The Good Cop/Bad Cop Theory

It used to be that disagreeing with someone was completely acceptable among mature adults. Recently, however, disagreeing with someone brings outrage, name-calling and public shaming – simply due to a difference of opinion. Fortunately, most readers here are still very reasonable and able to share different opinions without incurring the wrath of others.

Since last season, I have been noticing a dip in the level of performance at Team Penske, and have mentioned it here several times. I pointed to the absence of Roger Penske on the pit box during races as the primary reason for their slump. Most disagreed with me. Even heading into May, on one of our episodes of Two Sites Unite – Paul Dalbey and I debated on that particular topic and he thought I was reading too much into it. I think after two very mediocre Indianapolis 500 performances in a row by Team Penske, he may have softened his stance.

Since then, others on social media have been mentioning what I had surmised a year ago – that the absence of The Captain’s presence on race weekends was making a difference in the team’s performance.

My theory was shot down Wednesday night on Trackside by Kevin Lee. He and Curt Cavin generally pooh-poohed the notion that Penske, himself, not being around had any bearing on the teams performances. They pointed to the fact that team president Tim Cindric has been running the day-to-day operations for years and that Penske and Cindric still talk regularly each week. They also made the case that Roger Penske doesn’t build the gearboxes himself or install the ECUs into the cars. They chalked this up to a cyclical occurrence and compared it to the slump the team went to in the late nineties, that not-so-coincidentally ended when Tim Cindric was hired around 1999 or 2000.

I really like Kevin Lee and Curt Cavin. I think they do an excellent show and have done it well, for over a decade. Their chemistry together is undeniable and I listen live as often as I can. When I can’t, I listen to the podcast within a day or so – meaning I have not missed a single episode of their show in the twelve to thirteen years they’ve been doing the show. I really enjoy listening to them and I learn a lot from them.

But every now and then, I have to disagree with them – and that’s okay. Sometimes, I think they are a little too close to the situation to be completely objective. Curt now finds himself working for Roger Penske, and Kevin is also a pit reporter for NBC, and has to get information from Tim Cindric during races and on race weekends. Neither of them is going to be tempted say anything to damage their relationships with Team Penske. That’s not a criticism, that’s just fact.

They both probably really believe what they were saying the other night, but I also have to wonder if there may be a little doubt in their mind.

The comparison between Team Penske’s current mini-slump and the drought they went through in the late nineties is not a fair comparison at all. First of all, the team is only in a nice-race winless streak. Josef Newgarden won the season finale last year at St. Petersburg. They have also been competitive in most races. They have just not won any.

In the nineties, they had much deeper problems. The Penske chassis was suddenly very uncompetitive. Penske was also still using Goodyear tires, rather than the much preferred Firestones. They were also still tied to the woefully underpowered Mercedes engine. Every key component that Penske was using – chassis, tires and engine – were all deemed inferior to what the other more successful teams of the day were using.

Paul Tracy scored the team’s last win of the nineties in 1997, before being let go at the end of that season. Al Unser, Jr. did not win a race for Penske after 1995. Little Al was going through his personal problems that affected his on-track performance, which eventually led to his dismissal after the 1999 season. After driving for the team for only one season (1998), the late Andre Ribeiro stepped out of the cockpit to represent Penske’s business interests in Brazil. In 1999, the No. 3 car had a very un-Penske-like revolving door of drivers that included Tarso Marques, Alex Barron and Gonzalo Rodriguez, who was fatally injured in practice, while driving for Penske at Laguna Seca.

The new millennium brought new drivers in Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. It also saw Penske move to the Reynard chassis, with Honda power and Firestone tires – the same combination that had taken Chip Ganassi Racing to the previous four titles. I believe 2000 was also the first year for Tim Cindric, who moved over from Bobby Rahal’s team. The result was two straight CART titles for de Ferran and Marlboro Team Penske, as well as the 2001 Indianapolis 500 with Castroneves. But before the upheaval in equipment, drivers and team management – Team Penske went three years and three days without a win. That’s certainly much more significant than this current nine-race stretch.

I could be way off base, but here is my theory. Most large organizations have a management structure that evolves into the Good Cop/Bad Cop system. Whether or not it is ever designed that way, it is usually pretty effective. There is the Bad Cop, who is the stern-faced leader who is all-business and strikes the fear of God into the employees. The Good Cop is held just as responsible for results as the Bad Cop. The Good Cop just gets things done in a totally different manner. The Good Cop builds relationships with employees and comes across as more of a friend than a supervisor. When employees have problems, either personal or work-related, they will gravitate toward the approachable Good Cop much more than the Bad Cop. When they have to, the Good Cop can make the tough decisions; but they prefer their role in keeping relationships intact.

My theory is that in this scenario, Roger Penske is the Bad Cop, where Tim Cindric is the Good Cop. In my many years in the workforce, I’ve seen it play out many times that when both cops are present – all is well. When either of them is absent, that’s when trouble starts.

