Memories of Pat Patrick From a Petty Mind

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It seems that we are paying tributes to more and more of the people that shaped our sport as time goes on. Last week, I wrote about John Paul, Jr and Aldo Andretti, who both passed away just before the calendar turned to 2021. On Wednesday January 5 – IndyCar lost another icon that played a large role in how our sport evolved.

Ueal Eugene (Pat) Patrick, who co-founded of CART along with Roger Penske, passed away last week at the age of ninety-one.

My mother always taught me that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, say nothing at all. Groucho Marx (if you are under forty, turn on your Google machine and look him up) always maintained that if you can’t say anything nice about someone – go ahead and say it. I’m going to find some middle ground between those schools of thought.

In all candor, I was never a huge fan of Pat Patrick.

There is no denying that Patrick helped shape our sport, but I never cared for him as a car owner. He was the car-owner for Gordon Johncock in both of his Indianapolis 500 victories – the star-crossed win in 1973, along with the thrilling win in 1982 just ahead of the charging car of Rick Mears. He was also the car-owner for Mario Andretti in 1981, when the Indianapolis 500 win was awarded to Andretti and Patrick the morning after the race – only to be taken away from them and given back to Bobby Unser and Roger Penske the following October.

He was also the car-owner, along with co-owner Chip Ganassi, when Emerson Fittipaldi first took the legendary Marlboro livery to Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 1989, just before Marlboro and Fittipaldi went to Penske and Ganassi took full control of the team – all in 1990.

I freely admit that I can be petty, and that I can have a shallow outlook on some things – but at least I admit it. When I think of Pat Patrick, two things immediately come to superficial mind. The first was when Ganassi and Patrick were buttoning up their deal, Patrick secretly (and allegedly) shipped an Ilmor Chevy engine to Alfa Romeo, who was aligning with Patrick for the 1990 season, as Patrick had second thoughts of retiring after selling his assets to Ganassi. Alfa Romeo apparently had full access to inspect the Ilmor engine. It did little good because they were never competitive for their two seasons on CART – 1990 and 1991.

Patrick signed Bobby Rahal for the 1992 season, but Alfa Romeo was gone. Due to Patrick’s previous indiscretions, Chevy refused to lease their engine to Patrick. Bobby Rahal ended up buying the team, along with Carl Hogan. With Patrick out, Chevy agreed to provide an engine for Rahal and he went on to win the CART championship that season.

Patrick allegedly shipping that Chevy engine to Alfa Romeo is the first of the two things that come to mind when I think of Pat Patrick The second one came in 1995.

After sitting on the sidelines for the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Patrick formed a union with Firestone as they had decided to return to IndyCar racing for the first time in twenty years. They funded a third rendition of Patrick Racing for the 1994 season – not to race, but to test. Patrick hired unemployed driver Scott Pruett as they tested at each track on the 1994 schedule and gathered data as they prepared to race the following season. When Pruett and Patrick were racing for real in 1995, they were competitive right out of the gate, as Pruett scored five Top-Ten finishes in the first five races, including two podiums.

The 1995 Indianapolis 500 is where I remember Pat Patrick for the wrong reasons. Scott Pruett qualified in the middle of Row Three and had a good race. He led eight laps and was running a strong second just behind Scott Goodyear on Lap 184, when he caught a gust of wind coming out of Turn Two and hit the outside wall. He whipped around and across the track in an awkward fashion, hitting the inside wall and sheering the rea suspension off of his Lola. It was a frightening looking crash and many on television had feared the worst – especially since they had already seen the horrendous Stan Fox crash in the South End at the start, without knowing his outcome.

After showing a couple of horrifying replays, the ABC crew cut to an interview with Patrick. Instead of saying the obligatory hoping his driver was OK, a surly Patrick gruffly said “Well I just hope something broke on the car”. Translation: this had better not be Scott’s fault. I was at that race and didn’t see the interview until that night in our hotel. At that moment, a not-so-great opinion of Pat Patrick just got a lot lower. Pruett went on to win the Michigan 500 later that year and I was pulling for him, but not his owner.

Altogether, this edition of Patrick Racing won ten races in CART, between 1995 and 2001. The last win for Pat Patrick came at New Hampshire in 2001 with Roberto Moreno behind the wheel. In 2004, Patrick moved over to the IndyCar side of The Split, but was embarrassingly uncompetitive. With four different drivers in the cockpit of his usual No. 20 car, Al Unser, Jr., Jeff Simmons, Jaques Lazier and Tomáš Enge ran to mostly dismal finishes. With no sponsorship and poor results, Patrick Racing closed up shop for good following the 2004 IndyCar season.

While my memories of Patrick are of a man that had shady engine dealings and a grumpy car-owner – there was a lot to celebrate about the man. He was a throwback. After moving to Jackson, Michigan from his birthplace in Kentucky; Pat Patrick began his professional career as an accountant. But he left that to go into the risky, but rewarding field of oil exploration. He struck it rich and founded Patrick Petroleum in 1962. His first entry into IndyCar racing was in 1967, when he sponsored a car owned by Walt Michner. In 1970, he and Patrick Petroleum business partner LeRoy Scott bought into the team forming Patrick Racing – which won the 1973 Indianapolis 500 with Gordon Johncock.

Dan Gurney wrote his now-famous White Paper in 1978, which was something of a Declaration of Independence from USAC. This eventually led to Roger Penske and Pat Patrick leading the breakaway from USAC and forming CART. For that, some celebrate Penske and Patrick, while others vilify them.

I hate to admit it, but when I first heard the news last week that Pat Patrick had passed away, my mind initially went to the two incidents I described earlier. Fortunately, I read a lot of the accolades and was reminded how much more there was to Pat Patrick than what my petty mind held. Like it or not, Pat Patrick steered the course of IndyCar racing for the better part of thirty years. He should be remembered for that, and not for the infantile opinions from an overaged blogger.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Memories of Pat Patrick From a Petty Mind”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Indycar racing needs passionate, wealthy patrons to operate, and Pat Patrick fits that bill about as well as anyone who has been involved in the sport over the years. Warts and all, he contributed a lot to the sport for decades and it would be poorer without his presence. I’m glad his efforts were occasionally rewarded, I am sad that he passed, I have no problem with anyone criticizing his missteps. The stunt that he and Alfa Romeo pulled, was incredibly foolish.

    Personally, I liked a lot of his drivers more so than the team itself, especially Moreno, Pruett, and PJ Jones. The Visteon and Tecate/Quaker State cars he fielded in the early split era were strikingly painted, and nice examples of the kind of big time non-tobacco sponsors teams could land in the 90s economy.

  2. John Oreovicz Says:

    Moreno did achieve Patrick’s last win, but it was at Vancouver in 2001, not New Hampshire.

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