Penske Looks Backward On 50th Indy Anniversary

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 24 2019
Roger Penske began chasing bottles of milk at Indianapolis 50 years ago.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – Roger Penske filed his first Indianapolis 500 entry with the sanctioning U.S. Auto Club in 1969, and 50 years later Team Penske’s accomplishments at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could fill a book.

In fact, they have. A history of excellence and “unfair advantages” that began with Mark Donohue’s seventh-place finish in ’69 and runs through Will Power’s victory last May has been chronicled in TEAM PENSKE 50th Anniversary at the Indianapolis 500.

Beginning with Donohue in 1972, an illustrious list of 12 drivers have delivered a record 17 victories in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for Penske. “Fifty years ago we never thought we’d be here shooting for our 18th win,” Penske said during the Team Penske Media Lunch Thursday afternoon in the IMS paddock.

So, does “The Captain” harbor a favorite 500 memory from the 2.5-mile oval?

”Well, maybe when you think about ’85 and (Danny) Sullivan spun-and-won that race, that’s one,” Penske said.  “You just go back, winning with the Mercedes engine (with Al Unser Jr. in 1994) and we came in and nobody knew about it, and of course they outlawed the engine within two weeks. Those are things that I remember, but there’s not one that’s more important than the other one.”

Team Penske’s Al Unser Jr. celebrates after winning the 1994 Indy 500 in the Mercedes-Benz “Penske Panzer”.

And what about regrets? “I think the decision to not run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is probably the biggest mistake I’ve made in motorsports,” said Penske, alluding to the nasty turf war for control of domestic open-wheel racing launched in 1995-96 by Tony George and his all-oval Indy Racing League. As one of the prime movers behind creation of the Championship Auto Racing Teams, Penske boycotted the IRL and the Speedway from 1996-2000.

But beginning with Helio Castroneves’ back-to-back wins in 2001-02 and teammate Gil de Ferran’s in 2003, Penske drivers have won seven of the last 18 Indy 500s.

“I think it’s all about the team,” said Penske, a still energetic 82-years-old. “You talk about over 700 years (766 actually) of experience in the garage area this year. I think it’s the continuity. We have low turnover with our team. Always have had the best drivers.

“To me the time and effort we put into Indianapolis is so important because over the years we’ve built our brand around Indy. You think about the notoriety we get for competing here, being successful. It’s amazing.

“I looked at a stat here a couple of weeks ago. We’ve led 2,300-plus laps here, over 11 races. It’s not just the race you win, but it’s the consistency, the team leading laps, which has given us the success. When you look at the numbers _ if you’re interested in numbers _ we have 17 wins, 17 poles and 17 pit stop contests (wins). That’s pretty good.”

Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves have won the 500 three times together.

The intriguing thing for him, Penske added, is that each of his four drivers believes he can win Sunday’s 103rd edition of the race.  “There’s only going to be one,” Penske said.

Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, pole-winner for Sunday’s 200-lapper with a four-lap/10-mile average speed of 229.992 mph, is looking to replicate Power’s Month of May sweep of the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indy 500 after winning the former on May 11.

“It’s been incredible to get the pole position _ another box checked,” said Pagenaud, the 2016 IndyCar Series champion and driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet. “But I can’t take credit for this one. The car was fantastic, it was gliding through the air. Couldn’t do it without my team. Now we’ve got to execute this weekend. It’s a long race, a lot can happen but at the end of the day you’ve just got to focus on your job and forget about the outcome.”

Power will start sixth in the33-car field, the outside of Row 2. “It’s been an interesting month,” said Power, referencing his return as reigning race champ in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevy. “It’s the most competitive field in history. And when you look at McLaren not making it and a two-time (Formula One) World Champion (Fernando Alonso) not making it just shows where INDYCAR is at right now. You can’t leave anything on the table.

Team Penske driver Will Power finally got to take a milk shower after winning last year’s Indianapolis 500 in a car owned by Roger Penske.

“Our guys work so hard in the offseason to give us cars fast enough to not only get into the field but in the top nine and get pole. To win this race takes tremendous effort. For Roger to have won 17 Indy 500s is just amazing because it’s such a tough race to win. I know that because it took me 11 years to win the race. To win last year was such a weight off my shoulders, very proud moment for me to be the first Australian to win the race.”

