Roger Penske and his eponymous team have seen both sides of the mountain and, as might be expected prefer the top. After Marlboro Team Penske's third consecutive victory in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victory, Roger Penske, team president Tim Cindric, advisor Rick Mears and the two drivers, Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. fully realize the difficulty in another Penske win.
Marlboro Team Penske's Indy 500 finishing position for its brace of cars over the past three seasons is an amazing 2.8 for both entries. Can Castroneves and Hornish keep this up in 2004, with changed engines and aerodynamics to the Dallara/Toyota package they use in competition?
The race, as Mears will tell you, doesn't always go to the fastest driver; rather, drivers who use their heads and prepare for the final 100 miles at this very tricky circuit are the ones who end up in Victory Lane. "Certainly, pole position is important to us and has been in the past," Roger Penske noted this morning. "Others have been faster than us this month but tomorrow changes everything."
After having the same two drivers for the past four years, Penske lost the services of Gil de Ferran, who won the 87th Indianapolis 500 in May of 2003 and retired at the end of the season after taking pole, leading the most laps and winning the season-ending Chevy 500K at Texas Motor Speedway.
Penske jumped at the chance to hire Sam Hornish Jr. to partner Castroneves in 2004 when he learned of de Ferran's retirement; the two-time Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion rewarded The Captain first time out in February with victory in the season-opener.
"I'm feeling a lot better than Sunday," Hornish admitted. "It would not have been good to be on the track" when he wasn't at his best "I haven't been fastest so far, but I've been consistent and I feel good about the car."
Building a good relationship with his exuberant teammate has worked thus far for the quiet Hornish. "For years I've seen Marlboro Team Penske from the outside and seen that Helio is a really outgoing guy. It takes time to build relationships," Hornish said, "and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year" with Helio and the balance of the team.
The addition of Hornish to venerable Marlboro Team Penske isn't the only change Roger Penske has made over the past few years. Adding the talents of Cindric, who came to the group after being managing Team Rahal's Champ Car operation, has made an already powerful team even more cohesive, if that's possible. "Tim is the guy who drives this team farther," Penske said. "He works well with the drivers and he's somebody who can balance facets of team efficiency on and off the track."
"We prepare for Indy from the time we leave" at the end of the preceding year, Cindric noted. "We look at what we didn't do right and focus for the next year. With the engine and chassis situation (changes wrought by the Indy Racing League), we were glad to have the test on April 3rd and the open test last month" to help the team get ready for the month of May.
Nine Penske drivers own Indy 500 victories but none have more than Mears, one of only three four-time victors in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Rick, who has been part of the team for 12 of its 13 Indy wins to date had to laugh a bit at the distinction: "Does that mean I beat Foyt?" he chortled.
Known for his prowess on restarts, Mears has his techniques, of course, but stresses to the team's two drivers - and others he coaches in both the IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro Series - to use patience. "It varies where you are at in the race. There's no reason," Mears said, "to take unnecessary chances early in the race; later in the day, it depends on who you're running with. You have to anticipate as much as you can an make no mistakes. You have to get your timing right as best you can," he revealed.
The low times for Marlboro Team Penske came right after one of the team's proudest moments, when Al Unser Jr. won the 1994 Indy 500 race with the 209- cubic-inch Mercedes-Benz engine that vanquished all comers. The next year, the team's three-car entry failed to make the field.
Penske's revenge, of course, came in 2001 when he returned to IMS with Castroneves and de Ferran, winning with the younger Brazilian while de Ferran finished second to Spiderman, the fence-climber. Castroneves won the next year out and, just this past Tuesday, he explained that he was wearing the commemorative ring from his 2001 victory, gave his 2002 ring to his father and "Gil has my third ring."
"The fact that we failed to qualify in 1995 shows just how competitive this place can be," Penske remembered. "We were left out here but kept racing through that year. Coming back the way we did in 2001 was very important to our team."
Penske would always prefer to see the traditional number of 33 cars racing this month at the Brickyard, but likes the quality he sees amongst the 22- 23 cars that race in the Indy Racing League each of 16 occasions per season. "Ten to 12 of these guys can win on any given weekend and we're starting to see more quality cars here. I prefer quality to quantity, but I'd still rather see 33 cars starting the race."
Will he add another car to his two already entered if the situation warranted? "We would support that if someone had the requirement," Penske alluded.
"Over time, I think this thing will come together," Penske said about the Indy Racing League. "I do think there should be only one open wheel racing series in this country. Open wheel is such a technical genre; I see a real value to this series; that's why we're here. This is a safer environment for drivers with softer walls and lower speeds to stop cars from becoming airborne. With the reduced downforce, they are not as stable, but we still don't know what will happen in the race."
This year's Indianapolis 500 is the first test for the League's new 3-liter specifications and the chassis revisions that have come with them. Hornish Jr. thinks that, once qualifying has been completed tomorrow and Sunday, there will be sufficient time for he and Castroneves to practice some long runs and work with traffic to see if they can keep the IRL's reputation for close racing intact.
It's all just talk now, but for Roger Penske and his full Marlboro Team Penske brigade, the important work remains to be done. There's a 14th Indy 500 to win at the end of this month. "We come here with a job to get done. It's the greatest race in the world," Penske declared. "Basically, I love coming here. I'm excited. I'm always excited." He may not show it outwardly, but Roger Penske retains 50+ years of passion for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.