The Dots Don’t Always Connect

Mark Twain is credited with saying “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” or something to that effect. Some have substituted the word “Demise” for death. In actuality, the quote to the New York Journal in 1897 was “…the report of my death was an exaggeration”.

For two years, I was guilty of writing about the demise of Team Penske. As it turns out, those claims were greatly exaggerated as well.

In 2019, Josef Newgarden won the NTT IndyCar Series championship – his second since he arrived at Team Penske in 2017. His teammate, Simon Pagenaud, finished second; while Will Power finished fifth. 2019 seemed to be a typical year for Team Penske for most of that decade – have two of your three drivers battle it out for the championship, so that they finish first and second.

Newgarden won the season-opener at St. Petersburg, and Team Penske went on to win nine of the seventeen races that season, including the Indianapolis 500 and the pole for the 500. Yes, it was a good year for Team Penske – but nothing that out of the ordinary for the team that has set the standard for decades.

In that offseason, something out of the ordinary did happen. Team owner Roger Penske bought IMS, IMS Productions and the NTT IndyCar Series. With that came the questions of how Penske could own the series and still run one of the top teams in the paddock. The answer was that The Captain would step away from the day-to-day operation of the team – especially on race weekends, when he would purposely distance himself from the team that bears his name.

It was an understandable concern. How could the head of the series also be so closely involved with his own team? No one is naïve enough to think that Penske could not still call a few shots from the IndyCar suite during a race weekend, but it would not be a good look for Penske to exploit something he knew about another team, if he learned about it from his current role. It was better for all concerned that he step away.

This was probably not easy for Penske, but it may have been harder for the team. Roger Penske had been a fixture in the Penske pits for over fifty years. Even though he was still on the grounds for the past two seasons, he was not overseeing every little detail as he had done for longer than any of his drivers had been alive.

I have told this story before, but to make a point here – I’ll share it again. It was Race Day at Barber, probably around 2013 or so. I happened to be standing in one of the Penske pits. The engines had fired and the field was circling the track on the parade and pace laps. With the race just a couple of minutes from going green, Roger Penske noticed a stack of water bottles, where the tarp had blown so that the bottles were only partially covered. He took his headphones off to direct a crew member to cover the bottles with the tarp, and to tuck the tarp underneath to keep things neat. It struck me that the key to this man’s success, was that no detail was too small to overlook. You would think with the race about to start, he would have more important things on his mind than covering up a stack of water bottles.

I have always been impressed with Tim Cindric. I like the way he is matter-of-fact in his TV interviews. He’s not brash or abrasive, but he does not sugarcoat things either. He tells it like it is. But I was wondering after two sub-par seasons since The Captain stepped down, were we beginning to witness the beginning of the end of Team Penske’s superiority. They were beginning to look like a very ordinary team that was making mistakes that the very average team makes.

Whenever there is a change at the top in any organization, it is human nature to question the leadership of the new person in charge. Some might say that the old “the cat’s away, so the mice will play” theory was coming into play. Perhaps they thought that Cindric would be too focused on race setups to be worried about a tarp covering water bottles. It would be easy to let a few things slip.

There have been very few Roger Penskes throughout history. There are even fewer currently in today’s world. No one could fault Tim Cindric for not being Roger Penske. That’s a high standard for anyone to try to live up to. Even now, we see that there have to be at least two Roger Penskes at any given race weekend. One to run the race team (Cindric), and another to run the parent company of IndyCar and IMS – Penske Entertainment (Bud Denker).

I fell guilty for doubting Tim Cindric’s ability to run the race team without Roger Penske right behind him. But that’s why for two years, I wrote about the demise of Team Penske and how it was slipping on its way to being a very average team.

We’ve seen it before. It doesn’t take a huge change in team-chemistry to upset things. Rick Galles and Maury Kraines merged their operations together in 1990, to become a powerful CART team with Bobby Rahal and Al Unser, Jr. as their drivers. They won the championship in 1990 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1992. But by 1993, Kraines left and it was back to Galles Racing. Al Unser, Jr. and teammate Danny Sullivan each won one race each in 1993, before they both left at the end of the season. Galles never won another CART race, after that. By 1997, they moved to the IRL. They finally won a race in 2000 and again in 2001, with an old and diminished Al Unser, Jr. behind the wheel. Galles Racing ceased to exist after the 2001 season, less than a decade after their glory years in CART.

There are many other examples to draw from, but that’s how fast things can go downhill – even for the best of teams. I was beginning to wonder if we weren’t witnessing the early signs of demise for Team Penske.

Remember, Team Penske’s four-car team of 2021 only scored three victories last season, and the first one didn’t come until the tenth race of the season, when Josef Newgarden finally broke through in July at Mid-Ohio. Will Power got a win on the IMS road course in August, while Pageanud and Scott McLaughlin went winless. While Newgarden finished strong late in the season and got second in the championship, Pagenaud and Power finished eighth and ninth in the championship, while McLaughlin finished fourteenth. Except for Pagenaud finishing third, the team also had a miserable Indianapolis 500 in 2021. The prior year (2020) was almost identical to 2021 – very ordinary.

It wasn’t hard to connect the dots and come to the conclusion that the reason behind Team Penske’s sudden demise was due to the absence of Roger Penske.

2022 has proven me dead-wrong. The team has swept the first three races of the season. At St. Petersburg, Scott McLaughlin won the pole and the race win, with Will Power finishing third. At Texas, Newgarden got an improbable win, passing McLaughlin just before the line, and ahead of Wil Power in fourth, earning a one-two-four finish for the team. Last weekend, Newgarden held off Alex Palou and Romain Grosjean for the last third of the race, with Power fourth again. The three Penske drivers currently stand first, second and fourth in points.

I have no reason to believe that Tim Cindric has ever visited this site, and he probably never will. But that doesn’t release me from my responsibility of apologizing to Cindric for doubting his abilities to lead Team Penske in the absence of Roger Penske. I’ve always called Tim Cindric Roger Penske’s secret weapon. I was wrong to have doubted him. Sometimes connecting the dots does not always lead to the right answers. Such was the case at Team Penske for the past two seasons.

George Phillips

Please Note:  Easter Sunday is this weekend. We will be involved with Susan’s family, and I don’t wish to spend the weekend behind a keyboard. Therefore, there will be no post this Monday April 18. I will return here on Wed Apr 20. I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable Easter weekend! – GP

2 Responses to “The Dots Don’t Always Connect”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Penske’s dip in 2020 and 2021 may have been a result of finding ways to put the right people in the right places going forward with Roger now owning the whole enchilada. Fortunately for the team, Cindric and prime Josef Newgarden shored things up.

    Happy Easter to you and yours, George.

  2. Some consider 4/20 a bigger holiday than Easter…take another day off!

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