Avoiding the Post-Penske Curse

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When you look at the driver line-up at Meyer Shank Racing (MSR), you look at a couple of drivers that are trying to beat the odds. Helio Castroneves has already beaten the odds by winning his fourth Indianapolis 500 and having a fulltime ride this season, approaching the age of forty-seven.

But there is a pattern that Castroneves and his new and former teammate, Simon Pagenaud, both have working against them. They were both essentially let go by Roger Penske.

Roger Penske has always been a good evaluator of talent – both behind the wheel and how a driver will behave outside of the cockpit. But when he decides that a driver’s best days are behind him – that driver is shown the door and rarely excels beyond his Team Penske days. There might be one or two race wins as the career winds down, but for the most part – when a driver is cut loose from Team Penske, they need to start planning for life outside of the cockpit.

There are a few notable exceptions to the post-Penske curse. When a team has been in IndyCar for well over fifty years, you’ll always find a few exceptions to just About anything. Al Unser was cut loose from Penske after running a partial schedule in 1986, just one year after winning the championship in 1985. When Danny Ongais crashed in practice and was unavailable for the 1987 Indianapolis 500; Al Unser was hired to fill his spot. History was made as Unser became the oldest winner of the Indianapolis 500 (a record that still stands today), and he also became just the second four-time winner of the race. Unser drove another partial schedule in 1989 for Penske, as he finished twenty-fourth in the 1989 Indianapolis 500 and closed out his Penske career later that season with a seventh-place finish at Pocono – not counting a one-off at Nazareth in 1992, when he substituted for an injured Rick Mears and finished twelfth. Unser was already fifty-three at this point. He finished third in the 1992 Indianapolis 500 driving for John Menard; then twelfth in his last 500, driving for Kenny Bernstein.

Another exception was Tom Sneva. “The Gas Man” gave Penske his first championship in 1977. Although, he didn’t win a race, he won the championship again in 1978. However, when the 1979 season started, Sneva had been released and was driving for Jerry O’Connell. After his release from Penske, Sneva won eleven more races, his third Indianapolis 500 pole and the 1983 Indianapolis 500.

Paul Tracy was a Penske prodigy, when he signed for a handful of races for the 1991 season. With his horn-rimmed glasses and prep haircut, Tracy looked more like an SEC frat boy about to wear a coat and tie to a football game, than a race car driver. Crashing after three laps at Michigan and breaking his leg, he was not seen again until the last two races of the season at Nazareth and Laguna Seca. He was to have a partial schedule again in 1992, but the nagging injuries to Rick Mears from a practice crash at Indianapolis accelerated Tracy’s schedule. Tracy was fast, but tore up a lot of cars. Plus, his demeanor morphed from college prep to a grunge punk, which never really meshed with Penske’s buttoned-up operation. He was essentially loaned out to Newman/Haas for the 1995 season, but returned to Penske in 1996. After going winless in 1996, then making disparaging remarks about his car and his Goodyear tires to the media in 1997, The Captain had had enough. Tracy moved on to win another seventeen races, a CART championship and was within a close and controversial call of winning the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

Other than those three notable exceptions (and there may be more that I didn’t think of), there are a lot more examples on the other side of the ledger to indicate that when a driver is asked to leave Team Penske, the end of their career is in the not-so-distant future.

Many thought Danny Sullivan got a raw deal, when The Captain released him after the 1990 season – including Danny Sullivan. It prompted Sullivan’s famous quote “When the music stops, Roger is always going to have a chair”. At the time of his release, Sullivan was just two seasons removed from winning the CART championship in 1988. Sullivan finished sixth in the 1990 season. He won two races in his last season, including leading Laguna Seca wire-to-wire in his final start for Penske. In his post-Penske career, Sullivan only had two more wins left in him, in four seasons over five years with three teams – never finishing higher in the standings than seventh. His final season with PacWest in 1995, Sullivan finished nineteenth in points.

Ryan Briscoe suffered through a dismal rookie season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005, it came to a premature end at Chicagoland in a fiery crash that made everyone fear the worst. But he recovered, and after fill-in work with Dreyer & Reinbold in 2006, he landed a one-off ride with Jay Penske’s Luczo-Dragon Racing for the 2007 Indianapolis 500, where he finished fifth. Apparently, that effort caught the eye of Roger Penske and Briscoe was signed to replace the departed Sam Hornish, who headed south to run NASCAR with Penske. Briscoe drove five seasons for The Captain, from 2008 through the 2012 season. In that time, Briscoe accumulated his only career race wins (eight) and poles (thirteen), including the pole for the 2012 Indianapolis 500. He also had two other front-row 500 starts, while driving for Penske. In three seasons post-Penske, Briscoe never won a race, a pole or earned a podium. He has not driven an Indy car since 2015, as a fill-in for James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson.

Gary Bettenhausen drove for Roger Penske from 1972 through 1974. He led 138 laps of the 1972 Indianapolis 500 before suffering engine problems with only twenty-four laps to go. In those three seasons with Penske, Bettenhausen won twice, as many wins as he earned in his six seasons before joining Penske and as many in the twenty seasons after leaving Penske. Penske had made it clear that he did not want Bettenhausen to participate in sprints and midgets. In July 1974, Bettenhausen was involved in a sprint car crash that crushed his arm, knocking him out for the remainder of the IndyCar season. Word has it that Penske fired him immediately.

