Welcome to the Clubhouse

·40 min read
Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott

From Autoweek

NOTE: This article first appeared on autoweek.com 9/25/2015. Since the story ran, not only has Roger Penske purchased both the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Team Penske has won two more Indy 500s. Penske's team won with driver Will Power in 2018 and driver Simon Pagenaud in 2019. Corvettes paced those two 500s, a ZR1 in 2018 and a Grand Sport in 2019. Since Penske can't show off to the fans all the improvements he has made to the speedway this year, we thought we'd honor him by re running this piece.

They are a Buick, two Chrysler products, five Chevrolets, two Fords, five Oldsmobiles and the Pontiac Fiero, all displayed in the same place for the first time. They are the Indianapolis 500 pace cars from each of Team Penske’s 16 Indianapolis 500 victories.

Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott

Some of these cars embody the diverse bits of awesomeness that make car enthusiasts car enthusiasts. Others leave you wondering what the people who created them were thinking. At least one of the 16 borders on ridiculous. The Indianapolis Star assembled a list of the 10 worst pace cars of all time before this year’s 500, and five of its choices reside in Penske’s collection.

What stands out more than any of the cars is the evolutionary span all 16 represent—from the tail end of the first muscle-car golden age through the onslaught of performance-choking emissions control, through several downsizing trends, the rebirth of performance, the personal-use truck and microchip revolutions and right up to the new golden age car enthusiasts enjoy today. Sixteen cars for 16 Indianapolis 500 wins spread through five-straight decades, by a team owner who wants to win the 17th as badly as he wanted the first.

Team Penske is frequently called the New York Yankees of motorsport, and that might be appropriate based on Roger Penske’s Indy wins—the next-most successful team owners have five—or on how long he’s stayed at the top of his game. The Yankees comparison doesn’t really say much about the breadth and depth of Penske’s motorsport endeavors, or the entrepreneurial brilliance of an owner who built a single Chevy dealership in Philadelphia, purchased just out of college, into a corporation that employs 48,000 people on five continents. It says nothing about a man who, according to associates working with him daily, never lets his ego get in the way of the right call.

Roger Penske must be a busy man, but there he sits under a tent next to his 16 pace cars, at the edge of Woodward Avenue, a bit north of Detroit. He’s decided to gather the cars in his hometown, with a 16-mile parade and as many of his winning drivers as he could get in one place, for the enjoyment of his guests and as many of the roughly 1 million Woodward Dream Cruise attendees who happen to stream by.

“The Dream Cruise is an iconic event, and this is a display of cars nobody else has,” says Penske, known widely to associates as The Captain, or just RP. “Certainly M1 (Woodward) is an iconic road, and we get a chance to take cars up and down it for two or three days when everyone is watching. No entry fee. Nobody has to pass inspection, and guess what? You can drive down Woodward for as many hours as you want. You can be in the race, and that’s something people just can’t believe when you talk about it in different parts of the country.

“I told someone (on the phone) that I’m taking my 16 pace cars and running them on Woodward Avenue. And he said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ I said, ‘It’s the Dream Cruise!’”

If Penske is the New York Yankees of motorsport, then the pace cars must be his championship spoils and the winning drivers his Lou Gehrigs, Joe DiMaggios and Derek Jeters. Dream Cruise is the clubhouse, and the highlight reel is loaded.

Welcome to the clubhouse.

Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

1972, Hurst/Olds Cutlass. The start of something big.

The Hurst/Olds is unique among Indianapolis 500 pace cars. Hurst Performance developed it, not Oldsmobile, and its existence can be traced to 29 nonparticipant injuries at the Speedway a year prior.

In 1971, as the parade lap wound down, Indianapolis car dealer Eldon Palmer lost control of the Dodge Challenger pace car in the pit lane and smashed into a photographer’s stand. A handful of the injuries were serious. Those hurt in the car included longtime IMS owner Tony Hulman, astronaut John Glenn and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel, who suffered a broken shoulder and was unable to perform his television duties.

By 1972, fear of further bad publicity left the usual cast of pace-car suppliers hiding in the wings, so a performance parts builder stepped in. Oldsmobile supplied the Cameo White Cutlass Supremes, and Hurst did the rest. The Hurst/Olds is the only Indy pace car sponsored by a manufacturer other than an automaker and the first to include a supplier’s name. Exactly 629 ’72 Hurst/Olds were eventually sold to the public through a handful of dealers, with gold reflective stripes, the W-25 Ram Air hood, a 455-cubic-inch Rocket V8 (270 or 300 hp) and Turbo 400 automatic with console-mounted Hurst Dual-Gate shifter.

The Hurst/Olds is not one of the 10 worst pace cars ever. Nor was it the only notable bit of history at the 56th running of the Indianapolis 500. This was the first race to use the Electro-Pacer Light system of caution signals around the track and the first since the British invasion of the early 1960s with an All-American driver roster. On race morning, Hulman asked an actor best known for playing Gomer Pyle if he’d liked to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” during prerace ceremonies. Jim Nabors accepted without rehearsing and would be the Speedway’s headliner for 42 years.

