Payne: In Daytona’s high-stakes, high-speed classroom, lessons learned for Penske, Porsche, and Cadillac

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2023

Daytona Beach, Florida — You’re never too old to learn.

At 85, Roger Penske is an auto racing legend. His Bloomfield Hills-based Team Penske has won a staggering 18 Indy 500s, 17 IndyCar championships and three NASCAR titles. This year, Motown’s winningest race team and Germany’s most successful performance brand, Porsche, have teamed up for an assault on the sportscar racing record books. Nothing short of world domination is the goal for Porsche Penske Motorsport. But experience matters, and Porsche Penske haven’t teamed up in endurance racing for 15 years.

In the first race of the gas-electric hybrid sportscar racing era last weekend, it was Acura and Cadillac — veteran endurance racing programs — that dominated the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona over Porsche and BMW.

Backed by formidable engineering know-how, Acura and Cadillac have combined to win the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship for the last seven years. Despite all-new cars for 2023 — and breakneck programs to develop them over 12 months — this year looked a lot like last as Acura and Caddy swept the podium. Acura and its Meyer Shank Racing team won for the second year running (Acura for the third year in a row), its ARX-06 dominating Daytona, taking pole and contesting the race lead throughout.

Like a thoroughbred pacing the field, the #60 Acura — with star jockey Tom Blomqvist at the wheel — pulled away down the home stretch over its sister Wayne Taylor/Andretti Autosport Racing car. A trio of thundering, V-8-hybrid Cadillac V-LMDh prototypes rounded out the Top Five, leaving Porsche and BMW in the dust.

“Massive respect to our competitors. They’re world class, we’re world class. These are the biggest companies in the world,” said Honda Performance Development President David Salters, whose California-based team makes the powertrains for Acura’s IMSA GTP racers and Honda-powered IndyCar teams. “Between us (and) General Motors, we’re game fit. Match fitness, I think, is the right word.”

President of Honda Performance Development David Slater revels in Acura's win after the 2023 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. HPD developed the hybrid powerplant for the winning car out of its California-based division.

That two of the world’s most revered performance brands struggled is a testament to the demands of race-car development. Teams expected attrition with the new, complex hybrids and Porsche and BMW took the brunt of it.

The BMW M Hybrid V-8, managed by Team Rahal Lanigan Letterman, suffered an early setback, going back to the paddock garage to replace its electric motor unit. Of the two Penske entries, the #6 Porsche 963, would soon follow — replacing its battery pack. Even the Acuras experienced difficulties as oil, gearbox, and electrical gremlins frayed nerves. In the end, the #7 Porsche finished 14th overall, 34 laps back while the #6 car — showing good pace relative to the Acuras — retired on Sunday morning with gearbox failure.

Porsche and Penske know experience breeds success, and they are in sportscar racing for the long game.

Porsche suffered mechanical problems in the 2023 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona after running up front through the night.

“We will learn quickly and we will have answers and results from all the issues we had,” said the director of Porsche’s GTP program Urs Kuratle. “There were a lot of firsts, issues we never had before … even though we did (18,000 miles of testing) before the actual race.”

The 2023 season has opened a new world to manufacturers and sportscar racing as international sanctioning bodies — IMSA in North America and FIA abroad — agreed on common rules enabling brands to fly their flags across multiple continents from Daytona’s high bankings to the 4-mile Mulsanne straight in Le Mans, France.

The emerging, common GTP and GT classes attracted an eye-opening 17 manufacturers to Daytona, with more to follow.

A who's who of race team owners have been attracted to the new GTP hybrid class. Clockwise from top left: Chip Ganassi (Cadillac), Roger Penke (Porsche), Wayne Taylor (Acura), Michael Andretti (Acura), Michael Shank (Acura), Ben Johnson (Cadillac), and Bobby Rahal (BMW).

Of particular focus is the hybrid GTP category, which provides crucial development — and marketing opportunities — for automakers as governments force electrification and luxury buyers crave the new, new thing. In addition to the four brand entries at Daytona, 2024 brings new teams from Ferrari, Alpine, Toyota, and Lamborghini in the GTP class; Ford in GT.

Automakers have hired a who’s-who of racing teams, including Team Penske — its boss keen to add Le Mans to his trophy case. The stakes are high, the technical challenges higher.

“This car has been soul-sucking,” said Michael Shank, Meyer Shank team boss, in reference to the standard, electric-motor system that teams had to marry to unique, V-6 and V-8 manufacturer engines. “It’s been a lot of work.”

The winning Meyer Shank Racing Acura stops on the main banking to celebrate its win at the 2023 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

As the Rolex 24 demonstrated, electrification adds complexity. Intriguing as e-motors are, gas engines do the brunt of the work for punishing, long-distance runs.

“Racing has always been used as a test bed for manufacturers, and (electrification) is a new technology out there, so that’s why there’s all this interest from all the manufacturers to get involved,” said Michael Andretti, CEO of Andretti Autosport, who partnered with IMSA-vets Wayne Taylor Racing on the second-place Acura in order to learn the sportscar ropes.

It’s a big classroom.

IndyCar stars were up and down the 2023 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona grid. Scott McLaughlin (sitting) and Josef Newgarden, who race with Team Penske in IndyCar, piloted the Tower Racing Oreca LMP2 car at Daytona.

Drivers from all over the world were in Daytona, too, including IndyCar stars like six-time champ Scott Dixon of New Zealand (Cadillac team), Brazilian and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (Acura), Colin Herta (BMW), and Josef Newgarden and Kiwi Scott McLaughlin.

The latter pair, who compete for Team Penske’s IndyCar team, didn’t have a manufacturer ride and raced with Tower Motorsports in the LMP2 class, one of two prototype classes in addition to the manufacturer-dominated GTP and GTD classes. They called Daytona a “race-cation” — an opportunity to keep their skills sharp in the long IndyCar off-season.

But these drivers were also determined to come to terms with hybrid systems, as IndyCar will soon go hybrid as well.

Meyer Shank is the king of sportscar racing for now, with Honda-Acura proving itself as one of the world’s premier powerplant makers (it has also won the open-wheel, Formula One championship with Red Bull two years running). The development process is relentless, and they see Porsche Penske, Cadillac, et al filling their rear-view mirrors.

“That just means the others are coming,” smiled HPD’s Salters. “It’s going to be amazing, isn’t it?”

Roger Penske (top right) gets comfortable in the Porsche Penske Motorsports pit box ahead of the 2023 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

With its first Indy 500 win in ‘21 to go with three IMSA championships, Meyer Shank is a team on the rise. Fittingly, Miichael Shank is competing against Penske and Chip Ganassi (five Indy 500 wins, 14 IndyCar titles), who inspired him as team owners.

“First of all, me sitting on this stage is out of world, out of body,” said Shank at the team owners’ press conference. “These are the folks that I grew up idolizing, and I run the team very much how they run their teams.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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