Has Roger Penske Ruined IndyCar?

Even if you are not much of a stick-and ball sports fan, chances are that you know who Nick Saban is. For those that don’t, he is the Head Football Coach at Alabama, who just won their fifth National Championship under Saban since 2009 this past Monday night by beating Georgia 26-23 in overtime. Such success is unprecedented in college football in that short of a time span. So much so that fans of other schools in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), like my Tennessee Vols, are claiming that Saban has ruined the SEC.

Fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series may think this sounds familiar. It should. Many people have been saying the same thing about Roger Penske for decades.

My answer to both sets of fans is that both individuals moved the bar in their respective sports. It’s up to the teams they are fans of to catch up.

If you follow the history of the Indianapolis 500, there are a few teams from different eras that people will inevitably say “they were the Penske of their day”. Lou Moore owned successful teams in the late thirties and the forties, Howard Keck was a winning owner in the fifties and Leader Card Racing in the late fifties and the sixties.

Those three so-called Penske equivalents won the Indianapolis 500 a total of ten times combined. Howard Keck won two with Bill Vukovich and Leader Card won three times with Rodger Ward in 1959 and 1962, and Bobby Unser in 1968. Before Roger Penske came along, Lou Moore had won more Indianapolis 500’s than any owner in history, with five victories. Floyd Roberts won in 1938, Mauri Rose took the checkered flag in 1941, 1947 and 1948 before Bill Holland finally won for Moore in 1949.

Roger Penske currently owns sixteen Indianapolis 500 victories. I say “currently” because there is a good chance that number will grow before he retires. The Captain turns eighty-one next month, but shows no sign of slowing down. He first came to The Speedway in 1969 with Mark Donohue as his driver. Three years later, Donohue gave Penske his first Indianapolis 500 win. It was another seven years in 1979 before win No.2 came, when Rick Mears won the first of his four Indianapolis 500 wins – all with Roger Penske.

The mid-to-late eighties at Indianapolis belonged to Roger Penske. From 1984 until 1988, the only non-Penske driver to win at Indianapolis was Bobby Rahal in 1986. Three different drivers won the Indianapolis 500 four times in that five year period for Roger Penske – Rick Mears (1984,1988), Danny Sullivan (1985) and Al Unser (1987).

There was another stretch in the early nineties when Penske won Indianapolis three out of four years from 1991 to 1994, before inexplicably failing to qualify either car in 1995. Then The Split came and Penske did not enter again until 2001 – which began a three-year run of Indianapolis 500 victories – two from Helio Castroneves (2001-02) and Gil de Ferran in 2003. Sam Hornish added one in 2006 and Helio Castroneves earned his third “500” win in 2009. When Juan Montoya won in 2015, it was the sixteenth Indianapolis 500 win for Roger Penske. Throw in a ton of series championships, including the last two seasons and three of the past four – and one would figure that Roger Penske is destined for more championships and Indianapolis 500 victories before he heads to retirement.

Getting back to my Penske-Saban comparison – have those two really hurt their respective sports?

Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, when the Crimson Tide was mired in about a decade of mediocrity. In the decade prior to his arrival, six of the (then) twelve SEC schools won at least one SEC championship. In the decade after Saban’s arrival, five different schools have taken the title. It’s the five national titles that Saban has won since 2009 that changes everyone’s perspective.

Let’s look Team Penske over the same twenty-year span. From 1997 to 2006, Team Penske won three series championships (2000-01 in CART, 2006 in IndyCar) and three Indianapolis 500’s (2001-03). From 2007 to the present, Penske has won two Indianapolis 500’s (2009, 2015) and three IndyCar championships (2014, 2016, 2017). That’s solid and consistent, but it isn’t dominant. Beginning in 2007, Penske has been surpassed in the Indianapolis 500 by Andretti Autosport who has four wins in that time (2007, 2014, 2016, 2017); and by Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar championships, who has six (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015).

Team Penske has been outclassed by two other teams over the past decade in the two most important categories. Yet, if you were to ask anyone who the most dominant IndyCar team is – the answer is Team Penske. Consequently, Roger Penske gets wrongfully blamed for all of the ills of IndyCar.