Most significantly, the 1972 Indy 500 ended with the first win for race driver-turned-team owner Roger Penske, in just his fourth try.

Penske’s Gary Bettenhausen dominated the first three-quarters of the race, leading 138 laps in his McLaren-Offenhauser. Ignition trouble parked him on lap 176. Running second or third much of the race, teammate Mark Donohue moved in front when Jerry Grant pitted on lap 188 and stayed there for the duration.

Bettenhausen’s hard luck aside, it’s appropriate Donohue collected Penske’s first Indy win. The 35-year-old driver/engineer known as Captain Nice had done more to establish Penske in the racing landscape than anyone but the team owner himself. Donohue would die from injuries suffered at the Austrian Grand Prix in August 1975. Team Penske’s racing complex in Mooresville, North Carolina, is still decorated with murals of Donohue in his race cars.

Penske was only starting. Engaged by automobiles since childhood in Cleveland, he drove his first race while in college at Lehigh. Sports Illustrated named him its Driver of the Year in 1961 based on his success racing sports cars. But by 1965, at 28, he was ready to retire as a driver to focus on building a team. In the half-century since, Penske’s teams have accumulated nearly 450 major race wins all the way up to Formula 1. He’s won 27 championships in Trans-Am, Can-Am, the USSRC, IMSA, NASCAR and IndyCar. He’s still winning at his favorite venue—the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—after Jim Nabors retired.

And that’s all been for grins. By 1972 Penske had set himself up in Detroit to build his expanding network of car dealerships. In 2015, after his 16th Indy win, the closely held Penske Corp. generates $23 billion in revenue from 3,300 locations worldwide, through one of the world’s largest dealership groups and interests in truck leasing, logistics, transportation component manufacturing, event promotion and internet publishing. Forbes estimates Penske’s personal wealth in excess of $1 billion.

“I think racing has been the common thread through our company,” Penske says. “Think about leading the Indianapolis 500 for a couple of hours at a time and think about what that does to your brand on a national basis. You couldn’t afford to buy that kind of TV time. The racing talks about execution, reliability. Certainly teamwork is key, and that’s what we try to promote through our company. We have (about) 50,000 employees today, but we run it as a small company. The guy driving the truck or jacking the car—his job is just as important (as mine), and he has to do it.”

Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott

1981, Buick Regal V6. The value of persistence.

The pace car started as a standard Regal coupe with the T-top option. The rear section of the roof was removed by the American Sunroof Co. and replaced by a half soft top, with an 8-inch-wide roll hoop where the B-pillars had been. This was before the turbocharged Grand Nationals and GNX, and the Regal’s standard 125-hp V6 required serious massaging to deliver the power needed for pace-car duty. Its basic shape was aero effective, nonetheless: Darrell Waltrip drove a Regal to two-straight Winston Cup championships for Junior Johnson in 1981-82. The 150 pace-car replicas the Speedway used in May were sold to the public without the ASC modifications or engine upgrades.

If the Regal pace car leaned toward the mundane, the 65th running proved one of the most controversial ever. Bobby Unser had already won an Indy 500 in each of the two previous decades, and he won another in his third season at Penske.

Unser started on the pole in a PC-7 Cosworth, but Gordon Johncock led 56 laps in the second half of the race before his engine began losing compression. Unser reassumed the lead on lap 182, with Mario Andretti hard after him. Andretti’s late fight for second with Vern Schuppan worked to Unser’s advantage and Unser was 10 car lengths ahead at the finish (a hair, in those days). Unser drank the milk for the third time, and Andretti was cheered for his charge from 32nd on the grid to second place.

Yet later that evening as ABC was airing its tape-delayed race broadcast, Speedway officials decided that Unser had passed cars illegally while leaving the pits under a yellow flag. He was assessed a one-lap penalty, and when official results were posted the next morning, Andretti was declared the winner. Penske appealed the results immediately after his initial protest was denied. The political winds seemed to blow in Andretti’s favor --perhaps because of his historic hard luck at Indy, or his charge from the last row at the start. The appeals hearing began nearly three weeks after race.

The United States Auto Club conducted the hearing like a court trial. Contemporary accounts say witnesses were asked dozens of questions that seemed to have no bearing on the issues at hand. The hearing was adjourned after the first day for another six weeks and once again after that. On Oct. 9, 1981, four months, two weeks after the race was run, the appeals panel announced its decision.

It voted 2-1 to restore Unser as the race winner.

Thirty-five years later, the logic behind the decision seems to be thus: Unser had, in fact, violated a vaguely defined “blend rule” in the regulations. Yet Andretti and other drivers seemed to have violated the same rule, and none (including Unser) was cited at the time. Two panel members concluded that, under the circumstances, Unser’s one-lap penalty was too stiff. He was fined $40,000 instead.

