Team Penske sports car drivers still hunting for new rides in 2021
Saturday will mark the midpoint of an IMSA season turned upside down by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has contributed to scuttling the future for Team Penske drivers.
With a delay of more than five months between IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona opener and its second event (also at Daytona) -- and with numerous WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races subsequently canceled or rescheduled -- the six-hour TireRack.com Grand Prix at Michelin Road Atlanta is the sixth of a scheduled 11 events.
In the previous six seasons since major-league sports car racing came under one banner, there annually have been only two races after Labor Day weekend, and the driver-team lineup for the following season largely can be settled by this point on the calendar.
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But much uncertainty remains this year. And it starts with the defending series champions in GTLM and DPi.
In GTLM, Porsche is exiting IMSA after this season with its 911 RSR-19 teams of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor (who won the 2019 title) and Nick Tandy and Fred Makowiecki. That quartet could find placement in other Porsche racing programs.
The prospects seem hazier at Team Penske, which is mothballing its DPi program after this season in a split from Acura.
A year after their title in the No. 6, Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya are exploring new opportunities, as are No. 7 teammates Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor, who just ended a two-year winless drought in the most recent DPi race at Road America.
It’s unfamiliar territory for Taylor, who won 12 races in four seasons with Wayne Taylor Racing before joining Penske in 2018.
“I’ve been spoiled the past four or five years coming from my dad’s team and being kind of in a relationship with GM for a while, and it was a little more secure,” Taylor said Wednesday during a Zoom media call.
“This year has been weird in more than one way. Although it is relatively early, it’s always stressful. All four of us are looking and working on stuff, and it’s always difficult. It’s another one of those weird things where you’re not going to be able to just walk around the paddock and go meet people, either. It’s odd for sure.”
Even if the paddock access were less restrictive for pounding the pavement, the conversations still might not be conducive for finding a new ride. The season won’t conclude until Nov. 14 with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, about a month later than usual.
“In the industry, everybody’s timeline is very different at this stage,” said Cameron, who added an Intercontinental GT Challenge race to his schedule Thursday. “It makes it a little bit more challenging than normal with the traditional schedule and in a world that’s a little bit more stable than we have right now. Some people aren’t ready to talk about it even though we are now in September.
“Yeah, it’s a bit hard to see quite where everything is going to go just yet, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough. It’ll be do or die time here before you know it when you get toward the back end of the year. You’re going to have to make decisions and make plans because 2021 will be here before you know it.”
Cameron and Taylor both are 31-year-old sports car champions who seem committed to staying in IMSA. The outlook might be different for their teammates, who are both in their mid-40s and have multiple victories in the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves openly has lobbied for a full-time return to the IndyCar Series.
Montoya said he’d consider running the Indy 500 again if offered a contending car, and he also has been involved with helping further 14-year-old son Sebastian’s career in Europe. But the veteran of IndyCar, Formula One and NASCAR doesn’t know what 2021 will hold yet.
“I have no idea,” Montoya said. “When I know, I’ll tell you. If a good opportunity is there and worth doing, for sure. I don’t want to stop. I love racing. I still want to try to win (the 24 Hours of) Le Mans and everything.
“We have to make sure the right opportunity is there. If the opportunity is not there, then we’ll see what happens.”