DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin are no strangers to “RP1,” the gleaming, pristine and sleek trackside office trailer that travels wherever Roger Penske goes in the racing world.
But the NTT IndyCar Series stars still felt like outsiders when they stopped by their boss’ opulent mobile headquarters last weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
“The Captain” already had granted an audience with his drivers – the six who will be driving the pair of Porsche Penske Motorsport 963s in the premier GTP category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
“It is odd,” Newgarden, the two-time IndyCar champion who normally is in such high-level briefings with Penske, said with a laugh. “We’re checking in with RP and (team president) Tim (Cindric), and the drivers were already there. They looked really cool in their exclusive club. We’re like, ‘This is a cool club you guys got going on over here in the Porsche program!’ ”
ROLEX 24 DETAILS: How to watch, entry lists schedules for the IMSA season opener
Newgarden and McLaughlin openly covet memberships among the team’s sports car elite, but their status is far from assured even as IndyCar winners and championship contenders at Team Penske.
They will be making their Rolex 24 at Daytona debuts this weekend in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, joining John Farano and Kyffin Simpson in Tower Motorsports’ No. 8 ORECA in the LMP2 division.
But though they are sports car neophytes, Newgarden and McLaughlin have the confidence of winning their debut (Tower is the defending series champion of LMP2, the junior prototype division) – and possibly currying favor with Penske for a future Porsche slot in GTP.
Chip Ganassi Racing has employed its IndyCar drivers for endurance races(six-time champion Scott Dixon will be in Ganassi’s No. 01 Cadillac in GTP for his 21st Rolex 24 start this year), and Simon Pagenaud also was in the lineup for Penske’s Acura lineup a few years ago.
Newgarden and McLaughlin acknowledge this is a quasi-audition for Penske, even though it’s happenstance that they finally secured Rolex 24 rides in the same year as GTP’s debut.
“We do a lot of racing at a very high level at Team Penske, and the new Porsche program with the team has been tremendously exciting for everyone in the organization,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “I’m here in two capacities: I’m running with Tower Motorsports and am a competitor. But I’m also a fan of my team, so I’m trying to watch the progress of Team Penske and Porsche and how they get off the ground.
“I think they’re going to do a great job. It’s built with a lot of really great people. Some people I know really well within the organization. You never know what the future holds. I would love to be a contributor to that one day. So if that door ever opened, I certainly would welcome it.”
Porshce Penske Motorsports is based under the same roof at the massive Mooresville, North Carolina, headquarters that also houses Penske’s IndyCar and NASCAR programs, so McLaughlin (who lives nearby in the Charlotte area) has watched its first-class assembly.
“I’m excited to see how that program runs and obviously for me to race LMP2 now, I’m learning the ropes to hopefully one day be able to drive one of those cars,” McLaughlin told NBC Sports. “It’d be pretty cool.
“It obviously helps just having experience. You can’t discount that. I’d never raced a 24-hour race before and never driven a prototype car. So just to have some experience that I can put on my CV. Maybe we get the call-up, maybe not. It might not happen, but I know that Roger and Tim always look out for my best interests, and hopefully one day the stars align.”
Best buds who have become whimsical content creators off the track, the “Bus Bros” will be expected to handle the “Bus Stop” (the nickname of the tricky Le Mans Chicane on Daytona’s backstretch) with aplomb in learning the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course.
In the pro-amateur mix of LMP2 lineups, teams are required to have at least one driver with “Bronze” (Farano) and “Silver” (Simpson) status, according to FIA rankings. They also are allowed to have two elite pro drivers, and Newgarden (who is rated the top “Platinum”) and McLaughlin (who seems vastly underrated as a “Gold”) fit the bill.
Their experience and talent make them appealing one-off candidates, but it still wasn’t easy landing a spot in the prestigious Rolex 24. Newgarden has been trying to enter the endurance classic for more than a decade.
“It’s just not worked out timing-wise for one reason or another,” he said. “I’m just thrilled it’s finally come together this year. But I’ve always had great respect for endurance racing. I’m a racer at heart. I love everything motorsports, so I’d drive any race car.
“But certainly an event like this, the 24 Hours at Daytona is one of those bucket list events that everybody wants to do. Not only do you want to run it, but you dream of winning the Rolex watch. All that great stuff, the camaraderie that you would have with a team of trying to survive 24 hours together and make no mistakes. That’s a challenge that I’ve not endured before and one that I really wanted, so to finally be here is definitely a treat.”
McLaughlin said Newgarden offered him a shot at the Tower ride after the IndyCar season ended in September. The deal came together in a week, and he met Farano (the Tower Motorsports team owner) only after arriving in Daytona, where he saw the track for the first time Jan. 18.
“It’s pretty wild how those things happen, but you’ve got to take your opportunities when they come,” McLaughlin said. “This race certainly is on my bucket list. It’s something I’ve wanted to race in for a long time and have tried many times, I’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity. I’m really excited to race the No. 8 LMP2 here at the World Center of Racing. It’s an amazing place. I’ve never been here in Daytona before. The banking is incredible, but then to turn my first laps here is going to be an unreal experience.”