The drama might have contributed to Unser’s decision to retire after the ’81 season, but he’s sure about one thing: At age 81, he’s glad his third Indy win came driving for Penske.

“Roger and I had the same dedication to making sure that call was right,” he says. “We won the race, we were right in the rules and it finally came out that way. The only difference was that I wanted to file federal lawsuits, to find good, honest judges instead of that USAC kangaroo court. I think I was totally right in what I wanted and Roger talked me out of that one, ’cause Roger just cares about racing. He doesn’t want to sue people. He just wants to race.

“Here’s the last thing I’ll say about Roger Penske, and watch and see if I’m right. Everybody will have to admit at some point the he’s greatest, most successful team owner ever in the entire world. The guy can’t get enough of it.”

Unser’s willingness to litigate was apparent years later, after a life-threatening experience in the Colorado wilderness. In December 1996, he and friend Robert Gayton left Unser’s home in Chama, New Mexico, for a snowmobile trek. That afternoon, a wind-driven storm overtook them, eventually dumping 5 feet of snow. When the last of their two snowmobiles sputtered into immobility, they built a snow cave and ate snow to hydrate. After two nights they decided to walk in search of help. Some 15 miles later they stumbled upon a barn with a phone and a heater, and waited to be rescued.

Unser was later convicted of a federal misdemeanor for operating a snowmobile in protected wilderness, based on the location where his sled was recovered. He was fined $75, or $4,925 less than the maximum allowed. He appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; it rejected his writ for a hearing in 1999.

In October 2010, 29 years to the month after he was affirmed the 65th Indy 500 winner, Unser testified before a congressional subcommittee on “over-criminalization” in federal statutes.

Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott

1987, Chrysler LeBaron. The value of quality.

This was not the five-door LeBaron GTS, a la Dodge Lancer Shelby. It was the new-generation, hidden-headlight J-car LeBaron convertible (and coupe), not yet offered with the upgrade V6. Within a couple model years, the demographics would demonstrate that the new LeBaron was still an old guy’s car.

That’s probably OK because the 71st Indianapolis 500 turned out to be an old guy’s race. At 47 years, 360 days, Al Unser Sr. was the oldest 500 winner ever.

If one can call a three-time Indy winner an underdog on Memorial Day, Unser Sr.—Bobby’s brother—was. After four seasons and two championships with Penske, Unser had retired from racing full time at the end of 1986. He went to the Speedway in May without a ride, largely to guide his 25-year-old son, Al Jr. Then Danny “the Flyin’ Hawaiian” Ongais crashed his Penske-entered PC-16-Chevy in practice, destroyed his car and suffered a concussion, benching him for the month. Penske offered the seat to Unser Sr.

First they needed a car, though. Penske found a year-old March chassis that had been on display in a hotel lobby a few weeks before and bolted in a dependable Cosworth DFV V8. Unser didn’t take his first practice laps until Wednesday after the first weekend of qualifying, but the next Saturday he got himself safely in the show. His 20th on the grid would be the deepest starting spot for any Penske Indy winner.

Mario Andretti had been fastest throughout the month and started from the pole. He led 170 of the first 177 laps before an electrical problem sent him to the pits. Unser Sr. took the lead with 18 to go, after Roberto Guerrero stalled during a stop. Those final 18 laps made Unser Sr. the all-time lap leader at the Speedway and only the second four-time winner in history.

It was another example of the Andretti Curse at Indy and another example of Unser Sr.’s uncanny ability to keep it running and off the wall, and to be there when it mattered most.

“When I was hanging around in ’87, I turned down probably six, seven teams because once you win that race, you basically know what it takes and you don’t want second-rate,” Unser says. “There are just so many things that can go wrong. If you can drive for a Roger Penske, your chances of winning grow rapidly.

“It might not be easy for fans to understand. Everybody always says, ‘We give 100 percent,’ but that 100 percent is divided, and parts are more important than others. Roger’s share of that 100 percent—he’s probably 75 percent capable of making sure the car can win. The other 25 percent just falls into place for the driver. Most teams might get you in the 30 percent bracket. Now the driver gets you somewhere past 50 percent, and what’s that do to your chances of winning? When your car owner puts up 75 percent, your 25 gets you a pretty good shot.”

Photo credit: IMS Media
Photo credit: IMS Media

1991, Dodge Stealth and Viper RT/10. Consistency defined.

The Viper wasn’t part of the 75th Indianapolis 500 plan. Pace-car duty was originally reserved for the new Dodge Stealth—a fine car in its own right but also a re-badged Mitsubishi 3000GT engineered and manufactured in Japan. The United Auto Workers protested Dodge’s choice and fanned patriotic embers still glowing after the Persian Gulf War. Critics chastised Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca—long known for various flag-waving sales pitches—for hypocrisy.

