Should The Captain Take A Step Back?

A week and a half ago, we witnessed what was most likely the last IndyCar race ever for Helio Castroneves outside of the I-465 beltway at Indianapolis. Helio faded down the stretch and finished fourth in the final points standings. Much has been made about Helio’s missed opportunities for a championship throughout his career. In a lot of cases, the criticism is somewhat justified.

Since he joined Team Penske for the 2000 CART season, Helio Castroneves has finished fourth or higher in the points standings twelve times. Four of those times, he finished second – and as recently as the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

For years, Tim Cindric was calling the shots on Helio’s pit stand. Then heading into the Toronto race in 2011, a team shuffle moved Cindric onto the championship contending car of Will Power. Castroneves was struggling through what would be his worst season with Penske and would end up eleventh in the points. When Cindric moved to Power’s car, Helio wound up with John Erickson on his pit box.

Roger Penske for years had been on the pit box for Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish and Ryan Briscoe, serving as the race strategist for whomever drove the No.6 car, which later became the No.2. After Briscoe departed following the 2012 season, the No.2 was in part-time status with AJ Almendinger running selected races. The Captain moved over to become Helio’s race strategist just before Texas in 2013. He has been there ever since.

Most consider Roger Penske to be a brilliant race strategist. But in order to be successful in that role, one must take chances and make moves that are considered unconventional. Over the years, he took gambles that paid off more times than not. The perception was that he was one of the brightest minds in the paddock when it came to pit strategy.

In recent years, however – the gambles caught up to The Captain. Since Helio Castroneves has been under the watchful eye of Penske as his race strategist, there have been a number of gambles taken by Penske that have blown up in his face, costing Helio Castroneves a few near-certain victories along the way. Of course, there are those that would point out that Helio’s performance improved while under Penske’s guidance. I’m not sure it improved, but it certainly didn’t fall off any.

But I do know that there have been numerous races over the past four seasons where Castroneves was leading and Penske chose to leave his driver out one lap too long, before an ill-timed yellow bit them. The result was usually a fifteenth-place finish instead of a podium or possible win.

Some may accuse me of either heresy or lunacy, but is it possible that Roger Penske could have cost Helio multiple wins and a possible championship along the way just by the way he managed the pit strategy for Helio Castroneves?

Over the decades, the gambles came through so many times for Penske, he was thought of as the guru of pit strategies. Teams would spy on whatever decisions Roger Penske would make throughout the race and do the exact same thing. Why? Because they usually worked – at least they did for Penske.

But the law of averages have been catching up to Penske. Last Sunday, Simon Pagenaud won the race at Sonoma by utilizing a four-stop strategy developed by Kyle Moyer and executing it perfectly. Last year, Penske and Castroneves tried the exact same strategy at Sonoma and it failed miserably. Some say it’s because last year, Penske and Castroneves went to the four-stop strategy later in the race when they had to. Moyer and Pagenaud decided before the race that they would do it in four stops and it paid off.

Am I saying that Roger Penske’s reputation as a genius at race strategy is over-inflated? No, not at all. His track record is far too exceptional for it to be any type of fluke. Dare I ask what everyone is probably thinking, but afraid to mention? OK. I’ll do it.

It could be that Roger Penske is getting too old to make these calls on a split-second basis. I’m not saying his mind is going. In fact, quite the opposite. Penske will turn eighty-one before the start of next season. He has the appearance and energy of someone twenty years younger, and his mind still seems as sharp as a tack. But part of the natural aging process means that your body slows down.

No one thinks more highly of Roger Penske than I do. When I’ve been asked who I would most like to spend dinner with, living or dead, the answer is always the same – Roger Penske. Not only do I think he is brilliant, I find the man fascinating. I was there when he showed up for his first Indianapolis 500 as an owner in 1969 with Mark Donohue. I was intrigued with the way this newcomer carried himself and presented his team. Forty-eight years later, I still am. So don’t think for a minute that I’ve turned on one of my heroes, but Father Time waits for no one.

