It was not a big topic of discussion for Acura Team Penske and it wasn’t a constant drumbeat during the 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC) season, but it was simmering just below the surface of a unique season of racing. The topic started to surface in May when it became known that Helio Castroneves would be making his last Indianapolis 500 start for Team Penske, which would have been notable enough. Then it took on even more significance when it was clear that 2020 would be the final IMSA season for Acura Team Penske, which meant that Castroneves, along with No. 7 team co-drivers Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi, would be racing elsewhere in 2021.
So, what was it? What was the underlying storyline and the goal that came into focus for the No. 7 Acura squad as the 2020 IWSC season reached its conclusion? It was doing everything possible to make sure Castroneves left Team Penske with a championship on his resume. It is the one thing that has eluded him over the course of the 21-year career with the team, the longest-tenured driver in team history.
Taylor already owned the 2017 IWSC championship in the DPi class, but few drivers have the opportunity to add hardware to the mantle of “The Captain” Roger Penske, so Taylor had his own motivation. As did Rossi, who wanted to add to his resume as one of the top young, American stars in motorsports.
Early in the season the prospects for the championship looked grim. An early incident in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona forced the No. 7 Acura team to spend the last 20 hours of the race clawing back to eighth – the final position of the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class. The team followed up the five-month break for COVID-19 with an eighth-place and seventh-place finish at Daytona and Sebring International Raceway, respectively. The team left Sebring eighth in the series standings with six races remaining on the adjusted 2020 IWSC schedule.
Historically, Daytona and Sebring had not been the most successful tracks for the No. 7 Acura team. So, upon leaving Sebring following the third race of the year, the team hit its sweet spot of the schedule and the results proved it. It started with a determined drive by Castroneves at Road America, a race in which he made late-race pass for the lead in a driving rain storm to earn the team’s first victory of the year – and the first since May of 2018. Two more victories followed at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta (MRRA) and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to vault the No. 7 Acura team back into title contention.
A runner-up result in Petit Le Mans at MRRA interrupted the winning streak, but the No. 7 Acura team returned to Victory Lane in the next event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. That win gave the No. 7 crew a two-point lead in the standings heading into the rescheduled 12 Hours of Sebring. Historically held in mid-March, the 12 Hours of Sebring was moved to the season finale due to the pandemic.
“To have the points lead going into Sebring was unbelievable,” said Taylor. “We did everything we had to do to get back in contention, but we knew Sebring was going to pose quite a challenge. I’m not sure if anyone could have predicted just how crazy and intense the race would end up, but it was worth it to send Helio off with a championship. To me, he is Team Penske.”
Once again, the tough Sebring circuit proved to be a formidable foe standing in the way of a second-consecutive IWSC title for Acura Team Penske after the No. 6 ARX-05 team captured the crown in 2019. Within the first hour of the endurance classic, the No. 7 Acura was forced to the garage to make repairs to the left-side intercooler. When the car returned to the track, the No. 7 was scored 11 laps down to the race leaders.
Fortunately, there was a lot of racing left in the endurance classic. One by one the other two competitors for the IWSC championship in the DPi class also fell victim to issues, and when the checkered flag fell over the season, an eighth-place finish by the No. 7 Acura ARX-05 team was just enough to secure the championship.
By one point.
“I didn’t care if it was one point or 101 points, I just wanted to finish off this season like this,” exclaimed Castroneves, a perennial contender for the IndyCar Series title for so many years with Team Penske. “At some point in my career I just had to accept that maybe I wouldn’t win a championship; that it just wasn’t in the plans. We had been so close in the past, but I never thought that my career would be incomplete if I didn’t win one because it has been one heck of a ride.”
A ride that included three Indianapolis 500 victories and 36 combined wins. For Castroneves, however, it is more than just on-track numbers.
“This is just the next chapter of my life, but it is not goodbye,” says the popular Brazilian. “The relationships I’ve built and the friendships I’ve made at Team Penske will last forever. To go out with a championship like this is the stuff of Hollywood.”
Not only did the finish mark the storybook ending that so many on Team Penskle were hoping for, it also brought the organization its 40th all-time championship and an end to what will likely be remembered as the most unusual season in racing history.