Dodge relented and replaced the Stealth last minute with the forthcoming Viper, built by the UAW in Detroit. Trouble was the Viper wouldn’t be launched until 1992, and the UAW was months from tightening its first Viper fastener. The 500 car was culled from the handful of existing development prototypes and the Speedway helped, bending its usual requirement for three legitimate pace cars. The roughly 160 Festival cars—driven by dignitaries at various functions in Indianapolis—remained Stealths.

It mattered only a bit to Rick Mears. He won his record-tying fourth 500 from his record-shattering sixth pole position and led the final 13 laps unchallenged, even through a restart with six to go. The worst of it was pain. Mears had his first Speedway wreck ever that May, aggravating a serious foot injury suffered years prior. Throughout the race, he frequently crossed his legs in the tub and worked the gas with his left foot to cope.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1951, Mears was the first 500 winner born after World War II. With due respect to A.J. Foyt, he’s arguably the best Indy driver ever. His four wins came in substantially fewer tries than Foyt or Al Unser Sr. He finished in the top five nine times in 15 starts. In 2015, his 11 front-row qualifying runs look as unassailable as DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

Throw in three IndyCar season championships and an offer to drive for the Brabham Formula One team in 1980—Mears respectfully declined—and we’re left with a remarkable racing career. All with Team Penske.

“That stat (about Indy qualifying) is the one I like most,” says Mears. “What I like is that it shows the consistency, which is what I always tried to find—to be in there every time knocking on the door. It also shows the depth of the team supplying the equipment needed to get the job done race in, race out, year in, year out. It encompasses the quality of the operation.

“The only downside running for Roger was, when I first signed up—like, ‘Uh-oh, no more excuses. Got to put numbers on the board.’ But that’s way better than the pressure of trying to do more with less. Roger was a driver, and his approach was ‘whatever we gotta do to fix this thing and get it competitive, that’s what we want to do.’ Then his attention to detail—and just his desire to race and win races—separate him. You never had to fight for the tools needed to get the job done.”

In the early 1990s, Mears was expected to become the first five-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Then the year after his final victory, he qualified ninth and broke a wrist in the only crash he’d experience during the course of an Indy 500. He announced his retirement at season’s end.

Racers everywhere were stunned. In 1984, Mears had suffered a horrific crash at Sanair Super Speedway in Quebec; his shattered feet had to be surgically reconstructed. He spent three months in a hospital and 10 out of a race car. Thirty years hence, pain is a fact of life. “Just reminds me I’m still here,” Mears quips in his Reagan-esque fashion.

Yet two of his Indy wins came after the Sanair crash, and Mears was still near the top of his game. Speedway probabilities suggest, with a team like Penske at a place where experience matters as much as anything, he had five—maybe 10—competitive shots at a fifth win.

“The hardest part of deciding to retire was knowing how much that fifth win would mean to Roger and to the team,” he says. “I could take it or leave it at that point. Finally, I woke one morning thinking, ‘You know, if the desire is not there you’re not going to do the job necessary, and you’re not getting the fifth anyway.’ It was time to go, and I don’t regret the decision at all.”

Penske was nothing but understanding, according to Mears, but the owner knows a good thing when he sees it. He hired Mears as a consultant, and Mears has been imparting his wisdom to every Penske driver since.

Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

1994, Ford Mustang Cobra. Risk, reward and seeds of trouble.

For the 78th running, the Penskes at Indianapolis were to other entrants as the Mustang Cobra pace car was to a standard Mustang GT.

The ’94 Cobra was Indy’s third Mustang pace car and the most recent Ford to date. It coincided with launch of codename SN-95—the first major Mustang overhaul in 15 years, based on an updated Fox platform. The SVT Cobra made 240 hp, or 25 more than the GT from the same 5.0-liter pushrod V8. Exactly 1,000 replicas of the ruby-and-tan convertible were built for public sale. Clean, relatively low-mileage examples can be located today for as little as $15,000.

This was the last year for Mario Andretti in an Indy car and a golden one for Team Penske—even if no one outside of Penske expected it. The previous winter, RP had taken advantage of his ownership stake in Ilmor Engineering and his role as a volume purveyor of Mercedes-Benz automobiles to secretly develop an engine that exploited a unique Speedway rule allowing cam-in-block engines an extra 0.9 liter of displacement and 10 psi more turbo boost.

Unveiled that May, the 209-cubic-inch Ilmor-Mercedes 500L—known widely as the pushrod engine—made something like 1,000 hp. The lingering question was whether it could last 500 miles.

It lasted. Penske cars led all but seven of the 200 laps, and it was settled when Emerson Fittipaldi spun himself out trying to get around Al Unser Jr. on lap 185 (cosmic retribution, perhaps, for an incident between the two in the 1989 500). Unser Jr. cruised through the final 15 laps and collected his second Indy 500 victory in his first season driving for Penske.