American Josef Newgarden, the current IndyCar Series point-leader, will roll off from the middle of Row 3, in eighth place in pursuit of his first Indy 500 win and perhaps a clearer path to another title.

“You kind of put this race as its own thing. You want to win it at all costs,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevy. “But if you have a great race here, it has the ability to catapult you into a very favorable position in the championship. It has a lot of knock-on effect. You’ve got to have a good event here for the whole year, and you want to have a good event here because it’s the Indy 500. So it does a lot more than just giving you the milk to celebrate. It does a whole wealth of great things for you.”

Meanwhile, popular three-time Indy 500 champ Castroneves will chase a record-tying fourth Indy 500 win from the outside of Row 4.

“We have four incredible, fast cars,” said Castroneves, a native of Brazil and driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet. “Roger will be calling my race and (four-time Indy 500 champ) Rick Mears is my spotter. So I’m going to follow their instructions to the letter.”

Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance, Inc., laughingly referred to himself as the team’s “calculator” in terms of allocating resources toward the Indy 500.

“It’s our No. 1 priority,” Cindric said. “When you look at what we do, how we do it, you look at the legacy and the tradition that Roger has had here over the years, it’s a huge amount of pressure in some ways amongst all these guys, especially the ones back at the shop and the engineers and so forth.

Will Power and Tim Cindric of Team Penske.

“I think you have to thrive on that. I think you have to want that. For us, we always ask ourselves does that translate to Indy? When you put the resources, because we don’t have unlimited resources, when you ask yourself the question, where do you invest, you invest in whatever it takes to win this place.”

Case in point, the 78th edition of the Indy 500 on May 29, 1994. Team Penske uncovered a loophole in USAC’s rulebook that allowed “stock block” pushrod engines with up to 55 inches of turbo boost, as compared to 45 inches of boost allotted to overhead cam engines permitted in CART. Working with Ilmor Engineering, Penske secretly developed and tested a 209-cubic-inch pushrod V-8 dubbed “The Beast,” or as was headlined in Chris Economaki’s National Speed Sport News, “PENSKE’S PANZERS!”

The Merc V-8 was believed to crank out 1,000 horsepower, approximately 200 more than any other engine competing at IMS. Penske newcomer Unser Jr. qualified on-pole but teammate Emerson Fittipaldi was looking to increase his lead to two incredible laps over Unser when Emmo crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 184. The reigning Indy 500 champ, Fittipaldi retired after having led 145 of those 184 laps. “Little Al” cruised home via a margin of victory of 8.600-seconds over rookie Jacques Villeneuve _ the Canadian who led the only seven laps not paced by either Unser Jr. or Fittipaldi.

As Penske noted, USAC outlawed the Mercedes pushrod engine for 1995 and beyond, and Team Penske paid the price in May. Deprived of its planned engine program for Indy, the team never got up to speed with its conventional overhead cam Mercedes-Benz powerplant. Penske began the month with its PC-24 chassis but later borrowed two Lola chassis from Rahal-Hogan Racing in a bid to squeeze Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi into the field. Both DNQed, marking the first time in 26 years Penske failed to run in the Indy 500. And Unser became the first reigning Indy 500 champ to not qualify for the following year’s race.

Roger Penske with drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves.

“When you come here to the 500 and go back to ’94, we led I think every lap but two (seven), sat on the pole, won that race,” Penske said. “Came back one year later, walked down the pit lane  _ in those days, we had probably 75,000 to 100,000 people here on qualifying day with your two drivers _ and you didn’t make the race. It was devastating.”

That experience qualified Penske to offer some sobering advice to American Zak Brown, McLaren’s beleaguered chief executive. “In fact, I sent a note to the boys at McLaren the other day,” Penske said. “I said, ‘Look Zak, I know exactly where you are but you got to come back stronger next year,’ which I know he will. But it was devastating. We went on and used that as a learning experience for us. Our guys were tough, and you don’t win every day.

“For me, I tell people that racing is putting your quarterly earnings on the line every weekend. So I’m used to good and bad.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 24 2019
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