today is Jun 08, 2023

Barely off the podium celebration for winning the 2022 Rolex 24 At Daytona, with watches still in hand, and Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Tom Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis are trying to goad Meyer Shank Racing with Curb Agajanian team owners Mike Shank and Jim Meyer into going to Le Mans in 2023 when the new LMDh cars that will run in the GTP category in IMSA are eligible for the French endurance classic.

You can hardly blame them. If this group of drivers, racing together for the first time, can pull off the win in one of the most competitive, largest fields in recent Rolex 24 history, why couldn’t they win the Big One? Consider Castroneves, who at age 46 anchored the team and its Acura ARX-05 to the victory, is on a streak, having won his first championship in DPi in 2020, the Rolex last year with Wayne Taylor Racing, his fourth Indy 500 with Meyer Shank last May, and now this one. And Pagenaud reminded Shank that he speaks French…

Shank, who has been to Le Mans with an LMP2 effort, defers such talk, noting that it would be up to sponsors and Acura, who will work with MSR again when it brings its new ORECA-based ARX-06 to the party next year. For now, it’s time to reflect on what just happened, the team winning its first Rolex 24 in 10 years, beating favorites WTR who was going for its fourth in a row, and getting the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s biggest victory after going winless in 2021 in its first year of having moved up to the DPi class after running Acura’s program in GTD.

“Personally, it’s amazing to think about what has gone on since we decided to work together,” said Pagenaud. “Joining Helio obviously on the IndyCar side, and also on the sports car side with Oliver and Tom, fit right away. Felt like the relationship started really quickly to grow. And also felt like the vibe was right.

“And this weekend it felt like, okay, we had some setbacks, but we fought and everybody kept a good spirit. Obviously my mate, Helio, he’s really good at doing that in the team. It was a great atmosphere, and obviously good people get good results and get what they deserve.”

The victory was one of perseverance. MSR was seldom in the spotlight all weekend, although Rolex 24 rookie Blomqvist topped the time sheets for a session during the Roar Before the 24. And early in the race, frankly, the team was looking like an also-ran, although hints of the drivers being able to stretch their stints were beginning to appear. And then Castroneves lost a tire coming back onto the oval in Turn 6. The long trip back to the pits put the No. 60 down a lap. But, in a race that would be full of cautions and with IMSA’s wave-around rules, that’s hardly a death sentence, especially so early in the race.

Two hours later the No. 60 Acura was back on the lead lap heading into the long night. But it wasn’t until about dawn that the MSR crew were truly looking like contenders. The Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs endured some mechanical issues, as did the No. 48 Action Express Cadillac, which had been an absolute rocket in the hands of Kamui Kobayashi. It was now a four-horse race, and would be until the finish.

Blomqvist got in the car at 10:23 a.m. ET, taking over from Pagenaud, who had put the car in the lead briefly. A little more than three hours from the end, he needed to make sure the No. 60 was in contention, even as the No. 5 JDC-Miller Motorsport Cadillac was coming to life with Loic Duval at the wheel and putting a big gap on the rest of the field.

“It was super intense. And to be honest, the race started pretty poorly for me,” explained Blomqvist. “We got a few things wrong at the start, but I was chipping away at it. I haven’t got that much experience in this car; I’ve had a lot of experience in the P2. It’s actually quite different.

“I just felt like the more laps I did, I was trying to figure out how to drive around the little problems we were encountering. And I just got more and more comfortable behind the wheel. Thankfully, the speed was there in those crucial stints. The car was working for me and I was able to manipulate it in the right way. And that just kind of made the difference. I managed to get a good run on Ricky . We seemed to be a little bit stronger than him at that point in the race. And I think ultimately I teed it up – Helio, he only had one job and it was not to mess it up.”

Blomqvist would have liked to take the car to the finish, but felt like he was pretty cooked. He also mentioned his bladder was full.

So with Blomqvist having done two hours in the car, Castroneves got in with just over an hour to go. A short time later, he put the No. 60 back up front. When the final caution hit with 51 minutes to go, everyone pitted, with both Acuras taking fuel only. Before the caution ended, both Cadillacs that remained in the fight, theNo. 5 JDC-Miller Motorsports car and the No. 31 AXR entry, stopped for a splash, concerned that even with 20 minutes of running behind the pace car, they couldn’t make it to the end. In doing so, they extended the caution by at least a lap, possibly guaranteeing that the Acuras could make it through the final 30-minute dash to the checker.

Castroneves was never headed, and except for one scary moment in the newly-named Le Mans chicane when the GTD Pro leaders came together in front of him, it appeared to be smooth sailing the the checker.

It was the perseverance the MSR team displayed before and during the 60th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona that made Oliver Jarvis sure where he was going. A driver in demand after Mazda shuttered its DPi program, what Jarvis saw at MSR told him it was the right choice.

“I think just listening to Mike convinced me,” Jarvis said. “He was very honest that he felt they hadn’t achieved what he wanted to. But I saw it from a different point of view. That’s that Penske came into the championship. Joest came into the championship. And none of them blew anyone away in their first year. It’s a tough championship, and you look at the progression of the team made throughout that year.

“To see that progression, I knew it’s a team on the up. I knew they had huge amounts of capabilities. You saw the way they ran the Indy program and this. It was an easy decision for myself. And when you go to the shop and see the facilities they have, it just reinforces that. It was based on the way Mike’s open and honest, and the way his passion comes through. And I think as a driver you can really resonate with that. As long as the guys have got the passion and the belief, then when you come together you can win stuff.”

And win they did. After going winless in the first year of their return to IMSA’s top class, they took the biggest prize short of a championship. It’s certain that this will fuel a strong run at the title for Jarvis and Blomqvist, contesting the full season together. Additionally, the win is a big weight off Shank’s shoulders.

“We needed it bad, real bad,” Shank said. “We had a tough year last year, and I made it very public. I didn’t want to run from the truth, which was we had a bad year. We set out to fix it. I told the guys here’s the thing: Here’s where we were; here’s where we’re going; and I’m not stopping until we get some kind of closure and some competitive level that we’re used to dealing with in the sports car world. This proved we’re the right track. We’ve got a long way to go, but I liked our execution and I’m just relieved. Just completely relieved.”

Champion Porsche