“No, no, no—no one but Roger could pull something like (the pushrod engine) off,” says Unser. “His connections. Resources. The development speed. It had a lot of power when we first started testing it, but it didn’t live. So we started detuning it—a little bit less power, every time we tested, a little more life. I told Roger: ‘If we can make it live 500 miles at Michigan (Speedway), then it’ll live at Indy.’”

The pushrod engine lived 500 miles at Michigan for the first time on May 7—the opening day of practice at Indy. While Unser was testing, Fittipaldi and teammate Paul Tracy were at the Speedway unveiling the car.

“I had a good feeling when I woke up race-day morning,” Unser says. “It was the only time I qualified on the front row (at Indy). I thought my teammates could be my only competitors. Matter of fact, Emerson was my only competitor. Tracy was starting in the back, and he’s Tracy. Emerson is a very smart race-car driver.”

Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

At that point, Fittipaldi was a two-time world champion and two-time Indy winner. Tracy was always one of IndyCar’s fastest drivers, rarely one of its stronger finishers. Regardless, Penske’s Indy performance set the tone for the season. The team’s chassis in ’94—the PC-23—had an edge on the competition even without the Indy-only pushrod engine.

“I understood it the first time I tested the car,” says Unser. “It was, what, my 12th year in IndyCar racing? I knew everything that was going on, and I knew the advantage was now mine. In ’91, ’92, ’93, racing against Emerson and Paul -- they were tough to beat, and immediately I understood why. The car handled great from the start. The shocks on it—like a baby buggy. It just had so much mechanical grip …”

When the dust settled, Penske had dominated the ’94 IndyCar season like few teams ever have, winning 12 of 16 events. Unser (eight wins), Fittipaldi (one win) and Tracy (three wins) finished 1-2-3 in five races and swept the top three spots in the points standings.

This speaks to another key to Penske’s success: the ability to develop or eventually land the best drivers.

Junior—as he was widely known before Dale Earnhardt Jr.—had won races and championships in sprint cars, Can-Am, IROC, prototypes and Indy cars before landing at Penske. Junior could do it all, and when the 1994 season ended it looked for all the world like the beginning of a run. It turned out to be a peak.

In 1995, Unser and Penske won a series-high four IndyCar races and finished nine points behind soon-to-be-world-champ Jacques Villeneuve for the championship. Yet trouble was brewing, and it started at Indianapolis.

Rule changes squashed the pushrod’s advantage after Penske’s dominance in 1994, and the engine never raced again. From the start of May ’95, it was clear the PC-24 was not the car the PC-23 had been. Perhaps the power advantage the year before had masked—or promoted—setup problems. Goodyear, Penske’s longtime tire supplier, was clearly off Firestone’s speed.

Whatever the challenges, they conspired to leave the Penske cars well below successful qualifying speeds. The owner went out and found Lolas to try to get his team in the show, but it hardly helped.

When the field rolled off the morning of May 28, 1995, what was the big story? Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi—winners of the previous three Indianapolis 500s—were nowhere to be seen. For the first time since Roger Penske brought a team to the Speedway 27 years prior, there wasn’t a Penske entry in the field, and there wouldn’t be for the next six years.

Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

2001, Oldsmobile Bravada; 2002, 50th Anniversary Chevrolet Corvette; 2003, Chevrolet SSR. The value of experience.

This stretch as much as any puts Penske on the Worst Pace Car list. It also cements his status as a class of one among Indianapolis 500 entrants.

The pace cars present two oddities separated by a solid C5 Corvette. The Bravada was the first Indy pace SUV, and while it was the 11th Olds to lead the 500 field, it was the first powered by a six-cylinder engine. Also the last. Two days after the Bravada was introduced, GM announced it would phase out Olds production and kill the brand.

The SSR was the first pace truck—or maybe it was a roadster. The public didn’t seem to know, maybe Chevrolet didn’t either. Commercials crafted by director Michael Bay, noted for big-budget action films like Armageddon and Transformers, failed to kick-start sales. Chevy ultimately built 25,000 SSRs over a four-year run.

Penske’s failure to qualify for the ’95 Indy 500 had left “a lousy taste” in the owner’s mouth, but he’d waited five years to try to rinse it out. The back story is politics, or the Great Schism of American Open-Wheel Racing.

In 1996, Anton Hulman “Tony” George launched the Indy Racing League. George is IMS impresario Tony Hulman’s grandson, and by then he was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp.’s president and CEO. Proponents cited legitimate reasons for the IRL’s creation: the need to control competitors’ costs; reemphasizing the dominance of oval racing for Indy cars; the need to improve opportunity for American-born drivers to compete and succeed at Indy. Detractors called it a thinly veiled attempt to regain control of all IndyCar racing, and not just IMS—an instance of the rich kid who wants to be the pitcher taking his ball and bat and going home. Wherever people lined up, one thing was obvious from the start: George’s ace in the hole was control of the Speedway.

