Ryan Briscoe's win at the Milwaukee Mile on Sunday (June 1st) won him more than Team Penske's twenty-sixth IndyCar Series victory. It no doubt won him a special place in owner Roger Penske's heart as his triumph became the 300th time the Team...
Ryan Briscoe's win at the Milwaukee Mile on Sunday (June 1st) won him more than Team Penske's twenty-sixth IndyCar Series victory. It no doubt won him a special place in owner Roger Penske's heart as his triumph became the 300th time the Team Penske machines have finished first in a variety of motorsports formulae.
The wins have come in racing genres as disparate as rear-engine open-wheel cars sanctioned by USAC, to Trans-Am to Can-AM to Formula 1, and the 'Car of Tomorrow' on NASCAR's diverse gauntlet of stock-car circuits.
"I guess I'm getting old," said gray-haired, 71-year old Penske of the feat in the Albert M Krause Media Center at Milwaukee's famous Mile on Sunday (June 1st). "We won the first one thirty years ago," he added, in reference to Rick Mears' triumph on this same oval in 1978.
Penske wore a black hat with the words '300th Win' boldly stitched across its front, and a smile that said "satisfaction" more than "conquest".
With characteristic humility Penske gave credit where credit was due, by adding, "There's been a lot of time and effort put in by a lot of great people since then."
A consummate team player, Penske credited the people who work for him as the source of his multi-year racing success that now spans four decades. Most readers recall that it was Brown-educated Mark Donohue who drove for Penske in his first Indianapolis 500 attempt. The year was 1969, and thirty-two year old Donohue would finish seventh and earn Indy 'Rookie of the Year'.
Donohue would go on to win the race at a record 500-mile clip for Team Penske in 1972. He had finished second two years before, in a Penske car.
"We've always picked the right people," said Penske. "What we've done is the sum of work done by so many people that dates back to Mark."
"It's great for all of them, not for me," he added. "We've tried to have a homogenous group that could work together under trying circumstances."
The philosophy earned the Pennsylvania Chevrolet dealer-turned-race-car-owner an extraordinary reputation as an organizational genius, and added a "Who's Who" of racing's greatest names to the company's employment rolls: men like Mario Andretti, Danny Sullivan, Mears, Donohue, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, and Tom Sneva.
Some wins stand out for Penske, who was himself a championship auto racer in his youth. He retired from the cockpit in 1965 to head one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time, earning for himself and his team the moniker, "The New York Yankees of Auto Racing."
His racing pursuits also earned him wealth, with Forbes Magazine placing him 177th among the richest 400 Americans in 2007, boasting board-room appointments ranging from the halls of prestigious General Electric to Pennsylvania's Universal Technical Institute vocational school, a favorite source for young talent in his garages that Penske tapped frequently.
"I remember how hard it was to get the one hundredth," Penske said on Sunday, "and how hard Gil de Ferran worked to beat (Juan Pablo) Montoya at Nazareth (Pennsylvania, in the year 2000) to get it. Sometimes it's inches between winning and losing. That lesson is one we've learned over the years."
Briscoe's win at the A J Foyt 225 on Sunday was classic in its Penske-like execution: snappy pit stops, improving the car over the course of the race, biding time until the right opportunity affords itself. When a calamitous accident broke the rhythm of pursuit of Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon at the 223rd of 225 laps the Team Penske driver whose race Penske himself was calling found himself in 'the right place at the right time.'
Typical Penske, nodded heads around the pit lane.
Perhaps the most memorable of all the occasions Penske recalled in his brief thirty-minute press conference was a race that didn't produce a win at all.
In fact, it didn't even produce a start for the team that owns the most appearances on the Indy 500 grid of any other.
Team Penske rumbled into the 1995 Indianapolis 500 sure of another successful month of May assault. Twice Indy 500 winner and Formula 1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi would partner All-American super-racer Al Unser Jr in a bruiser's battle with the rest of the field and secure another Borg Warner trophy appearance for Team Penske with a lightning-fast one-two punch.
For the man who would eventually put no fewer than fourteen coveted 'Mini-Borgs' in his trophy room, a double-podium finish at the Indianapolis 500 looked like a lead-pipe lock.
The racing deities would have none of it. Neither Unser Jr nor Fittipaldi qualified for the race, imposing a shocking reality on Penske that he would not be a part of the 79th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
"In racing, you have to learn how to win," recalled Emmo of the frustration and despair that overtook the team in the aftermath. "That was the year when I had to learn how to lose."
"That's what I remember," he continued, "like in life, there are times in racing you have to learn how to lose."
That ability to handle adversity within the team runs parallel to what Penske said on the occasion of his 300th victory. It became particularly poignant with Briscoe's victory, a racer whose prospects had become the object of sharp inquiry during a difficult start to the 2008 IndyCar Series campaign, and a run-in on pitlane with Danica Patrick only a week prior in the '500'.
"We try to get young people to work for us who want a career," Penske said of the key to his prolonged success in a profession known for its fickle treatment of king and pauper alike. "Many of the guys have been with us for twenty-five, thirty years. When they meet difficulties we don't give up on them, we give them support and take care of them."
"We knew we had a good driver in Ryan (Briscoe) when we hired him to run in our sports cars. He had a difficult time after his accident (a firey blow-up in the catch-fence at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005 that sidelined the racer for months). We believed in him, and he repaid us with this important win today."
"The team had to pull together like that in 1995," he continued. "We grew as a result of it. Our people grew. When Team Penske wins, everybody at Penske wins."
The numbers don't disagree, as Team Penske now stands on its 135th American open-wheel victory at the same race course that brought it the first.
For an organization that now employs upwards of thirty thousand individuals, big and small in the public eye, that amounts to a lot of winning for Penske's people.