Why Acura Isn’t Racing Its Daytona-Winning Prototype at Le Mans
Acura’s IMSA rivals are going to Le Mans this year. So why isn’t Japan green-lighting a fight against Cadillac and Porsche on the world’s biggest stage?
When the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 of Tom Blomqvist, Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud got the checkered flag Sunday after 24 hours of grueling competition, Meyer Shank Racing was reassured that it has something special in its hands. Despite kicking off the 2023 IMSA season at the Rolex 24 at Daytona with a serious testing disadvantage, it had managed to beat racing titans such as BMW, Cadillac, and Porsche for the overall win. But unlike most of their rivals, Acura-powered Meyer Shank and Wayne Taylor Racing won't be heading to the 24 Hours of Le Mans this June.
The re-introduction of IMSA's GTP class is a big deal. Cutting-edge prototypes backed by Ganassi, Penske, and Rahal that can compete in IMSA and WEC's LMDh class represent a new dawn for sports car racing. Automakers and their respective motorsport partners are now able to maximize their investments by competing at the highest level on both sides of the Atlantic. Acura and Honda Performance Development, however, decided to skip the trip to France and race solely in IMSA in 2023. But why?
The answer is simple: Honda Japan calls the shots here, and so far it's decided it doesn't make sense to go to Le Mans, at least this year. In addition, racing outside of North America likely wouldn't happen under the Acura/HPD banner, but Honda/HRC instead.
"Very easy reasons why Acura isn't following BMW, Cadillac, and Porsche to Le Mans," Dave Salters, president of Honda Performance Development told The Drive at the Rolex 24. "We [Acura] have to concentrate on the U.S. Let's get the program going here first, this is where we race. Also, it's a Honda decision, so they need to evaluate whether it makes sense. Honda will do what makes sense for them in those markets [U.S., Europe, etc.].
"These are the folks who race in Formula 1 and they do so very well—so they know what to do to promote the brand," added Salters.
Should Meyer Shank or Wayne Taylor decide to race at Le Mans (as they have shared their desire to do so), Honda Japan would also need to approve a privateer team to race under the Honda (or maybe even Acura) banner with factory support. It's complicated.
"Would love to do it, but I'm only gonna do it when it's time to do it—meaning that Honda, HPD, and Acura all have to say 'yes we want to do it.' If they do that then we'll do it," MSR co-owner Mike Shank told The Drive.
When asked if he's pushing Honda to say yes, Shank answered: "I'm telling them that we're available and that we want to be a part of it. But you know, it's gotta start with Honda, and then the ACO has the whole process you have to go through. But the first step is the mothership."
Unsurprisingly, Acura racing drivers are more than willing to go to Le Mans with the new ARX-06, with both Castroneves and Pagenaud sharing their willingness. While drivers would ultimately be free to explore opportunities outside of their contractual IMSA responsibilities, it appears the Indy 500 and Rolex 24 champs are both enthusiastic about doing so with Honda.
"Always a chance, we just gotta wait for the right opportunity," Castroneves told The Drive at the Rolex 24. "I would have loved for Acura to go to Le Mans this year but they're not going.
"And see, the race [Le Mans] is going to be there for a long time. So when Acura decides to go they are gonna go to win, not just participate. I'd love to. If they ask me I'd say 'C'mon, let's go!' all day. But I know will get the opportunity, I've been talking with them," added Castroneves.
"I'm ready to go," Pagenaud told The Drive just minutes before the Rolex 24 start. "We want to go to win, so we're going to pay attention this year and see what we can learn from the competition."
After talking to HPD, team owners, and racing drivers, it was evident that while everyone is aching to take it to the best at the Circuit de la Sarthe, they also agreed that it was wise of Honda to sit back and watch how the competition unfolds in 2023. This way, it'll be better prepared for 2024 if it takes that route.
"Honda needs to find out about our competition, LMH, LMDh, is it all balanced right? And then we'll see—but it's all Honda's decision," reiterated Salters. "We [HPD] have a great relationship with HRC and they're really smart, they understand motorsport and they'll figure it out. Honda is watching, Honda is paying attention to see what's going on and what the pros and cons are."
When asked if it bothered him to see his competitors get a shot at Le Mans this year but not Acura, Salters answered: "Does one wanna go? Yeah. But what makes more sense? We've got enough to do here in the U.S. We've gotta beat Porsche, BMW in IMSA—these are iconic brands and we've got to get in there and beat them. I think it's smart to sit it out a little bit and make an informed decision later. Honda wants to see LMH being balanced with LMDh and when Honda goes racing it wants to do it properly."
Castroneves agreed, "It's a strategy that the factory decided to make. I believe they understand their competitor and they want to learn from them."
As for Mike Shank, he knows what's at stake. A trip to Le Mans would give him the opportunity to reach new heights and become the only team to have won the Indy 500, Rolex 24, and Le Mans overall.
"Chip Ganassi's done it—in class, which is huge. But overall? I don't believe so [anyone's done it], but that would be a whole other story. We would love to do it," Shank explained.
Email the author at email@example.com