If the Good Cop is gone, employees are constantly looking over their shoulder and feel like they are working in a hostile environment. If the Bad Cop is gone, employees tend to relax a little. That’s no disrespect to the Good Cop, it’s just human nature. They still tend to their work, but maybe only at 98% of what they were doing before. I think that is exactly what is going on right now at Team Penske.

I’ve told this story before, but it fits perfectly here. In 2010, which was the first race at Barber, I was in the pits at Barber – shortly after the command to start engines. The teams had just rushed back from the grid with all of their equipment. I was walking behind one of the Penske pits, when I saw Roger Penske come off the pit box. With the team scurrying around, stashing equipment away and getting set for the race to start in less than a lap – Penske noticed a stack of two cases of bottled water baking in the sun. He ordered a crewman, who was already in the midst of another project, to find something to cover it up.

It struck me at the time that this is why Roger Penske is so successful – he sweats about the smallest details. He had three cars that were on the verge of taking the green flag, yet he was also making sure that their water was being kept covered. By the way – one of those cars won the race, while the other two finished in the Top Six. To me, that summarized the phrase Penske Perfect.

Did having a crewman cover up the water make the difference in Helio Castroneves winning that race? No, but it serves as the perfect example of Penske overseeing every little detail. That crewman probably grumbled to himself as he had to stop what he was doing to cover up the water. He probably didn’t realize that Penske’s approach to every detail is what sets them apart from every other team.

Most other teams probably operates at that 98% efficiency mark. With Roger Penske on the pit box, just his presence alone probably accounted for that extra 2%. Now that he has been forced to step away since he bought the series, Team Penske has probably slipped back to everyone else – except that many other teams have won at least one race, while Team Penske is still looking at zero for 2021.

This is not a knock on Tim Cindric or any of the drivers, nor is it an indictment on the team. But it is just human nature to relax the slightest bit, when the Bad Cop is no longer around. When that happens, it’s almost impossible for the Good Cop to suddenly slip into the role of the Bad Cop. I’ve seen that attempted a few times in my professional life, and it never works.

Am I completely off base here? I could be. Maybe their roles are actually reversed, from what I have observed. I just find the timing a little too coincidental that they went from winning the championship in 2019, then after Penske bought IMS and the series in the offseason – things suddenly went terribly wrong.

What is the remedy? Unfortunately, I don’t think there is one. If one of the Penske cars wins at Mid-Ohio next weekend, this will all go away – especially if that opens the floodgates for several Penske wins in the latter part of the season. It will all be forgotten and my Good Cop/Bad Cop theory will just be another one of my crackpot ideas, and the guys at Trackside will be proven right. But if no Penske driver wins a race in 2021, I think my theory is just as plausible as any we’ve heard that have tried to determine what the problem is at Team Penske.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “The Good Cop/Bad Cop Theory”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    George I think at this time we must give your point a thumbs up. I did not think Roger steppe back had this effect. However you may have a good point.

  2. dieseld68 Says:

    I think your spot on with the Captain gone. I hope they turn it around but I think things have slipped a bit with Penske. Attention to detail isn’t quite as strong.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…I don’t think Roger being out of the pits has bothered the team. In the last two Indy 500’s Honda has had a slightly better engine. And Penske has been hit with bad luck. I agree with Kevin and Curt.

  4. Talón de Brea Says:

    We could also factor in the steadily ramped up quality and depth of the field since the IRL days, which would have to increase the pressure on even the best and most established team(s) — especially in a spec series.

    I’m wishy-washy — I can’t decide whether it’s coincidence or direct cause and effect. Either way, it’s a valid theory and a good topic for this blog.

  5. I disagree with George here, the blame may have to be placed somewhere else, like Chevrolet. There is something going on with Chevrolet that with certain tracks and with certain actions the package is vulnerable to failure. If it had not been for the Red flag, Will Power would have won the Detroit race, without the Yellow in Detroit2, Newgarden would have more likely won with perhaps some attempts by the closing Colton to overtake him for a win. And without the Yellow in RA, Josef would have won. My point is,Penske drivers would have won 3 or 2 out of the last 3 three races without cautions or red flag stop. However things seemed to fail or gear box issue arose due to some weakness in Chevrolet when you go through a recycling of systems from intense stress (green flag) to a reprieve (yellows) and back to high performance (green flag) and the system is not able to go back to full high stress. Just my 2 cents

  6. George has spoken:
    bet on Penske for Mid-Ohio.

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    Outside the ballpark ……….

    From an armchair speculator’s perspective does having years of F1 development & extensive fine tuning at your disposal provide a certain amount of advantage for your Indy Car team while other teams do not have the equivalent F1 technology resources at their disposal?

    Team Penske has endured the low pendulum affect in the past and eventually bounced back to their high point.

    With McLaren now in the ballgame full time. question is which team will reach the pendlum’s high point first – Penke or McLaren?

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