Yes the man has deep pockets, but the rules were set up to help the smaller teams. That’s how you can explain teams like Dale Coyne Racing and AJ Foyt Enterprises rarely even got a sniff at a win in CART, yet they have both won IndyCar races in the past decade.

If Roger Penske has an unfair advantage in the Verizon IndyCar Series, it’s not because he outspends everyone – it’s because he outworks everyone. It’s the attention to detail that sets his team apart. He set the standard years ago, when his was the only team in the paddock that had the polished wheels, clean garages and a dress code for every crewmen for every day of the week. Now most of the successful teams follow Penske’s lead in their presentation.

It’s the same with Saban. Alabama still had the same fervent fan base in the decade before his 2007 arrival. That means they also had the resources (read: money). But Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Price (who was fired in scandal and never coached a game) and Mike Shula never came close to the success that Saban experienced at Alabama, as well as other schools – including LSU, who won the 2003 National Championship under Saban.

What are the common denominators between Nick Saban and Roger Penske? Hard work and preparation. Saban may lose the occasional game and Penske certainly does not win all of the races, but it is not due to lack of preparation. And neither of these men will ever lose because they were outworked by a competitor.

I’ve made no secret over the years that I am a Team Penske fan and how I admire Roger Penske. It’s not because they win and I jumped on their bandwagon, it’s because I respect the way that Penske has carried himself over the years. I was there when he first brought his team to Indianapolis in 1969 and when they won in 1972 – and I remember it well. I quickly became a Mark Donohue fan and soon learned about his owner. I’ve been a fan ever since.

If I wanted to infuriate my readers in Indianapolis, I could throw New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick into this discussion – but I won’t out of respect to Colts fans, who despise anything that has to do with the team in Foxboro, MA. Personally, I hope Belichick and the Patriots lose against my Titans on Saturday night. It’s not likely, but I can dream, can’t I?

It’s natural to root for the underdog. Entering these current NFL playoffs, the Buffalo Bills have become America’s darlings. The Butler Bulldogs became everyone’s favorite team as they made two consecutive trips to the NCAA Championship Basketball Game in 2010 and 2011. You can’t help but pull for perennial underdog Dale Coyne, as he does more with so little than any other team in the paddock.

But you also have to tip your hat to those that made it to the top with hard work and stayed there for an extended period. Nick Saban hasn’t ruined the SEC or college football any more than Roger Penske has ruined IndyCar. They set the bar through hard work and keen preparation. It’s up to the other teams to follow suit and knock them off. Until they do that, anyone who says otherwise is simply spewing jealousy and sour grapes.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Has Roger Penske Ruined IndyCar?”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    “Ruin” is far too strong a word, of course, but there are certainly drawbacks to the success that Penske and Saban have achieved, particularly in regards to the accelerating costs of their respective sports. That is, as pointed out, largely because of how good they are at what they do more so than because they are well-capitalized (though they certainly are that). Their success has been earned.

    Still, if you want to root against them because they win “too much” or because the level of commitment (financial and otherwise) it takes to match their level of success has driven one of your favorites to the fringes or out of the sport, I don’t blame you.

  2. Penske changed IndyCar racing to the point where the “average millionaire” can no longer compete. I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing but it’s too late now.

  3. much the same with NASCAR:
    Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, etc.
    “Ruin”? TV ratings would say so.

  4. If you have no hope of winning then you can’t get a sponsor. If you have no sponsor you only hire drivers who bring money. Raw talent counts for less all the time.

  5. When I saw the word “ruined”, I deleted this. Did Henry Ford ruin the automobile industry because he sold a lot of those Model Ts?

  6. I used the word “Ruin” because that’s what the Penske detractors say. As you can tell, I certainly don’t apply that word to Penske’s effect on IndyCar.

  7. If anyone thinks that Penske has dominated too much, you must read about Formula 1.

    1988-1991: McLaren-Honda won over 35 races.
    1992-1997: Williams-Renault won over 50 races.
    2000-2004: Schumacher won over 45 races.
    2011-2013: Red Bull-Renault won over 40 races.
    2014-2017: Mercedes won over 60 races.

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