DETROIT, Mich.—You’d think IndyCar might give the teams a little downtime after the Indy 500. But just six days after its most important race of the year, the grid formed up again in the picturesque park of Belle Isle for the Detroit Grand Prix. For one weekend a year, a bumpy street circuit takes over the island’s western tip, playing host to a veritable bounty of race cars.
There were the open-wheel IndyCars, but IMSA’s Weathertech Sportscar Championship was also present and correct, supported by the gravity-defying Super Stadium Trucks and the flame-spitting Trans-Am brigade. When Acura invited Ars to come check it out up close and personal, it didn’t take me long to book my flights to Motor City—particularly when the invitation came with a chance to interview the captain himself, Roger Penske.
Over the course of three days in Detroit, the weather ran the gamut from warm and sunny to heavy downpours—and everything in between. The IMSA race is one of the calendar’s shorter events and is missing the GTLM class. Many of the sports car teams we normally catch are several thousand miles away in France, testing in advance of this year’s race at Le Mans in June. But that just left more time to spend with the purpose-built prototypes and pro-am GTD efforts.
For the IndyCar gang, Detroit was a grueling double-header with races on Saturday and Sunday, races that every team wanted to complete unscathed. You’d think three races in two weekends would merit some time off, but no: the cars all have to be swapped back to oval-spec ASAP as they’re running next Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Some teams were caught out by the challenging weather and challenging track. Others excelled. There was gossip in the paddock; the presence of the McLaren F1 team’s top dogs ensured that much. And to top it all, thanks to airline schedules, I had to watch the most exciting moment from the airport bar. That moment belonged to GM executive (and Nürburgring test driver) Mark Reuss. From behind the wheel of the pace car, he was leading the IndyCar grid to the green flag when he ran out of grip and plowed into the wall. The 755hp Corvette ZR1 ended up in pieces, and Reuss’ ego probably took a battering, but we all have our off-days, and no one was hurt.
The best way to experience the Detroit Grand Prix vicariously is through the gallery up top, but you were promised an interview with the Captain, and I’m not here to disappoint. Penske and Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr sat down with me and a handful of other journalists on Saturday morning to discuss their joint effort with the Acura ARX-05 DPi car. Penske’s outfit is one of the most storied in racing. Perhaps more than any other, it brought a new level of professionalism to the paddock.
“When we went to Indy [in 1969], they called us the college guys with the brush haircuts and the polished wheels,” Penske said with a smile. “We’re trying to set a standard.” It’s one that everyone else has tried to emulate ever since.
The team has decades of wins underneath its belt. Almost 500 at this point, including 17 Indy 500s—the most recent of which came last weekend. While the team is probably best known for its success at the Brickyard, I detected in Penske a real passion for endurance racing. Oh, and did I mention that this whole Detroit Grand Prix was his idea in the first place?
Fans of the American Le Mans Series will no doubt remember the red-and-yellow Porsche RS Spyders that Penske ran to good effect during the late aughts, but following the end of that program, the team has focused on IndyCar and NASCAR efforts instead. But endurance racing was unfinished business.
“Tim [Cindric, president at Penske Racing] and myself, we’ve always liked long-distance racing. It’s thinking, it’s strategy,” Penske explained. “We’ve had chances to do other programs which we passed on. But when Art [St. Cyr] came to talk to us about an opportunity, we said ‘hey, we’re in if you want us to go.’ We’ve known each other, competing with each other on both sides; we’ve been a big supporter and raced and won with Honda, and the commitment they have is exactly what we want.”
As for Honda/Acura’s presence, it, too, sounded preordained. “It is in our DNA,” said St. Cyr. “Mr. Honda built a Formula 1 track before he even built a production car, so he was always into racing. So it’s very deep within our soul of what it’s required to be a Honda… It has to be sporty, has to be fun, but racing helps you develop things quicker. It’s a lot of techniques, it’s working together… If you look at our DPi engine, it’s based off the Acura V6 [road car] engine. Something like 500 parts off the mass-produced engine are in the race car. When we design a car, we think about racing. When we designed the NSX we had racing in mind; when we designed our V6 engine we had racing in mind. Some of the fuel injection stuff we do goes right back into the road car. [Road car and race car development] are together, they’re integrated.”
“Number one: it develops people, if you follow me,” Penske added. “Racing develops the brain—you’ve got to ask what level of competition you want to be in. I think that, where Acura and Honda are, they want to race at the top… I can tell you from our company, cycle time is so important. In racing, we’ve got to be thinking two-three laps ahead. You’ve got to run your business that way. Not exception, by anticipation. You’ve got a lot of people who sit in these buildings and can take a problem and work on it, but it’s the guys that are thinking ‘what is going to be the problem, and how do we solve that?’ that will win it,” Penske said.
Their explanation for why they go racing is one I’ve heard time and again in endurance racing paddocks.
“The race is going to happen whether you’re ready or not, so it forces you to think that way. But you can also say that about the launch of the RDX—it’s going to happen; you’ve got to make sure it’s ready to go,” St. Cyr told me.
What lies ahead?
The future of the DPi class was something everyone assembled wanted to know about. IMSA has had quite the success with the format so far. It starts with the LMP2 prototypes, which race in the World Endurance Championships. But the American rule set provides a little more technical freedom for a class that is mostly factory-backed compared to the pro-am teams that compete at Le Mans without leading to hundred-million-dollar budgets like the now-struggling LMP1 hybrids. Penske reckoned we’ll see DPi cars hybridize in the not-too-distant future, albeit with standardized components to keep the costs from escalating.
He also gave me the impression he’s yearning to return to Le Mans. “I think we’ve got an opportunity here over the next couple of years to make a real name for ourselves, plus we hope it gets us a chance maybe to go to Le Mans with some type of a car that represents what we’re doing here now,” Penske said.
That would probably require the ACO and FIA, which together write the rules for the French 24 hour enduro, to adopt the DPi class or find a way to balance it alongside the (now mostly privateer, non-hybrid) LMP1 class. It’s something plenty of people would like to see happen, although there are no guarantees.
“Whether that happens, we don’t know,” Penske added. “But we’re certainly not in a position either as Honda or Acura to spend the kind of money that they expect today. But I think it’s an entry point to us, which is key. But not if it’s only to make up the numbers. We’re not going to go there without a realistic chance of a win. But this is a great warm-up for us if it does indeed happen.”
Listing image by Acura