Potent partnership for Acura, Penske

CARMEL, Calif. — Even before turning its first lap in competition, the sleek white and gray ARX-05 race car is considered a win by Acura and its new racing partner, Team Penske.

The wild-looking car, powered by a turbocharged Acura engine, is set to make its competition debut at next year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in the Prototype class of the IMSA WeatherTech series. The ARX-05 racing venture is the result of a mutually beneficial collaboration between Penske and Acura.

Acura hopes to put an exclamation point on the performance-inspired image it has been trying to create since Jon Ikeda took over as general manager in 2015. This racing effort started with Acura fielding NSX-derived entries in several race series for the 2017 season.

Meanwhile, Roger Penske and his racing outfit gain a foothold in a series they’ve been keen on entering for years. And as a dealer who has six Acura stores spread from California to New Jersey, Penske — and his fellow dealers — are looking to racing efforts like this to drive home Acura’s commitment to being a performance-oriented brand.

The hope is that this then inspires more loyalty from Acura owners, translating into sales.

“The problem is, getting that next customer is so expensive for dealers,” Penske told Automotive News at the ARX-05’s debut here during the annual Monterey Car Week. “If we can sustain the brand loyalty, incrementally, that’s going to be the difference.”

Leveraging Acura’s 2018 racing efforts at the dealership level was a crucial benefit of the partnership.

“Probably half the time we talked, it’s about how we can integrate this into creating more interest in the stores and the [Acura] dealers,” Penske said. “And we can do this.”

Acura is doubling down on its motorsport efforts because it wants to use racing to reinforce the emotional side of performance. This dovetails with the “Precision Crafted Performance” tag line the brand has been peddling since Ikeda took the helm.

“We’ve been trying to build the brand, to get emotional buyback into the brand, right?” Ikeda told Automotive News at the ARX-05 debut. “And this is a good way to get people emotionally involved — and these are good feelings.”

Acura has had mixed success making that connection with customers. While Ikeda long has stressed that Acura’s transformation would come on the back of its sedan lineup, the brand remains best known for its one-two crossover punch with the MDX and RDX. The latter has overcome its age and risen to become the brand’s best-selling nameplate in 2017.

Using the NSX all-wheel-drive hybrid supercar in splashy advertising and brand communication hasn’t had a noticeable impact on Acura’s overall sales since the car, loaded versions of which can cost $200,000, went on sale last summer. Brand sales are down 5 percent through July, and they slipped 8.9 percent in 2016.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for racing runs deep at Acura and Honda Performance Development, the motorsports arm of Acura’s parent company, American Honda. This was a draw for Penske and his outfit.

“The key thing here is in these racing programs, you have to have leadership at the top that’s engaged,” Penske said. “And that’s where Jon plays a huge role. There’s lots of racing programs, but if the leadership don’t feel the wins and the losses, it’s a shame.”

Penske doesn’t want to end there.

Despite auto racing wins in nearly every discipline on the planet — including Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar — the racing legend still has his eye on winning the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. His efforts in the IMSA WeatherTech endurance series might be a prelude to an eventual run there, though he and Acura have no formal plans to field a team at this point.

“I tell you, that’s the one thing that I want to do is go to Le Mans with my own team and with a manufacturer who wants to win,” Penske said. “You never know.”