Initially, at least Penske chose to stick with Championship Auto Racing Teams, the organization he’d founded with other team owners in 1979 to lift the onerous yoke of USAC, the sanctioning body of the Indy 500 and most other IndyCar events. Initially after the split, CART seemed to hold its own, while the IRL stayed afloat mostly through subsidies from the Hulman family fortune.

As the seasons ticked by, the IRL did not exactly thrive. The Indy 500 suffered in television ratings, entrant participation and attendance. Yet without its centerpiece and primary brand anchor, CART began to wither as a viable commercial entity, even after a public stock offering. As NASCAR racing boomed, it became increasingly apparent that the open-wheel pie had shrunk to a point where it could not thrive—or even continue—with two competing entities.

Penske no doubt saw the writing on the wall and after five years the siren song of the Speedway—and the lousy taste of 1995—were too strong. He returned first to race only at Indy in 2001. A year later his team gave up on CART and joined the IRL full time.

From there, the IRL was ascendant, and it steadily evolved into what CART had been. CART, meanwhile, stumbled through six more seasons and bankruptcy before its remnants and many venues were merged into the IRL as today’s IndyCar series. George resigned as president and CEO of IMS and Hulman and Co. in June 2009—still supported by his mother, board chairman Mary Hulman George, but under pressure from his three sisters for draining the family coffers.

And that gets us back to the racetrack. Penske was back at Indy.

Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

“I joined the team in 2000 and we won the (CART) championship that year,” says Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy winner and proud owner of an SSR. “The next year Roger—I remember the conversation quite well—says, ‘Look, I’m thinking about going to Indianapolis. What do you think?’ And you could see his eyes light up and you knew that every effort from that point was going to be thrown behind that objective of winning Indy again.

“I think what happened next depicts very well what Penske racing is all about, you know? It’s the desire to succeed and the willingness and ability to put every effort behind the goal.”

What happened next was an unprecedented three-peat at the Indianapolis 500.

In 2001, rookie Helio Castroneves led the final 52 laps and finished just ahead of de Ferran for a Penske 1-2. In 2002, Castroneves worked his way from mid-pack and took the lead on lap 173 when leader Tomas Scheckter crashed out. Paul Tracy appeared to pass Castroneves in turn three on the final lap, but Speedway officials determined Tracy had undertaken the pass after a yellow flag flew for a crash involving Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier.

After protests and appeals, Castroneves was finally declared the winner 37 days after the race.

“I didn’t feel like a rookie (in 2001) in terms of the equipment and infrastructure—the whole thing,” he says. “I have Rick Mears coaching me and Gil—very experienced drivers. It helps the odds go up. It’s still a 500-mile race, and my first 500-mile win, but when you put all these things together, it wasn’t the typical rookie start.

“And then we go back (in 2002) and it’s 30 years since a driver had a back to back, and I say, ‘Ah, that’s impossible. It’s not gonna happen twice.’ And sure enough, I didn’t qualify that well, and the car was very difficult to drive, we’re about to be a lap down—and through all this adversity I have Roger telling me, ‘Hold on, we can do this.’ And all of a sudden, we had an opportunity to take a chance on the yellow (for Scheckter’s crash) and (Roger) makes the call to stay out of the pits, and we ended up winning the race. It was Penske, or destiny, but I will never forget.”

Castroneves gave a three-peat his best shot in 2003, winning the 500 pole and leading 58 laps before de Ferran passed him for good with 31 to go. There was no three-peat for Castroneves, but there was for Penske after an interminable Indianapolis absence, with two one-two finishes in the process.

“The 2003 race sticks in my mind particularly,” says de Ferran. “Obviously it would because I won, but also because of the story behind the race from a team perspective. There was a question of which car would be better—the G-Force or the Dallara—and about the same number of (proponents for each) within the team. So Penske prepared two Dallaras and two G-Forces for me and two each for Helio. The effort and the commitment behind that decision is hard for people to grasp, but it (encapsulates) what Penske is.

“What the statistics don’t tell is what kind of person Roger is. He was always very welcoming to me and to my family. Very kind and courteous, and obviously a man completely dedicated to his job—or to doing a good job. That’s the better way to put it. I guess, 15 years later, I’m proud to be able to call Roger Penske my friend.”

Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

2006, Chevrolet C6 Corvette Z06. The value of legitimacy.

The 505-hp Corvette Z06 ahead of the 90th Indianapolis 500 field was the most powerful pace car to date—real, showroom-to-customer horsepower, no Indy upgrades necessary. The Z06 was the poster child of American performance.

Sam Hornish Jr. was the first Penske winner since Mark Donohue who hadn’t driven in CART. He was the first American-born Penske winner since Al Unser Jr. in 1994. Indeed, Hornish was the IRL’s poster child—exactly the sort of clean-cut, well-spoken, home-grown talent the League was supposed to promote.

