Putting Words Into Actions

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I belong to a few IndyCar-related Facebook groups. Some are better than others, and a lot of times you have to sift through some incredibly inept posts from these groups in order to find something meaningful or enjoyable. For example, in one of these groups just last week – someone started a conversation advocating for lights at IMS, in order to run the 500 at night. Please.

There is also a lot of blatantly wrong information out there that makes you cringe when you read it. Add to that, the administrators of these groups assume a Napoleonic complex that make you think they must’ve been bullied as children. They are so strict in their policing of their policies, that the group becomes more about them and their authority, than it does about IndyCar.

But every now and then, you come across a post that makes you glad you stayed in the groups. One of the better groups, Elite IndyCar, had such a post this past weekend. A group member named JD Ellis posted these excellent pictures he took, and many more, from Belle Isle last weekend. Apparently, they displayed the car that Helio Castroneves drove to his very first career IndyCar victory at Belle Isle in 2000. That was where we got our first glimpse of the now famous fence-climbing celebration, patented by Castroneves and copied by more than a few NASCAR drivers over the years. (Photos by JD Ellis)

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Although I give JD Ellis full-credit for the photos, I am probably breaking some group rule about using photos from the group. If I get kicked out, I guess I’ll know why.

Looking at these photos got me thinking about how Roger Penske swallowed his pride and set aside everything his team had been working on for the greater good of the team. He also risked long-term business relationships, for the sake of winning.

Since the mid-70s, Roger Penske had his own in-house chassis designed and built by Penske Cars in Poole, Dorset. As with anytime a team chooses to build their own chassis; sometimes you hit, and sometimes you miss. It’s always a gamble. But if you hit – you have something no other team will have for the entire season.

In 1984, Roger Penske missed. His PC-12 was off the mark for the first two races. He did not hesitate to scrap his own chassis in favor of the March customer car. For the better part of the next three seasons, Penske used his own chassis and/or the March. That is until 1988, when designer Nigel Bennett created the PC-17 – the first and only time the front-row for the Indianapolis 500 was locked up by one team.

Through the mid-nineties, the Penske chassis dominated at Indianapolis and performed well other tracks, but had its shortcomings at others. Although the PC-24 inexplicably failed to qualify for the 1995 Indianapolis 500; it did manage to win five races between Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr. in the remainder of the CART season.

But then it all went terribly wrong. In 1996, the PC-25 went winless with Team Penske’s Al Unser, Jr. and Paul Tracy coming up empty; as well as Emerson Fittipaldi driving in a satellite effort with Hogan-Penske Racing, that saw Emmo break his back in a crash at Michigan – effectively ending his career.

The PC-26 for 1997 fared a little bit better as Tracy scored three wins in a row in the spring, but was never heard from again as the Reynard/Honda won its second consecutive championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

The PC-27 for 1998 looked radically different. The front-ends of Formula One cars had been trending toward a raised nose. The PC-27 carried that look into 1998, but the results were as ugly as the car. Team Penske went winless in 1998, for the second time in three years. For 1999, the car was slightly modified as the PC-27B – but the results were the same.

Al Unser slogged through his final season at Team Penske, jumping between the Penske chassis and a Lola – managing a top finish of fifth at Cleveland. The other car was shared between non-legendary driver Tarso Marques, Alex Barron and the late Gonzalo Rodríguez, who was fatally injured at Laguna Seca in a practice crash while driving for Team Penske. This represented the low point for Team Penske.

While Marlboro Team Penske struggled through the late-nineties with the Penske chassis, the Mercedes-branded Ilmor engine and Goodyear tires; it was obvious that the Reynard/Honda with Firestone tires was by far the preferred combination, as that combo won the CART championship four years in a row for three different drivers at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Roger Penske owned his own chassis, he owned a 25% stake in Ilmor Engineering and he had long-standing business relationship with Goodyear in his Penske Auto Centers that existed nationwide until 2013. None of it mattered, because his team was not winning.

The coming of the new millennium meant a new day at Team Penske. He had cleaned house. Gone were the existing drivers, and in came promising drivers Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore. When Moore was fatally injured in the 1999 season finale at Fontana, in stepped Helio Castroneves. This was also the same time when Tim Cindric was hired away from Team Rahal.

Personnel changes were not the only changes at Marlboro Team Penske. Penske shelved his own chassis program and ultimately shut down Penske Cars in Poole a couple of years later. He went with the much more successful Reynard chassis that had won each CART championship since 1995. He left his own Ilmor engine program for the far-superior Honda Power-plant that had just won the previous four championships. His long-time relationship with Goodyear didn’t matter, when Firestone was bringing a much better tire to the race track each week.

CART allowed more chassis development than the current administration. The Reynard chassis was tweaked and massaged by Penske Cars, with some fairly visible and distinctive changes. The Penske Reynards were so different from the stock Reynard, that they were dubbed The Renske (shown in the photos above).

What were the results of these wholesale changes at Marlboro Team Penske? Two immediate CART championships in 2000 and 2001 – the last two seasons that Marlboro Team Penske raced in CART.

Over those two seasons, Gil de Ferran won four times and earned eleven podiums on his way to winning those two championships. Helio Castroneves won six races in CART over those two seasons, as well as the Indianapolis 500 in the IRL, but only had two podiums in those same seasons as the younger driver was plagued by inconsistency compared to his more experienced Brazilian countryman and teammate.

What impressed me most about the contrast between those dark days at Penske in the late nineties, to those two championship years in 2000 and 2001, was Roger Penske’s commitment to winning. He set his own ego aside by admitting the chassis that carried his name was not getting the job done. He did not worry about his personal investment in Ilmor, when he chose to go with Honda. He would let the chips fall where they may with Goodyear, as he risked turmoil in the boardroom for success on the track with Firestone.

All team owners say that winning is their number one goal. Words are cheap and often carry little weight. In the 1999 offseason, Roger Penske put those words into action.

I’ve never hidden the fact that I am a fan of Team Penske, and I have always admired how Roger Penske conducts his business. I don’t agree with everything he has done, especially with some of the moves he has made as owner of the series and The Speedway. I am also well aware that Roger Penske has as many detractors as he has admirers, but I think when you look at the steps Roger Penske took heading into the 2000 season – most would agree that those were some bold moves that paid off handsomely.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Putting Words Into Actions”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Count me among those who liked the look of the PC-27, especially in superspeedway trim. Al Unser Jr. has a high opinion of it, I have read, believing it was dragged down by Mercedes and Goodyear (and his own struggles of the time) rather than an issue with the chassis itself. You can see it’s influence pretty clearly on the “Renske” sidepods, especially in the wheel ramp and the placement of the rear view mirrors on top of the sidepods. While I don’t doubt that the car displayed is the one Castroneves won with at Detroit in 2000, it should be noted that many of these “Renske” elements were not present on the car when he won that race, appearing later in the season.

  2. Shyam Cherupalla Says:

    This is why I dont understand why another chassis manufacturer woud not be allowed to compete now. I dont understand what the difference between how chassis competition was allowed then to why it needs to be one spec chassis only now. I am sure there were some set of specifications these chassis had to be built for, why not have that type of requirement now and allow new chassis manufacturers to enter Indycar. Indy500 became famous because of the fact that the specs were so open that people brought new chassis and new concepts to try out. It will never pique interests of so many people with the current specs the way it did up to 90s and before the inception of IRL. If IRL at its inception could introduce two chassis manufacturers I dont see why they cant allow multiple chassis makers to compete

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