Test on Wednesday, Win on Sunday?


Earlier this summer, Acura and Team Penske invited me to Road America to watch them test their ARX-05 racecar in advance of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series race.

After I left, I thought I was done with on-site coverage – I figured I’d write my story and have it go live the day after the race, so I could include the results.

I was wrong.

Acura followed up by inviting those of us who came to the test days to the race, which took place earlier this month. Which is why I’m publishing two stories instead of one, as there’s a lot of interesting nuggets to mine.

Such is journalism. Plans change. That happens in racing, too – as Team Penske would find out on race day.

(Full disclosure: Acura invited me to the race to watch from a suite as a guest, but while it’s one thing to accept a junket for a first drive, this felt a little too much like a gift. So I applied for regular media credentials via Road America and covered the race that way. Acura and Team Penske PR did help coordinate interviews and other coverage.)

Team Penske spent an entire day testing at Road America in July and, early on, it appeared to have paid off. Both Penske cars were on the pole, and they were dominating early, running one-two. The race was timed at 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a driver change taking place at some point. Penske’s teams consisted of Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya in one car and Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor in the other.

Things took a turn for Acura at around the 1:30 remaining mark – with Taylor behind the wheel, the number 7 car was hit by debris from an incident involving cars on the other track, and forced to pit for repairs.

At this point, I had no idea what was happening. See, the thing about covering a race at Road America without another TTAC’er present is that I had a choice to make: Sit in the air-conditioned media center all day and watch the race on TV, or wander and take photos. I chose photos.

Even if I’d stayed put, I’d still have to watch the race on TV – Road America is too big a track, with too many elevation changes, for you to see all of it from any one spot on the ground. One can take an elevator to the media center roof, which allows you to see the entire front straight and the lead up to the final corner, but that’s probably the most track one can see without being airborne. The top of the hill north of Turn 6 is nice, too – it gives you a view of Turn 5, the approach to Turn 6, the approach to the final corner, and the start of the front straight – but again, you’re not seeing the whole track from terra firma.

So I went a-walkin’. I appreciated being able to view the cars as they braked hard for
Turn 5, and later getting to suss out the various braking and turn-in points for Canada Corner. But this meant I was a little surprised when the DPi cars came around again and there was only one Acura running up front.

While remaining outwardly objective, I had started internally rooting for the Acura cars – not because the company feted me a month earlier or because their PR team was helping me with this story, but because a 1-2 finish would put a nice little bow on a two-part piece about what race teams learn from testing. It’s an easy hook if the team’s testing led to both cars finishing up front. That wouldn’t be the case.

I know people love to accuse the media of being biased, but during my brief career in sports media, I never saw a sports writer rooting for or against a team or athlete. However, I did see writers drop f-bombs when teams rallied late in a game and screwed up their stories. I still remember a colleague of mine being upset when his favorite baseball team came from behind and took a game into extras – he’d have a massive re-write job on deadline ahead of him. His fandom was subservient to his job – he’d rather see “his” team lose than re-do his work.

Seeing the Acura fall off the pace wasn’t disappointing to me because I was a fan – but because my story just changed. At least it wasn’t due 30 minutes after the checkered.

Sure enough, just three minutes later, one of the Mazda cars passed Montoya for the lead, and that would be that. The number 6 Acura would challenge late, with Cameron driving, but it wouldn’t be enough. The other Penske car would finish seventh.

Perhaps that’s the lesson to take away here – testing can help a race team plan its strategy down to the smallest detail. But unpredictable events are an ever-present threat to those plans.

It wasn’t just the debris that borked the number 7’s race – there was never an incident severe enough to require a caution. Racers prepare for the possibility of cautions, of course, and not getting one on this day made it harder for the Penske team to get their sidelined car back in the mix.

Before the race, I stumbled across Castroneves in pit lane.  “What we did definitely helps out … hopefully with the test we had, it will be a strong day for us,” he told me.

He was half-right – both cars ran well until debris crashed the party, and one car still finished second.

That didn’t make him feel better when I spoke to him a couple hours after the race ended, as I made my way home and he made his way to Indy.

“Racing or anything else … you can’t predict. You can prepare as much as you can, but sometimes, you can’t predict those things.”

The occurrence of unpredictable events obviously doesn’t make the testing a waste of time. Castroneves told me that 80 percent or more of what was learned at July’s test applied to August’s race, and much of the changes were tweaks as opposed to major adjustments.

And just like in a pro football game, those adjustments continue once the main event begins. Castroneves and his co-driver are in constant communication with Montoya and his.

“It’s an open book,” Castroneves said. “We have transparency between six and seven, everything is here, it’s up to us to use the tools.”

While some of the things teams learn from test days may apply to all tracks, other pieces of data are of course specific to each track. Still, having the data for one track can help for another, too. Castroneves pointed out that Road America and Road Atlanta have some similarities, and that some of the lessons learned in the Midwest can apply when racing in the South.

It’s not just the race teams who learn. Before I headed north to Road America for the test day, I thought, as a casual race fan, I’d have a fair idea about what data the teams are looking at. And it turns out I did, but even knowing that racecars have long been festooned with powerful onboard computers, it still boggles the mind a bit to consider the amount of data that gets poured over. I was also reminded that it’s not just about setting the car up for maximum performance – there are rules that must be followed, and the test days help teams maintain compliance.

I also learned that racecars of this cost and caliber can still run a fair amount of factory parts – something that surprised me a bit since the most well-known racing series (NASCAR, F1, IndyCar) are using cars that are so mechanically different than what’s on sale to the public. I still don’t know if the average buyer who watches one race a year – Daytona or Indy, say – cares if the cars with the Honda engines or the Chevy engines are dominant that day. But while I’m aware that there are series out there that try to hew to production specs, I was surprised that cars of the DPi level of competition were running on OEM bones.

Despite what Castroneves told me about Acura’s investment in racing being good for the brand, I am still not sure. Does the average new-car buyer even know that Acura, Mazda, Cadillac, and Nissan are racing in DPi? Doubt it. Doubt they even know what DPi, or IMSA, is.

Does IndyCar driver’s James Hinchcliffe’s appearance in Honda commercials help move Accords? Maybe – if it makes the brand seem more sporty to some shoppers. But I don’t think Mazda’s win at Road America is moving any extra new 3s.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think OEMs shouldn’t be involved in racing, and I still believe that they will learn lessons from racing that could apply to on-street performance or safety, even if not one extra car is sold because of motorsports.

Which brings us back to the testing. It’s not just about Team Penske learning what it needs to win the next race. Nor is it about an OEM’s marketing group trying to use racing to move metal. Or about what this semi-casual racing observer learned by diving deeper into the behind-the-scenes prep work.

It’s also about what lessons are learned that will trickle down to your car. Maybe Acura or one of the other brands will learn something about the production parts that are used on the ARX-05 and apply that lesson to future street-car parts. Or maybe safety innovations meant to keep racing drivers from being hurt in crashes – or crashing in the first place – will find their way from the racetrack to the public road in the near future.

Castroneves, Montoya, Cameron, and Taylor all learned things about their car and Road America that helped them perform as well as they could on August 4 and will help them do the same down the road.

They weren’t the only ones getting an education.’

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]





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