He won his first IRL championship in 2001 and his second in 2002, edging Castroneves and de Ferran in the standings at the end Penske’s first season in the series. Yet he didn’t win the Indy 500 until after he signed with Penske to replace the retiring de Ferran. It was a really good Indy 500.

Hornish had been consistently fastest in practice and won the pole with a four-lap average just shy of 229 mph. Still, defending 500 winner Dan Wheldon slipped past Hornish on the first lap and proceeded to lead 147 more. Things got worse for Hornish on lap 150 when he left his pit box while the fuel hose was still in his car (RP later took the blame). The subsequent drive-through penalty left Hornish 30 seconds behind the leader with 27 laps to go. At that point, he went on a tear.

As the field readied for the final restart with four to go, Hornish was running fourth. Michael Andretti was leading; he’d emerged from a three-year retirement to race with his 19-year-old son Marco, who happened to be running second. Hornish squeezed by third-place Scott Dixon at the exit of turn two, or about three corners before Marco Andretti passed his father for the lead.

At that point, Michael Andretti seemed to accept the roll of running interference for his son, but Hornish still managed to pass the elder on the backstretch with 2.5 laps to go. He caught Andretti the younger coming out of turn four on the final lap and nosed ahead maybe 450 feet from the checkered flag. Hornish’s margin of victory was 0.0635 second.

It was the first final-lap lead change in 90 Indianapolis 500s. It was also the first time in seven starts that Hornish had completed the 500 miles.

“It’s not always about having the best car or being the best driver,” he says. “It’s all about being situational and understanding how the race is gonna play out. And sometimes there’s a lot of luck involved, as well.

“In 2003, my car wasn’t great, but I ran the perfect race from the driver’s standpoint and then the engine blew up with three laps to go. In 2006, I had the fastest car all month, and I knew I could follow and save fuel and be there at the end. Then, with 40 laps to go, we have a pit violation and most people counted us out—all the way up to where I passed Marco at the finish line.”

Hornish won his third IRL championship the same season. While he’s reasonably confident he’d have won an Indy 500 even if he’d never joined Penske, Hornish is absolutely certain the IRL changed when Penske arrived.

“It changed for the benefit of a lot of people, including myself,” he says. “I came along at the right time. If there never had been the split, I probably would not have gotten the opportunity to drive. So I got my foot in the door, and when I won my first championship in 2001, people said ‘Well, that’s a fluke. The Penske guys are gonna come in next year and kick your butt.’ When I was able to win the championship that year, maybe that got Roger thinking, ‘We can use this guy.’

“In the bigger picture, Roger making the decision to move over to the (IRL) gave it an unchallenged team owner—a true premier, championship team that was above and beyond. That gave (the series) a lot of legitimacy, not only for sponsors but for a lot other good teams that followed.”

Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott

2015, Chevrolet C7 Corvette Z06. No illusions.

Now the 650-hp Z06 had a hair more power than the race cars at the Speedway, where boost drops about 5 psi from IndyCar’s road-course max and horsepower from 740-750. Sure, the Corvette engine needs 2.8 times the displacement to get there, but that just makes for a lot more torque.

Penske claimed his copy of the 99th Indianapolis 500 pace car thanks to Juan Pablo Montoya, who won a second 500 15 years after his first. It was another humdinger, only this time it was Montoya’s Penske teammate who got the short end.

In didn’t start well. Montoya had managed only 15th on the grid. On lap seven, during the race’s first caution period, he was rear-ended by Simona de Silvestro and forced to pit for new bits of bodywork. Montoya fell to 30th, and he’d eventually need three more stops than any of the other top-five finishers. But when he’d completed the last one on lap 168, he was in the fight.

The race went green for the final time on lap 184, with Penske driver Will Power leading Scott Dixon and Montoya. The three swapped the lead four times in the final 13 laps. Montoya bumped Dixon when he took second, then unceremoniously passed Power on the outside into turn one on the 198th lap. He finished 0.1 second in front.

There was good news for Speedway officials, too. With estimated attendance at 220,000, the race was less than a sell-out, but it was still the largest single-day sporting event of the year. And television ratings improved 5 percent over the previous year, continuing a trend from 2010, when they’d fallen as low as they’d been since the race went live in 1986. Perhaps most significantly, the 500 drew more viewers and a larger share than NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 (in prime time that evening) for the first time in 10 years.

This prompts a question bench racers have pondered for years. Who needs whom most? If Penske’s decision to switch allegiance salvaged IndyCar racing, then by extension it salvaged the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yet who would be celebrating Penske’s success at the Speedway or talking about how racing has built his wildly successful corporate brand if the Indy 500 weren’t the Indy 500?

