IRL: Penske wants number 14 at Indy

IRL: Penske wants number 14 at Indy

It is appropriate that Marlboro Team Penske held a press conference to discuss their plans for the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race today, Friday the 13th. After all, the team has 13 Indy 500 wins and one of their drivers, two-time Indy Racing ...

It is appropriate that Marlboro Team Penske held a press conference to discuss their plans for the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race today, Friday the 13th. After all, the team has 13 Indy 500 wins and one of their drivers, two-time Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champ Sam Hornish Jr. has 13 IRL victories, the most of any IndyCar Series driver in the League's 10-year history.

Marlboro Team Penske press conference: Rick Mears, Sam Hornish Jr., Roger Penske, Tim Cindric and Helio Castroneves.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
"It's another race, another year," noted Roger Penske. "Our team has more than 800 years experience and we're gratified by the loyalty of our people to this team. Our people start at the bottom and work up at Marlboro Team Penske," he said.

"Rick [Mears] set the standard for us with his four wins and he's been a valuable coach for Helio and Sam. We're been fortunate with our success here." Penske also recalled the misfortune, too, particularly in 1995 when his team, the defending race winners failed to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

"Indy is," he declared, "the ultimate for me. We're fortunate to have Sam on the team now and we've got Helio with his back-to-back wins that proved he can qualify and race well at this place."

While others are increasing their squads in the 500, Penske aims to "stay with the team we have and move forward on that basis." He did not respond to questions about the third car entered for the May 29th classic.

"Both of our drivers have been over 225mph," Penske reminded. "We've been trying to run the majority of our laps in four-lap increments just to see how we can be consistent because it's not one fast lap here [that gets Pole], it's got to be ten miles."

Team president Tim Cindric continued Penske's emphasis on teamwork. It's not two individuals competing under the same banner but it's a team. It takes a while to create that chemistry and people forget that the only thing Gil [de Ferran] and Helio had in common when they first came here is that they were both Brazilian.

"Sam coming into our organization being from a one-car team, not really knowing how to adjust for a teammate, it took a while to really learn how to work together. I can see a similar progression" to how de Ferran and Castroneves became a tight entity on pit road.

Penske tried extremely hard to put a stop to the Great American Open Wheel Civil War last summer, via an editorial in the New York Times and through other endeavors that, quite unfortunately never worked out. Although there have been recent meetings to try and remedy the current situation, Penske has not been part of them

"I certainly feel it would be nice to have one group, getting all the momentum behind one open-wheel formula," he sighed. "I' was very disappointed we had a very fair opportunity and it was a time that we could have put this together, which could have been very effective, I think in 2005. But the parties didn't want to get together based on what was discussed" at the time.

The dwindling interest in American open wheel formulae has played into NASCAR's hands, but it's primarily an effect of momentum, Penske believes. "Quite honestly I look at the races I've been to over the last year in IRL and the finishes, the strategies have been as close as I've ever seen. Sometimes [there are] many more passes than you see in NASCAR on a weekend," Penske acknowledged.

"But from the standpoint of the onslaught of NASCAR, it is a different business. They've had a consistent leadership for 30-plus years; they run 38 times [per year]. We run 15 or 16 times. We have open wheels; they have closed wheels. I don't think you can compare the vehicles.

"Unfortunately because of the split, there's a lot of people that dropped off the open-wheel bandwagon and go other places. I think the first question really is, can we get it together? I'm an advocate of that.

"When you have momentum [like NASCAR has] you can make mistakes and people don't see it. With open wheel racing," Penske detailed, "we don't have the kind of momentum you'd like to have in a sport and, therefore the problems we have get magnified."

Even so, Penske intends to stay with open wheel motorsports. "We're fully committed. We're going to run a two-car team. We've got a great sponsor. I'm going to stay in it as long as I'm physically able to and try to be here when we have one series," he emphasized. "I don't think you can say I'm disappointed; I'm more in the fact of what can I do to make it better? That's really why I get up every morning."

Castroneves, winner of back-to-back Indianapolis 500s in 2001-2 didn't get on the 2.5-mile oval circuit until practice began in earnest on Tuesday, unlike his teammate Hornish, who took part in April tire testing for Firestone. "I don't think it's enough grip to have side-by-side racing like you see on other tracks but for sure, speed-wise, it's increased substantially from last year to this year.

"Basically, Honda seems to be obviously doing their homework but you know, Toyota has been doing a lot of work as well. It's so tough," Castroneves admitted, "when you have so much competitive guys. Even Chevy, it's been doing their homework. It's just a matter to be in the right place on the right time."

Hornish, on the other hand thinks "the track is quite a bit smoother than what it was last year. The Speedway thought they were going to come back this year (after repaving) with a track that had the smooth characteristics of new pavement, also a little bit less grip than what we had, it would slow down the cars a little bit so you'd have to run more wing.

"Right now we're in position to where everybody is peeling as much off the cars as they can. When you're in a horsepower situation, it would be easier to try and run less drag, less downforce and less drag, and to be able to make up for that by being able to be a little bit more on edge."

Does it matter who qualifies on pole in a situation like this? Hornish doesn't think so. "It really leaves you to just do the best you can in qualifying and prepare for the race. That's why we're here: to win. Being on pole would be nice but I'd rather be first on the 29th," Hornish stated.

When Mears won his four Indy 500 races, the competition was different. Not necessarily tougher but different, he related. "Back when I was running, there might have been not as many competitive teams but the ones that were competitive were very competitive. You really had to run just as hard; you had to do all the same things so it still boils down to the basics."

Penske believes the rules and cost containment make the competition tighter in the May Classic. Where once there were many different types of cars and engines, "the rules state everyone has got to run the same gearbox, you got two chassis you're limited to what you can do on your wings. We can't be innovative [any more]. What they have done is take it down to reduce the creativity and that drives the competition closer and closer."

Forced to address the question of Toyota engines that his company constructs strictly for his team, as opposed to other teams that use power mills from Toyota Racing Development (TRD), Penske was circumspect. "I can tell you we have no special parts. The only advantage we would have is maybe we can take a good block that we know had power and put other pieces in it. It's more like fine-tuning," Penske claimed.

While his team has used engines rebuilt by Toyota in addition to Penske Racing rebuilds, Penske stands firm. "We have a build list; we have a computer. Every part we use is put into that computer so they know at TRD. It's part of the capability you have."

Roger Penske and his lieutenants, Tim Cindric and Rick Mears are focused to make sure Marlboro Team Penske retains its competitive and, perhaps that "unfair advantage" conferred on the team by its first hero, the great Mark Donohue.

The number 14 sounds much better [than #13] to team drivers Hornish Jr. and Castroneves, each of whom hopes to bring home that even-numbered Indianapolis 500 win to the most successful open wheel entrant America has ever known.

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Series INDYCAR