. Both the No. 6 and No 7 Acura entries recovered to finish in the top 10, however, representing an overall solid start to the season.
The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship features some of the most prestigious races in the world, including the 12 Hours of Sebring following the Rolex 24. Once again, the two-car Acura Team Penske brigade ran competitively at Sebring, but mechanical challenges late in the mid-March race prevented a top result for both teams.
On the streets of Long Beach, Acura Team Penske began to flex its collective muscle. Montoya secured the first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship pole position in team history with his strong qualifying run at the seaside street circuit. Both team cars had solid race results with top-six finishes. The performance gave the team some momentum heading into one of the most important races of the year at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Competing in front of many of the Acura employees and executives just down the road from their home base in Marysville, Ohio, Acura Team Penske enjoyed its best performance of the season in the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio. Castroneves captured the pole position for the race before he and Taylor combined for the first win in team history as the No. 7 ARX-05 led 87 of the 125 laps en route to the checkered flag. Montoya and Cameron led 38 laps in the No. 6 Acura and came home in second place for a team 1-2 finish.
Following the victory at Mid-Ohio, Acura Team Penske worked to try and find consistent performance for the balance of the season. Both teams were able to score podium finishes with the No. 6 Acura team of Cameron and Montoya showing consistent speed throughout the rest of the season. Montoya and Cameron produced podium results with third-place efforts at Belle Isle, Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca as the duo finished fifth in the season standings. The duo finished the year with the VP Fuels Front Runner Award given to the team with the most laps led on the year.
“Everyone with Acura and Team Penske did an amazing job this year in getting the program off the ground and being competitive,” said Montoya. “I’m sure many people expected us to come in and win races right away, but that’s not how things work in this series. It took a few years for the Australian Supercars team to become the team they are now, and I think this program will take a similar trajectory. I’m excited to continue to help that become a reality.”
Cameron was also proud of the foundation that was established in 2018, but he also believes next season will be full of opportunity for Acura Team Penske.
“Juan and I had a really solid year in 2018 with the No. 6 Acura team,” said Cameron. “It was a great building year, for sure, but we both want to get to Victory Lane. We were super consistent towards the end of the season and that should give us confidence and momentum going into the offseason and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. This whole organization is just a special one to be a part of, with race wins and/or championships in every series in which we compete. Hopefully we can add an IMSA championship next year.”
Castroneves and Taylor followed the Mid-Ohio win with a runner-up result at Belle Isle before securing top-five finishes at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park and Petit Le Mans to close the season ranked seventh overall.
After completing his 19th season with Team Penske, Castroneves was proud to be a part of the organization’s record setting year in 2018 as well as the successful return to sports car racing. “Wow, what a year it was for everyone at Team Penske! From getting a win in the first year of Acura Team Penske, to the 17th Indianapolis 500, and the NASCAR and Australian Supercars championships, it was a special season,” said Castroneves. “For me, it was great to have a teammate like Ricky Taylor on the No. 6 Acura. He is a former series champion and I was able to learn a lot from him while I made the transition from INDYCAR. I think we grew a lot over the course of the year, but we have to step it up even more in 2019.”
Taylor enjoyed his first season with the team and he will always treasure becoming the 50th driver to win for Roger Penske’s team with the Mid-Ohio victory this season.
“I think it is a dream of most every racecar driver to get the opportunity to drive for Roger Penske. To become the 50th different driver to win for him, though, was something I could have never expected in any of my dreams,” said Taylor. “We wanted to win more races for him – both cars did – but everyone at Acura Team Penske is going about building this team the right way, and I believe you will see the benefits of having a year under our belts when we get to Daytona in January.”
Acura Team Penske has been working hard during the offseason in preparation for a strong sophomore IMSA campaign in 2019. The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship begins at Daytona in January at the Roar Before The 24, followed by the Rolex 24, January 26-27. The 2019 season will bring significant changes to the series, most notably in the DPi class. Previously, the DPi cars were balanced against the other Prototypes in the field with the LMP2 entries. For the coming season, LMP2 will be considered a Pro-Am class and the DPis will compete for the championship against each other.
In addition, the NBC family of channels will be the new television home for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship after a successful run on FOX. The 2019 Rolex 24 will be broadcast on both NBC and NBC Sports Network beginning at 2 pm ET on January 26.