Perhaps the clearest example of how a career can bottom out after leaving Team Penske is Kevin Cogan, who lasted only one season with The Captain. Cogan had shown promise as a rookie with Jerry O’Connell in 1981, starting twelfth and finishing fourth as a rookie in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Cogan signed with Penske for the 1982 season, finishing third at Phoenix in his debut with the team. At Indianapolis, he qualified in the middle of the front row, second only to his teammate Rick Mears. AJ Foyt qualified on the outside of the front row. But on Race Day, it all went terribly wrong.

As the front row was approaching the starting line, Cogan’s car suddenly lurched to his right, into the side of Foyt – launching a multi-car pileup, bringing the race to a red-flag before it had even officially started. Four cars were eliminated, including Cogan’s and Mario Andretti’s. This prompted Foyt’s famous “Coogan” quote on national television.

Although some drivers placed some of the blame on Mears for bringing the field down too slow, Cogan was persona non grata throughout the paddock and among fans and even his own team. It was later strongly suspected that a half-shaft had broken to cause the crash, when the exact same thing happened to Mears in a testing incident at Michigan. But that did nothing to change how he was perceived. Cogan was released by Penske at the end of the season, after only one year with the team.

Thus began a fast downward turn in a career that had been so promising. Over the next three seasons, Cogan drove for five different teams and never sniffed a podium. In 1986, things appeared to turn around. Cogan signed with Pat Patrick and he won at Phoenix in his very first race with his new team. He would finish second at Indianapolis and Pocono that season on his way to finishing sixth in points, but he would never win again. Cogan returned to Patrick in 1987, marking the first time to drive a second season with the same team. In 1988, he moved to Machinists Union Racing, but was injured about halfway through the season. He returned to Machinists Union for 1989 – his last year to compete fulltime.

The saga of Kevin Conan is a sad, but fascinating tale. I might even explore this topic more in the Month of May, when I post every day. You cannot help but wonder how Cogan’s career and life would have been different, had he not veered into Foyt during the start of the 1982 Indianapolis 500. What was it that made Penske fire Cogan after one season? Was he hard to get along with? Did he privately throw blame around within the team? Did Penske simply not care for the color of his shoes? Whatever it was, Cogan’s career never recovered. To this day, I understand that Cogan is still very bitter about the entire situation and how he was perceived by fans and his fellow drivers. From what I see on the surface, I can’t say that I blame him. But Kevin Cogan is a prime example of how a career suffers after being released by Penske.

There are many more, including Al Unser, Jr. At the time, we didn’t know what personal demons Little Al was battling. All we saw was someone who had won many races, a championship and an Indianapolis 500 while driving for Team Penske. Once he was released by Penske, he migrated to the IRL, where he won three races over the next four seasons, never finishing better than sixth in the standings. It wasn’t bad, but nothing like his glory days of the early nineties.

So what all does this mean? Does it mean that Penske has a keen eye that knows when a driver is past his peak, and knows it’s time to part ways? Does he cut the cord at the first sign of decline, so that the driver can join a lesser team and enjoy the few remaining years of his career without the pressure of performing each and every week? All of this is anyone’s guess.

But to get back to the original topic, will Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud be able to buck the trend and have a good post-Penske career? Neither has gotten off to a great start. Neither driver left St. Petersburg with a good result. Castroneves qualified well at Texas and was running well, when he and Graham Rahal were both taken out by rookie Devlin DeFrancesco. This weekend, they both have a good chance to improve on their post-Penske careers. Both have won at Long Beach, and the last three times that Helio has qualified at Long Beach – he has qualified on the pole twice and qualified third last year.

As mentioned earlier, Helio Castroneves will turn forty-seven in about six weeks; so he has more than being released by Team Penske working against him. He is also fighting Father Time. But winning his fourth Indianapolis 500 last May, bought his some time. We’ll see what he can do with it this season. Simon Pagenaud? I was never sure how well he fit in at Team Penske. That’s nothing I can put my finger on. It’s just a gut feeling. He won three IndyCar races before joining Team Penske in 2015, and won eleven more while driving for The Captain. He may not reach his Penske total, but I’m fairly confident that Pagenaud will win quite a few races in life after Penske.

Last May was the first time that Helio ever won an IndyCar race driving for someone other that Roger Penske. It was a sight to behold as the pink and white driver’s suit climbed the fence. Some are wondering if we will ever see him climb the fence at the Indianapolis 500 ever again. Quite honestly, I’m wondering if we will see him climb a fence anywhere again. I hope we do, but I’m not so sure. The post-Penske curse may catch up with him sooner than later. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Avoiding the Post-Penske Curse”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I think it means two things, one is that Penske really does have a pretty good eye for talent and when that talent needs to be replaced, and two is that it is really really hard to find Penske-level success at a team other than Penske (due to equipment, funding, personnel, etc.).

    Though I believe he left Penske of his own accord rather than being fired/let go, Mario Andretti is also one of the rare drivers to have considerable/greater success after leaving Team Penske (granted, his time there was always part-time during F1 seasons).

  2. I hope Simon Pagenaud will thrive outside of the Penske environment. Less pressure, a feeling of being appreciated by the team to a greater extent and none of the Will P negative team mate attitude vibe which seemed prevalent in 2021.

  3. Yannick Says:

    Helio Castroneves# victory last year was really impressive.

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