They picked a tough year to get acclimated with 61 cars over five divisions of varying speeds clogging the banking at Daytona – and with powerhouse teams such as Porsche Penske extremely concerned about avoiding damage with supplies limited for the inaugural GTP race.
Over the past 11 IndyCar seasons, Newgarden has built a scouting report for about a dozen drivers in a single class. Now he will try to get up to speed on building a book for nearly 200 drivers racing across various GTs and prototypes.
“It’s a different world to experience with all types of cars in different classes,” Newgarden said. “So overtaking and trying to understand when to defend and when to push, when not to push. That’s going to be new for us. It’s something we’ll have to find our footing on pretty quickly.
“I’ve always loved that challenge of multiclass racing where you’ve got to be efficient. You can’t waste time, and understanding how to be efficient without making mistakes is so critical. It’s 24 hours. You can’t just write the car off within one move. So you’re going to be making thousands of moves in the race and trying to be efficient with all of them.”
As a three-time Supercars champion, McLaughlin has experience with driver changes and endurance racing. But the Rolex 24 field will have 20 more cars than the biggest race he ever has done.
“I’m expecting a lot of intense battles, especially throughout the traffic,” McLaughlin said. “But I feel like my experience from Bathurst 1000 and Bathurst 12 Hours back in the day can suit me really well and get me ready for what’s going to be a busy 24 hours.”
Newgarden said understanding the procedures and flow of an IMSA race will be more important than learning the cars (which are high downforce similar to IndyCar).
“I think driving the car quickly and understanding how to utilize the tires; those sorts of things will probably come more naturally to Scott and myself,” Newgarden said. “But it’s the procedures that are different from our normal world. In IndyCar racing, there are shorter events, the flagging procedures, the etiquette procedures. What you do on pit lane, how the car turns on and off.
“All that stuff you can theoretically practice, but until you go through the motions of it, it’s kind of hard to learn it. So we’re going to be learning on the fly. We’re going to have to rely on experience to help us do things right the first time, which is OK. But being really alert at an event like this when you’re learning so much for the first time is critical.”
The pressure is on to deliver after the IndyCar trio of Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco won the LMP2 class of last year’s Rolex 24. In an interesting twist, Tower Motorsports finished second to the DragonSpeed car that Herta wheeled to a victory that has instilled confidence in the Penske duo.
“We’ve never run this event, so I don’t think we want to come into it with too much of an aggressive attitude that we’ve been in racing a while so we can do this no problem,” Newgarden said. “We definitely don’t feel that way. There’s tremendous respect for the competitors. But we feel confident if we do our job and study and put the best foot forward that we can win this race. It’s absolutely possible, but we’re under no illusion that’s going to be easy.”
McLaughlin has picked up some pointers in an offseason stay at his house in Brisbane, Australia. During his two months Down Under, McLaughlin welcomed a vacationing houseguest (and honorary Bus Bro) in Herta, who provided some tips on handling traffic.
Herta will be racing GTP with BMW M Team RLL, his second year of prototypes after three years in GT (where he won the GTLM class in 2019).
“We had a good chat about a few things,” McLaughlin said of Herta. “He just said it’s a long race, and one of the best stints you can do sometimes is actually the graveyard stint. As much as everyone talks about it being bad, but it’s quite a cool feeling. It’s quiet and just you in a race car. I really hope I get to drive somewhat at night for a long time.
“The word I’ve just been implanted in my brain has been patience. There’s that many cars on track. We obviously are not the quickest (class) but not the slowest, either. So a lot of people have told me just be patient in traffic. Let the race come to you and just make sure you’re there for the last two or three hours.”
A popular worldwide tune-up to the season, the Rolex 24 always draws a large contingent from IndyCar (including 10 active drivers in the 2023 field), and Newgarden has been learning on many of them for advice.
“A lot of IndyCar guys have been super open about what to expect,” he said. “It’s a great, tight-knit world we have in IndyCar racing. We’re all competitors and don’t want to give secrets away necessarily. But trying to help your fellow competitor out with the broad strokes, everyone has been really good for that.
“I’ve never been able to run this event as sort of a warmup to the year. I’ve seen a lot of other drivers do that. I’m not sure how that’s going to play into my personal toolkit when we go into 2023 IndyCar racing, but I’ve got to think it could be beneficial. It makes you more flexible and versatile to challenge yourself as a driver and figure out problems you weren’t originally forecasting, so I’m really hoping that running this event will make a more diverse and rounded driver when I get to IndyCar racing.”
McLaughlin said Cindric and several Penske employees have been texting him and Newgarden to check in on their progress as they ready for IndyCar preseason testing next week in Southern California.
“It’s going to be an amazing way for me just to get my head right and the speeds and your body used to going fast again,” said McLaughlin, who hadn’t been in a car since last season’s finale at Laguna Seca before Rolex 24 practice last week. “Just to sharpen yourself up before we go testing here in a little bit for the IndyCar season. There’s a reason there are so many high-level people racing this from all over the world. I’m excited to be one of them.”
‘Bus Bros’ tackle ‘Bus Stop’: Newgarden, McLaughlin on Rolex 24 debuts, eyeing GTP originally appeared on NBCSports.com