“Beast”– A Review

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My lack of being an avid reader has been well-documented here over the years. Most of what I read these days are books pertaining to IndyCar or the Indianapolis 500, but I don’t seem to have much time to read them. OK, that’s not true. I seem to have plenty of time to watch sports and movies, so let’s just say I don’t really have the desire to carve out time to do much reading.

My wife, Susan, always has a book going. My father was an avid reader, as well as both of my older brothers. I don’t seem to recall seeing my mother curling up with a good book that often, so I must take after her in that aspect. My problem is that I do most of my reading lying in bed at night. About halfway through the second page, the book is hitting me in the face because I’ve fallen asleep. It’s hard to make a lot of headway when you read only a page and a half per night.

Susan is always good about buying me racing books for Christmas, birthdays, etc. The problem is, they are stacking up and I haven’t read most of them. About a year and a half ago, she bought me a copy of the book Beast, by Jade Gurss for my birthday.

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This is the story of the development of the pushrod Mercedes that Marlboro Team Penske used in 1994. I had heard great things about it and I put it by my bed, signifying it was the next book I would read. It sat there gathering dust until about a month ago.

Although it had a great reputation, I just felt like a three-hundred page book about the development of an engine would be tedious, technical and boring. I’m not a gearhead and I just couldn’t even bring myself to read the first page.

Sometime in April, knowing the Month of May was approaching – I got the itch to read one of my books on the Indianapolis 500. I thought to myself “This one has been sitting here so long, I need to either read it or put it on the shelf with all the other unread books.” Being too lazy to take it to the bookshelf, I figured I’d give it a try. Plus, with this being the twenty-fifth anniversary of this engine’s only race – I thought it appropriate to read it by May.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been more wrong about anything in my entire life. To let that book sit and gather dust that long was an unforgivable sin on my part.

It’s rare that I would ever say “I just couldn’t put it down”, but I will say that about this book. From the very first chapter, it lays out the groundwork of when the idea of the pushrod Mercedes came to life. It discusses the eleven month process from when Roger Penske met with his business partners, Mario Illien and Paul Morgan – both co-founders of Ilmor Engineering Ltd., at a Phoenix, Arizona restaurant in June 1993. That’s when Penske explained Clause 115-D that had been inserted into the USAC rulebook after the 1992 Indianapolis 500. It allowed a purpose-built 209 cubic inch pushrod engine, not from a stock block.

The rule was created to help little teams create a more reliable engine than the old Buick stock block pushrod engine that had plenty of power, but was highly unreliable. The pushrod engines were allowed 55-inches of boost instead of 45-inches like the standard IndyCar engines of the day. Roger Penske studied that rule and got the idea to build such an engine for his team to be used in the next year’s “500”.

The book details the eleven-month process of going from a clean sheet of paper, to building and testing an engine in the dead of winter, to winning the Indianapolis 500 – all in complete secrecy.

As interesting as the main story was, sometimes the chapters that were flashbacks were just as interesting – if not more.

Some chapters deal with a young Roger Penske that had to decide between a business career and a hobby of racing cars. It describes his ascension in the business world and the birth of what would become Penske Racing. We are introduced to Karl Kainhofer, Penske Racing’s first employee who has been through practically everything with Roger Penske. These sections chronicle Penske’s first trip to Indianapolis as a car owner in 1969 with Mark Donohue as his driver. It goes into detail about Donohue’s win at Indianapolis in 1972 and his subsequent death after crashing his Penske F1 car in practice for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975.

Beast talks about how USAC had deteriorated in the seventies and how Dan Gurney wrote The White Paper. It details how Penske and Pat Patrick broke off from USAC in 1979 to form CART.

It gets into how Ilmor came about as a partnership between Ilien and Morgan, and how they approached Penske for financing. Penske believed in the two and bought a fifty percent stake in the company. It details their first engine for Indy car racing, the 265-A, which would be badged a Chevrolet after Penske sold GM half of his stake in the company

To me, the most interesting part of the whole book was not about the development of the engine, but the way it gave a pretty concise and (what I thought to be) a very accurate assessment of The Split and what led up to it.

It’s hard to believe that a book about an engine could be suspenseful to someone like me that is not mechanically inclined – but it is. From engine failures left and right in the early stages, to the incredible veil of secrecy – it’s a wonder this was ever pulled off. But Penske caught the entire racing community off guard when he unveiled the engine at the IMS Museum just about six weeks before the 1994 race.

This book provides a definite peek behind the curtain, with all of the subplots and side stories. Although I say I’m not an avid reader, I’ve still read a lot of IndyCar books over the years and I can’t ever remember learning so much that I didn’t know before.

So many books I’ve read, deal with drivers who lived long before I was even born. This book dealt with something I lived through and remembered vividly. I was at Indianapolis on Opening Day in 1994, the first time anyone not associated with Ilmor or Team Penske had ever seen or heard the engine run. Believe me, the car had an eerily quiet and low note to it – far different from the standard IndyCar engines. I was also there to see the engine race and win the only time it ever raced.

The story of the evolvement of the engine is fascinating enough. But when you add all of the other side stories; like how it was rendered ineffective for the following year by USAC, and how CART and it’s drivers were effectively shut out of Indianapolis in 1996 are just some of the interesting and informative aspects of this book.

The Penske-Ilmor Mercedes-500I is the last example of true innovation we have seen at the Indianapolis 500 or IndyCar in general. I’ve always admired Roger Penske, but I’m well aware that many despise him. But you cannot deny how innovative he was until his idea was stifled by The Speedway.

If the recommendation of a not-so-avid reader counts for anything, I highly recommend that you get a copy of Beast. But be aware – you may not be able to put it down.

George Phillips

9 Responses to ““Beast”– A Review”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Iam a reader, but I have not read this one. However it will soon be in my hands. Thank for the book report.

  2. Beast and Black Noon are two of the best books about the 500 I’ve read. As you said, the inner workings of the series and how we got to this point are just as dramatic as the main storylines.

  3. Kcindyfan Says:

    Thanks for the review George. I will be reading this before Indy.

    • My wife got it for me this past Christmas. I sanctioned myself to 3 chapters a night so I could savor it and have something to look forward to each night for like two weeks. I could have read it in one sitting it was so damn good!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Beast really does a good job of managing to keep the technical details of the motor light enough to keep the non-gearhead reading and present enough to engage the gearhead alike. That’s a heck of an accomplishment, as I have read a host of books that lean too heavily one way or the other.

    In fact, I thumbed through a mid-80s book on Outlaw sprint cars at a used book store last night that had far more pictures of headers and exhaust pipes than it did pictures of Steve Kinser or Brad Doty. On the other hand, “the Tickford 5 valve was expensive and slow… moving on to the argument in the FIA boardroom” doesn’t do much for me either.

    Beast does a great story justice from all angles when it could have turned into just an angry screed on racing politics or a manual on building your own 500I using common household items.

  5. It is on my Amazon Wishlist. Guess maybe I shouldn’t wait for someone to get the hint and just buy it myself. Thanks for your review, George.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    Thanks for the review George and thanks to your followers for their comments. I will buy the “Black Noon” book as I was at that race. I am currently reading a book about anti-gravity. I can’t put it down.

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