Characteristically modest, Penske thinks the discussion is dumb:

“There’s no race driver, no car owner (and) no sponsor that’s bigger than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s the icon of all motorsports. What it means to compete there and win is something awful special. I’m just honored to be there each year.”

Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens
Photo credit: INDYCAR Media/Chris Owens

1989, Pontiac Firebird 20th Anniversary TTA. Empire.

The Firebird TTA would be Pontiac’s last pace car, and it leaves an outstanding legacy. It was developed with Prototype Automotive Services using the 3.8-liter turbocharged Buick V6 developed for the Regal Grand National. Pontiac built 1500 TTA replicas for sale, modestly rated at 250 hp. Actual output had to be substantially more because contemporary press testing pegged the 3,350-pound TTA’s 0-60-mph time at as low as 4.6 seconds, with a 13.02-second quarter mile. It was the quickest street car built in the United States that year.

Penske did not win the 73rd running of the Indianapolis 500, but there’s a TTA in the Penske clubhouse nonetheless. Maybe only the geekiest IndyCar geeks know why.

Emerson Fittipaldi won the race after he took out Al Unser Jr. in turn four of the 199th lap, then took the checkered flag under yellow. Penske’s best finisher that year was Mears, in 23rd. Fittipaldi’s car was entered by longtime Penske rival Pat Patrick, who that year had taken on a 30-year-old co-owner named Chip Ganassi, in anticipation of retirement. Ganassi would eventually become Penske’s next longtime team-owning rival. Fittipaldi also beat Mears to the 1989 IndyCar championship by a scant 10 points, and he did so driving a Penske PC-18.

Penske sharing his cars with archrivals seems sort of like the Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees. In return for his cars, Penske got money from Patrick sponsor Marlboro to run a third entry at Indy and a handful more races through the season (and he opened a new long-term relationship—Marlboro Team Penske—that lasted 15 years). Penske did not suffer a decades-long curse in the aftermath, and he clearly thinks enough of his role in the ’89 race to keep a TTA in his pace-car collection.

Nor was Patrick Racing the only other team to run Penske chassis through the decades. Penske long bucked a trend that began in the 1970s, under which race teams bought their chassis off the rack from single-purpose race car suppliers, rather than building their own. Sometimes Penske’s commitment to building his own cars cost him (here, we mean on the race track). If his cars were proving inferior, he was usually quick to buy Marches, Lolas or Reynards, but Penske was never willing to turn his back on the edge his own cars might give him. He didn’t give up on the idea until IndyCar rules limited competitors to one or two prescribed chassis. Penske Cars Ltd. in Poole, England, remained operational for years making racing shocks and bodywork after it could no longer make Indy cars.

Photo credit: Josh Scott
Photo credit: Josh Scott

Sounds like something George Steinbrenner might do, accompanied by lots of bluster. So what should we make of this “New York Yankees of racing” thing? Trite, too easy, legit? Roger Penske never blusters, but we might compare some numbers.

Take 16 Indianapolis 500 wins (not counting 1989) in 42 trips. That’s a 38.09 percent hit rate. Better than one in three. Now take 27 Yankees World Series wins in 112 seasons, and you get 24.1 percent. Compare Penske to the Boston Celtics (17 NBA championships, 70 seasons, 24.2 percent) or the Montreal Canadiens (24 Stanley Cups, 107 seasons, 22.4 percent) or any of the hallowed stick-and-ball franchises, and he still wins.

And if you think season championships are a better comparison than Indy victories—13 IndyCar championships in 47 seasons, for 27.6 percent—Penske wins again. Through most of those 47 years, he was playing in at least a few different leagues simultaneously, with similar results, and playing 32 teams at once each game.

“Our game is a little bit different, obviously,” Penske says. “The stick-and-ball sports have more people on the field. In our sport, we have everybody on the bench and one guy playing the ball, at least until the pit stops. In this business, we don’t have the television income coming in, or some of the revenue sources the stick-and-ball teams have. Sponsorship becomes even more important on a long-term basis.

“But I think sports overall are consistent. It’s teamwork. It takes a good leadership on the floor and in the front office. You have to build. Some of our best drivers didn’t have much success coming up through the ranks—look at Brad (Keselowski) or Rick (Mears), to name a couple. Every good sports team has to do that. You have to find, build, develop and put people in the rights circumstances to succeed.”

Ask Penske’s Gehrigs, DiMaggios and Jeters what separates the team owner, and they’ll consistently name one thing: Motivation. Drive. At age 78 and about $1 billion later, Penske is as driven to chase Indianapolis victory No. 17 as he was chasing the first at age 29—or his 93rd NASCAR win or his next Cup championship. Money can’t buy that.

Roger Penske would be Roger Penske if he owned an NFL franchise or thoroughbred horses. Everyone who loves racing, from the humblest fan to the most successful driver, should be glad RP loves it, too.

Senior Editor at Large J.P. Vettraino has written for Autoweek since 1990.

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