My mother is ninety-three years old. She still drives everywhere, lives alone in the same house I grew up in, is completely independent and sings in the church choir. Her physical and mental abilities are amazing. But I think she would tell you that her ability to make split-second decisions on a race strategy was hampered somewhat years ago. I’m still in my fifties and I can tell that my physical and mental reflexes have been diminished over the years from what they once were.

I’m not saying that it’s time that Roger Penske retired and moved into Phase III of del Boca Vista. But with Team Penske likely to scale back to three cars next season, it may be a good idea for him to be the one of the four race strategists to step away and let the others make the crucial split-second decisions. Along with Tim Cindric with Newgarden and Kyle Moyer with Pagenaud, Jon Bouslog and Will Power seem to be forming their own chemistry after one year together. If Helio Castroneves does not come back into the No.3 fulltime next season, I see this as a perfect time for Penske to step back and watch races and let others do the grueling decision-making.

Helio Castroneves seems to have a good bond with Roger Penske, his employer for the past nineteen IndyCar seasons. It would seem that the feeling is mutual as no IndyCar driver in the team’s storied history has driven for Roger Penske as many seasons as Helio Castroneves – not Al Unser, not Danny Sullivan, Tom Sneva nor Bobby Unser. Even the great Rick Mears drove only fifteen seasons for Team Penske. I think it is fitting that they should both leave their fulltime participation in the sport at the same time.

When Helio crawls back into the cockpit of an Indy car next May, I do think it should be Roger Penske back on the headset. The facility at the 16th Street Roundabout is where they both seem to thrive. For all of the questionable calls that have gone the other way for The Captain in recent years, few if any of them have taken place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For as long as health and longevity will allow them both to do what they love to do at IMS, the pairing of Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves should stay intact. Some things were just meant to be.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Should The Captain Take A Step Back?”

  1. Wow, I voted before Brian McKay!

    • Brian McKay Says:

      Yep. Today I didn’t read this at 4:40 but rather around 11:40. I didn’t feel like commenting. I think that captaining a race team is a longtime passion of team owner Mr. Penske. I think that he’s been around the block and knows how to strategize. He likely accepts input from his race team members. And he likely isn’t verging on senility.
      I’m repeatedly amazed that George Phillips comes up with topics and then writes well of them.

  2. The old brain absolutely does slow down (he said as he presses pause yet again to have a think during Jeopardy)

    But if I was a bazillionaire many times over, I’d do whatever I wanted to do and the hell with what anyone else thinks. The big cement wall in corner 1 is closing in way too fast and you just have to do what gives you the most pleasure in life.

  3. In my opinion, Penske will eventually be owned by Tim Cindric and Brad Keselowski so Roger might be good to transition more attention to NASCAR and grooming Brad. That’s just my crystal ball guess though.

    I don’t think Helio is very clutch though so he doesn’t help himself.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    How would you compare your mother’s ability to make split-second decisions on a race strategy in her rime to Roger Penske’s?

    Seriously, though, I can see Penske doing this if he is not reassigning one of his current strategists to the sports car program. I suppose we will know soon enough.

  5. RP is set to be on Will Power’s car next year. Will seemed…bemused at Sonoma when he talked about “some of Roger’s calls.”

  6. my mama is 93 as well. this year, she decided that a driver’s license is not something she needed. she lives alone, since my daddy died
    16 years ago. as she says, she’s not “with it” sometimes and her
    friends take where she should go, but her social calendar is
    filled by volunteer work at the library, church, and everything
    else (i can’t keep up) she does. Mr. Phillips, i hope you are
    able to post about your mother’s life next year.

  7. Rhetorical answer to a rhetorical question: Should Roger Penske park his scooter? This year I have seen him navigate his scooter at speed around fans, journalists, bloggers, Robin Miller, and such quite well. I don’t think he wants to or needs to take his money and retire to codgerville just yet.

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