News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Auto Racing

May 27, 2010

Roger Penske set the bar for Indianapolis 500 excellence

INDIANAPOLIS — When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company was born in 1909, how could the founding fathers, Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler, have known the impact that 320 acres of overpriced farmland would have on the world?

Jump ahead nearly 100 years. How could the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have known the force that Roger Penske would be in its history?

Not only are his numbers impressive, they are probably untouchable in the record books. As an owner, cars under the Roger Penske team name have won 15 Indy 500s, 15 Indy Pole Positions and 14 Pit Stop Challenges.

To put that in a little perspective, the team with the second most wins is Lou Moore, who won five Indianapolis 500s between 1938-1949 which within itself is an impressive record, five wins in 12 years.

Since 2001, Team Penske has won five, three with reigning champion Helio Castroneves. Sitting on the pole for this year’s race, Castroneves is an odds on favorite to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time winners.

Theoretically, it could have possible been more wins. As Penske has enjoyed tremendous highs in the sport, he has certainly been low. In 1995, just one year after winning the two previous Indy 500s with Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., respectively, the team failed to qualify a single car that year. One year later, the Indy Racing League was born and a terrible rift between CART, the governing body, and the IRL caused a split between the two racing entities.

Penske chose CART, which would no longer compete in the Indianapolis 500. That absence ran from 1996 until 2000. In 2000, Chip Ganassi Racing, also a CART team, came to Indy that year and took home the trophy with Juan Pablo Montoya. A year later, Penske did the same thing, winning with Castroneves. In 2002, both Ganassi and Penske returned to the league full time, while Castroneves won his second in a row.

However, he had work to do. Panther Racing and Andretti Green dominated the league. During those years, the team rebuilt quickly to be on top, but nevertheless, for all of the championships won, the crown jewel for Penske Racing was always the Indy 500.

Even after 15 wins, he is excited. “I don’t think you can come to this race track and think it’s ho-hum. One of the things we say to our people is that we come here like it’s first time. The thing we do have is experience.”

Over 600 combined years of experience, actually. In a profession that is historically unstable and mobile, employees of Penske Racing stay employees of Penske Racing. Clive Howell, general manager, come to work as a mechanic in 1979. Team manager, Tom Wurtz and Technical Director, Tom German joined the team in 1997 and most notably four-time Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears.

Mears has spent his entire career at Team Penske. He is currently an advisor, but was one of the most dominating drivers in open-wheel history. Mears first drove for Penske in 1977. He filled in for two races for Mario Andretti who was competing also in Formula One at the time. Mears began to run full time the following year. He won his first Indy 500 in 1979. He went on to win three more times, in 1984, 1988 and 1991. Mears also won a record six poles at Indy. When he retired from racing in 1992, he did not retire from the Penske organization. Mears is considered an integral part in the team’s successes.

Mears fully understands why Penske is so successful. “He’s been a driver so he understands racing.” In the early 1960s, Penske piloted many winning cars in SCCA and was named Sports Illustrated SCCA Driver of the Year in 1961. Yet he never drove in the Indy 500 and retired from driving in 1965.

That knowledge has carried him to the highest level of racing excellence. Making the transition from driver to owner doesn’t always bring victory, but according to Mears, the driver aspect of Penske’s life has been key. “Some owners will say ‘Just go out there and stand on it’ He’s not going to do that. He knows what it’s like and is not going to do that, and that takes some of the pressure off.”

Ryan Briscoe knows first hand the stress of needing to perform. When he joined Team Penske full time in 2008, Briscoe failed to finish three of his first five races of the season including a 23rd place finish at Indy. While some thought Briscoe was doomed, he finished the season strong with two wins.

In 2009, Briscoe grabbed five poles and three wins and finished third in the points, just one point out of second. “He’s very supportive,” said Briscoe about Penske. “He’s the glue that holds this team together.”

Even with being the glue, the package has to have the right parts. Penske said he believes he has the best drivers out there with Briscoe, Castroneves and Will Power, but he has a common criteria for finding the right fit.

First, he wants the driver who has been a winner in some kind of racing who knows how to win. “There are a lot of people that have been fast, but don’t know how to win.”

Secondly, he wants the driver engaged on the technical side of the car. “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.”

Still a businessman, the third thing is very important in racing today. “Obviously the third thing is the commercial side of it. A driver has to be able to support our sponsors, the media and other things.

“I think a 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.”

Penske also credits Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance, which is the racing operations, with pulling that all together. “Tim has been able to bring that into the team to continue to say that the mission here is one team.”

Some of the greatest drivers who took laps around the famed oval drove for Penske. Names like Mears, Fittipaldi, Bobby and Al Unser, Danny Sullivan and Mark Donohue all contributed to the 15 wins.

When Gil de Ferran won in 2003, that made three years in row that Penske went to the winner’s circle.

One of his most notable wins came in 1987. That year, Danny Ongais crashed in practice and was unable to drive. Al Unser came to the speedway at age 47 without a ride. Without a current-year chassis, the team converted a show car sitting at a hotel in Reading, Pa., to a contender. Coming from a lap down, Unser led the final 17 laps, becoming the oldest driver ever to win the Indy 500.

Even with all of the drama of years past, each time Penske goes to victory circle with a driver, no one would ever know he’s has been there more than anyone else. “He loves and is dedicated to racing,” said Mears.

Penske sums it up even simpler. “I just love it.”

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