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Sturbin: Penske Has Golden Touch

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 23 2010

Roger Penske talks with Danica Patrick in the pits at Indy on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Roger Penske has developed a strict set of criteria when scouting drivers for his IndyCar and NASCAR teams. A signature victory schtick isn’t necessarily one of them. But the drivers who generated headline news for Team Penske on Saturday – Helio Castroneves and Kurt Busch – have created two of the coolest post-race celebrations on record and certainly love to trot ‘em out.

Castroneves qualified on-pole at a staggering 227.970 mph for the 94th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where “Spiderman” has climbed the frontstretch fence three times since 2001. As defending pole and race-winner in the No. 3 Dallara/Honda, Helio is odds-on favorite to win his record-tying fourth Indy 500 next Sunday.

Busch, meanwhile, won the 26th edition of NASCAR’s Sprint All-Star Race in a patched-up hot rod at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where his “un-wind” or reverse victory lap in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger has redefined the term “mirror driving.” Theoretically, Busch now is a favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600 at CMS, also next Sunday.

Penske has been competing in NASCAR since 1972, when the team fielded a Matador for road-racing ace Mark Donohue at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway. Ryan Newman presented Penske with its first Daytona 500 victory in 2008, to-date the organization’s stock-car high-point.

Between them, Castroneves and Busch deposited approximately $1.25 million into Team Penske’s bank account, on a day when Penske’s midas touch was on full display.

So, what does it take to land a ride with “The Captain?” What attributes do native Brazilian Castroneves, and fellow-Australians Ryan Briscoe and Will Power, share on the open-wheel side of the Penske equation? Similarly, what skills earned Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski their current Sprint Cup Series jobs?

“Well, I think, you know, there’s three criteria that always stuck out in my mind,” Penske, 73, said during his team’s traditional Fast Friday news conference at IMS. “The first criteria, has he been a winner in some kind of racing, so he knows how to win. There are a lot of people that have been fast but don’t know how to win. So that would be number one.

“Number two, in today’s racing the ability to communicate technically, not just because you have a big right foot, but technically can you communicate with your crew, do you understand, are you engaged on the technical side of things. I think that’s very important.

“Obviously the third thing is the commercial side of it, being able to support our sponsors and the media and other things. So those three things are key. As Helio said, they’ve got to have the fire in their belly; they’ve got to want to win. We have three people here, one’s going to, we hope, win the race.

“I think the fourth point would be you’ve got to have drivers who are not just one man on one team when you’ve got three drivers. We have one team with three drivers, and I think that’s super critical. That’s one of the things that (Penske president) Tim Cindric has been able to bring into the team to continue to say that’s the mission here is one team. And (team adviser) Rick Mears obviously is a byproduct of that over the years, so that’s kind of my formula.”

Works for him and the Penske Corporation, a diversified transportation services company whose subsidiaries include retail automotive, truck leasing, transportation logistics, transportation component manufacturing and, of course, professional motorsports. Penske Corporation manages businesses with revenues in excess of $14 billion, operates in more than 1,800 locations and employs 36,500 people worldwide.

Racing-wise, Penske has been competing in the United Sates since 1958, scoring victories in every series in which it has run. Team Penske is the most successful outfit in domestic open-wheel history, with 141 wins and 12 national championships. Team Penske is synonymous with the 2.5-mile Speedway, where its drivers have won a record 15 Indy 500s, and as of Saturday, a record 16 Indy 500 poles.

Clearly, Penske never has allowed his pursuit of the “unfair advantage” to become routine at IMS.

“I don’t think you can come to this racetrack and think it’s ho-hum,” said Penske, one of America’s young and dashing road-racers when he opted to retire from driving in 1965 to concentrate on his burgeoning business empire. “One of the things we say to our people is that we come here like it’s the first time. The thing we do have is the experience. I’ve said it before, some 600 years of experience are in that garage of running at this track.

“You know, it’s a constant challenge for us as a team, for me personally, and I think that the people that we put together for this year, the three drivers, are the very best, I feel in the whole group of drivers that are here with experience. Obviously, Will, he’s not had the experience on the ovals but seeing what he’s been able to do here in the last couple of days; Helio, and also Ryan, I think we’ve got the guys to beat.”

Castroneves’ qualifying run of 227.970 mph during the series’ new 90-minute shootout among the day’s nine fastest drivers was more than 3 mph faster than his pole-winning speed last year. And the run included a lap of 228.213 mph –  fastest of the month. Power, a two-time winner this season and the surprise IZOD IndyCar Series points-leader, qualified second-fast at 227.578 mph, the middle of the three-car front row. Briscoe will start fourth, on the inside of Row 2, after a four-lap/10-mile run of 226.554 mph.

Amazingly, Penske has had at least one car start on the front row in 27 of his 37 years competing in the Indy 500. Castroneves’ fourth career Indy 500 pole tied him with Rex Mays and A.J. Foyt Jr. – first four-time winner of the race – for second on the all-time list. Mears, who transformed IMS into “The Rickyard” while winning the Indy 500 four times between 1979 and 1991, leads with six poles.

If Castroneves notches that fourth Indy 500 victory next weekend, he will join Penske alums Al Unser Sr. and Mears in that elite club headed by Super Tex. Mears was asked Friday if he would welcome Castroneves into the group.

“I quit helping about three weeks ago,” Mears deadpanned, eliciting a round of laughter.  “No, definitely welcoming. If I could be a part of him getting a fourth, it would be fantastic. That’s what we’re here to try to do is win this race, and if he can get his fourth win, it would be great.”

Penske, meanwhile, was well-beyond game-planning next Sunday for his superstar. “Well, he’s been a fabulous tool, you know, in our toolbox from the standpoint as a driver,” Penske said of Castroneves. “He met all those criteria almost on Day One. If he could win his fourth, I think that we will certainly be sure we have a car for him to try for his fifth.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 23 2010
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