In what comes as no surprise to anyone in INDYCAR, Team Penske is making immediate headlines in its return to sports car racing.
Helio Castroneves put the No. 6 Team Penske ORECA LMP2 on the pole position in Friday’s qualifying for today’s Motul Petit Le Mans, the concluding race to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.
Castroneves will team with fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya in the 10-hour endurance race that Team Penske is using to become acclimated to the series before embarking on a full-season two-car campaign next year in a pair of Acura DPi prototypes.
A three-time Indianapolis 500 champion who has driven Indy cars the past 20 years, Castroneves was officially named Wednesday as part of the Team Penske sports car program for 2018. He will return to the Verizon IndyCar Series in May to compete with Team Penske in the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Castroneves won the Petit Le Mans pole with a lap of 1 minute, 11.314 seconds (128.221 mph) on the 2.54-mile permanent road course at Road Atlanta. Afterward, the 42-year-old denied that Team Penske was out to “make a statement” in its return to the sports car arena.
“It’s not a statement,” Castroneves said. “I’ll tell you what, we’re still learning. First of all, thanks to Team Penske for this great opportunity. I can’t obviously forget about my teammates, Simon and Juan Pablo, because I had a big shunt about a week ago (in a test session).
“And, man, to bring back that confidence, it was a little bit tough, but my guys were able to coach me and make sure we got it.”
Montoya, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1999 CART champion, admitted it took time for him to adjust to the sports car fresh off his final session as one of INDYCAR’s test drivers to prepare the universal aero kit that will be used by all Verizon IndyCar Series teams in 2018. Montoya was among six drivers who tested the new-look Indy car Sept. 26 at Sebring International Raceway before going to Road Atlanta to drive the ORECA.
“Last week, I tested the 2018 Indy car and it’s just such a different feel,” the Colombian said. “It just took me a few laps to get back in the (sports) car and get used to it – to get a feel for things again. Once I did, we put down some fast laps. I just really enjoy these cars and we have a fast one this weekend.”
The Penske trio makes up half the list of drivers who competed in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series who are racing at Road Atlanta this weekend. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay has joined brothers Ricky and Jordan Taylor to drive the series-leading Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi in the Prototype class. Ricky Taylor qualified the No. 10 car seventh in class on Friday.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais return to assist in driving the Ganassi team’s Ford GTs in the GT Le Mans class. Dixon’s No. 67 entry qualified second in class with Richard Westbrook at the wheel, while Joey Hand qualified fourth the No. 66 that Bourdais will co-drive.
This weekend marks Bourdais’ first sports car competition since his crash in May attempting to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. The four-time Indy car champ welcomes the challenge.
“(Road Atlanta) is short and challenging, very unforgiving,” Bourdais said. “I’ve always enjoyed going there. You have to get the timing right, because the big old Turn 2-3 is complex and, going down the hill, it’s really easy to make a mistake and hurt the car and put the team behind.
“It’s definitely one that keeps you on your toes and it’s difficult to manage traffic. It’s a tough race and has become a big one in the endurance world that everyone wants to win.”
Former Indy car drivers also competing this weekend include Ryan Briscoe, Buddy Rice, Sage Karam, Scott Pruett, Jack Hawksworth, Townsend Bell, Tristan Vautier, Katherine Legge, Mike Conway, Ryan Dalziel and Scott Sharp.
Coverage of the endurance race begins at 10:30 a.m. ET today on FS1, with the green flag slated for 11:05 a.m. Coverage moves to FS2 at 11:30 a.m., to the FOX Sports Go app at 2 p.m. and back to FS2 from 5 p.m. until the race conclusion.