INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 10, 2002 -- Roger Penske isn't satisfied with 11 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner. He wants more. At age 65, Penske said he is committed to at least another five years of challenging the racing gods at the ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 10, 2002 -- Roger Penske isn't satisfied with 11 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner. He wants more.
At age 65, Penske said he is committed to at least another five years of challenging the racing gods at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He returns this May and will in the foreseeable future because he savors a checkered flag as much as a chocolate lover craves a Hershey bar.
"I'm here for one reason, and that is to win the race," said Penske, owner of Marlboro Team Penske, the most successful team in Indy-style racing history. "So are our people here. I can buy a ticket or watch it at home. And the day I don't want to win is the day I shouldn't be here."
Penske is back as the defending champion. Last May, Brazilian Helio Castroneves became the eighth Penske driver to have his winning face embossed on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy. Others were Mark Donohue (1972), Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991), Bobby Unser (1981), Danny Sullivan (1985), Al Unser (1987), Emerson Fittipaldi (1993) and Al Unser Jr. (1994).
Castroneves and teammate Gil de Ferran, who finished 1.7373 seconds behind in second place last year at Indy, return as Penske's drivers for a second year. Once again, Penske Racing is the team to beat.
It also was that way in 1995, but incredibly Unser and Fittipaldi, both two-time Indy winners, failed to qualify. Then Penske didn't participate in the Indianapolis 500 until last May, when it came to Indy as a full-time CART competitor. This year, he has moved his team full time to the Indy Racing League.
"We certainly had the ingredients in '95 when we didn't make it," Penske said. "We didn't have the right combination. There're a lot of reasons that you can go back and say put us in that position.
"The 2001 Indy win was a validation for me that we had a great team, and our people were just as good as they've always been. We put it together. It was the planning, the drivers. We had great pit stops, good strategy and, to me, we deserved to win the race.
"We worked hard to get here. It was a high risk for us, because if we didn't do well, people would say, 'Well, these guys are over the hill.'
"It took a lot of pressure off coming in this year. Even though we're the defending champions, it's a much different pressure point than I had last year coming back. So it was good."
Actually, Penske thinks it was good for the sport that his team was, as he put it, whacked down in 1995. He said it gave the team a chance to recommit itself and prove itself to the fans once again.
That's the kind of challenge Penske loves.
Becoming one of the primary teams with the new Toyota engine next season is another. Once again, Team Penske will start out with an unfamiliar product, as it did with IRL equipment in starts last year at Phoenix and Indy.
"That's the great thing," Penske said. "We get back in the engine business. I'd love to win this race for Toyota. To me, that's one of our goals that keeps us on our toes.
"The fact having things not being the same makes it a little tougher. You've got to play in the snow, you've got to play in the rain."
Penske first came to the Indianapolis 500 with his father in 1951. That kindled his desire to return some day as a driver. He almost made it.
"I couldn't put it together, and Mario (Andretti) took the test in (Clint) Brawner's car," he said. "I think my career, from a business perspective and using racing as a catalyst, has been probably as good as it gets.
"It's helped my business. It's certainly given us visibility. It's put pressure on us to perform. All those things are important as you grow up. And today the competitive juices that flow through you as a car owner and trying to compete every weekend, the pressures we have are obvious because people expect a lot. Even makes it tougher."
In the late 1960s, Penske joined forces with driver Mark Donohue, and they came to Indy for the first time in 1969, starting fourth and finishing seventh as Andretti, the driver who beat Penske out of a ride, won the race. In 1972, Donohue pulled a Penske car into Victory Lane for the first time.
Then came a dry spell -- if you call back-to-back runner-up finishes by Tom Sneva in 1977-78 a dry spell -- before Mears, a youngster out of off-road racing, brought victory No. 2 in 1979. Mears won three more for Penske to join A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as the only four-time driver winners.
Then Mears abruptly retired in 1992 without taking a shot at becoming the only five-time champion. Mears told Penske he didn't have the motivation anymore, and Penske told Mears he had a job with the team as long as he wanted one. Mears is still there.
"He was a great driver," Penske said. "He was not controversial, he made his noise on the racetrack. Obviously, maybe it would have been great to have seen him go for that fifth.
"He could have won that thing, too."
In 1987, Penske pulled a display car out of the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Reading, Pa., for Unser, who then pulled off an improbable fourth victory driving that car. The car is on display at Penske's auto dealership in Carmel, Ind., this month.
But Penske doesn't rank that victory as the most remarkable.
"I think 2001 was the amazing one," he said.
But there is one constant with Penske's teams over the years: quality people in all positions.
"It's preparation, having good people and making a commitment," he said.
Same goes for the drivers. Penske noted top teams naturally attract drivers with total commitment to winning. He points to other car owners such Rick Hendrick, Chip Ganassi and Richard Childress as being able to hire the very best drivers because of the same approach.
Penske also compares a good driver to a standout football quarterback. And he said Castroneves and de Ferran are of that caliber, not making any mistakes in the past three years. He also approves of Castroneves' ebullient personality outside the car as an excellent fan commodity.
"We need that," he said. "Sports are about fun and laughing, and I think Helio brings that. But he is serious. These two guys before the race are to themselves, they take time, they're focused. They contemplate where they're going. Overall, we've been fortunate to attract great people."
Penske was the best-known team to remain with CART when the IRL was formed and was the highest-profile team to join the IRL, starting this season. And he said the team's future home will remain in the IRL.
"Our team is committed this year to IRL, it's committed next year and the following year," Penske said. "We have no plans to run CART next year. Anything that people might say, the drivers are committed, we extended the drivers' contracts.
"I would say we've been received with open arms. It's a professional organization. I think the decisions are made quickly.
"I think in our series, at least in the IRL, there's a lot of competition, and people can join the series. I think that's one of the things, (IRL President and CEO) Tony's (George) vision. I have to take my hat off to him, he's stayed on course with that. You can come here and get a car, probably last year's car, and make the race. That's important. People can do that, and then they can generate a team and generate sponsorship."
About his personal future, Penske points to long-term sponsor contracts that should continue his involvement until 2006. His desire is to stick around like J.C. Agajanian and other famous owners of the past.
"I guess I'll come here and hope to have a car in the race if I can get out of my car and see it go down the straightaway," he said.
"I'm not going to retire."