With his legendary team having now scored its 200th IndyCar victory, Roger Penske tells David Malsher which have been his favorite results, from Mark Donohue through Rick Mears to Josef Newgarden.
1971 Pocono – Mark Donohue scores Team Penske’s first Indy car victory
At Indy, Mark had taken the lead on the first lap and we were so far ahead at the end of Lap 1, I assumed there’d been a problem further down the field. But we’d had problems with the gearbox – the drive gears kept letting go, and we had the gearbox apart almost right up until race day, so we could fit new gears from Hewland. And it still let go.
That was disappointing, of course, but one of the most upsetting things was that when the car broke down, it was sitting up at Turn 4 in the infield. Then with about 20 laps to go there was an accident between Bobby Unser and Mike Mosley, and they came down and hit our car and damn-near totaled it. So it was brought back to the garage on a hook.
We missed Milwaukee [just a week later], but then came back for Pocono, and Mark put it on pole and won our first race – and it was a 500-miler. That will always be a special memory.
1972 Indy 500 – Donohue scores Penske’s first Indy win
Coming back to Indy and getting the job done in ’72 was very special. Gary Bettenhausen was leading that race for us, but unfortunately we had a surge tank – part of the water system – made of aluminum, and the vibration of the Offy engine caused it to split where it was welded, and so it sprung a leak. So Gary dropped out, and Mark won the race. We were also slightly fortunate because Jerry Grant pitted in Al Unser’s pitbox in error and took fuel from the wrong tank.
Gary and Mark both had the same cars, but Gary was an oval racer and a lot more aggressive – quite similar to how Bobby Unser was compared with Al Sr. Bobby would drive the wheels off a pickup truck, but Al was very, very smooth, and that was the same as Gary compared with Mark. We had vowed to our sponsor, Sunoco, that we’d win Indy within three years, and in fact it took us four, but it was a big day for us. Sunoco had been with us in Trans-Am but they joined us for Can-Am, too, and became one of the best sponsors we ever had.
That relationship had all started with the head of marketing, Elmer Bradley, coming to my Chevy dealership to buy a Corvette, and I talked him into us running a Corvette together in the Daytona 24 Hours. So in 1966, we ran that race and won the GT class with Sunoco stickers on the car, and from there the relationship grew.
1978 Milwaukee 150 – Rick Mears scores first Indy car win for a Penske chassis
We had the capability to build our own chassis over in Poole (Dorset, UK) and Geoff Ferris had designed us a good Formula 1 car, the PC4 [which won the 1976 Austrian GP in the hands of John Watson]. The PC6 was evolved from that PC4, and it was almost revolutionary in Indy cars, in terms of aerodynamics and packaging. It was a neat car.
I had been talking to Pancho Carter and to Rick Mears for the part-time seat in ’78 [alongside full-timer Tom Sneva] which was going to be shared with Mario [Andretti]. Mario was full-time for Lotus in Formula 1, but raced our second car on any weekend he didn’t have a Grand Prix. For the other races I needed someone strong. Pancho was more proven at that stage with his USAC performances, but Rick had shown well for others [Bill Simpson, Art Sugai, Theodore Racing] running part-time over the previous couple of seasons. But the crucial thing was that Rick was willing to run a part-time deal and Pancho wanted the full season so obviously I signed Rick.
Well Rick was so fast in his first year for us. He was on the front row at Indy… but he hadn’t got his helmet strapped on properly so he had to pit right away! [The next race was at Mosport, where Mears finished second]. Then we went to Milwaukee and he won – and scored a couple more wins for us that year – which was a terrific feat for a part-timer. Those wins with our own car really launched us as a team, and started a terrific relationship with Rick.
1979 Indy 500 – Mears scores Penske’s first Indy win as a constructor
Rick had run the PC7 through the first few races but preferred the previous year’s PC6 for Indy. Bobby was committed to developing the PC7, pushing on with the new car because it was potentially faster, being newer. I remember a test in Phoenix when Bobby had been testing the new car and was adjusting this and that; then Rick got in the car using Bobby’s seat which didn’t fit Rick – he was sliding around in the seat and so on – but he went quicker. That really got Bobby’s attention!
Anyway, at Indy Rick got pole with the older car and although Bobby led a lot of laps, with Rick sitting behind him, biding his time, Bobby had a gearbox issue and Rick went on and won.
Rick was very mature for his age but he also really knew how to handle a car, and I think that dated back to his off-road racing days. Off-road, nothing is predictable – you have to react to situations as you find them – and so Rick had very quick reflexes. That’s what helped hone his road-racing skills very rapidly, in a way that a lot of guys who were fast on ovals just weren’t able to do. They found road courses a big challenge, whereas Rick was fast on them and was also very smooth and smart so he became a great oval racer, too.
1994 Indy 500 – Al Unser Jr. wins with pushrod Mercedes engine
Well this all started because at Indy we’d been seeing these powerful Buicks just blow us off from the standpoint of qualifying, and speed in the race, although they’d had mechanical problems. As owner of Ilmor and with a strong relationship with Mercedes-Benz, I went to them and said, ‘Look, I’d like to run a pushrod engine at Indy – would you guys like to be a part of it?’ They said yes, and we did it on a handshake deal. We didn’t draw up an agreement because we wanted to keep this confidential.
I moved four or five key guys from the main race shop into a separate building so no one would really know what we were doing. I warned them that if they spoke to anyone about this, it would be like cutting off part of their paycheck! And right up until two weeks before the Month of May, when the Speedway opened, it wasn’t made public. We didn’t have chassis or engine dynamometers in those days – or not to the extent we have today – so we had Paul Tracy in a ski-suit testing at freezing cold Nazareth Speedway, in between banks of snow, just trying to put miles on this engine.
We were running durability tests at Michigan Speedway right up to Carburetion Day at Indy. We got word back that it looked liked the wrist-pin lock was coming out of the piston, and I remember on Carb Day, discussing with Mario Illien [of Ilmor] what we should do about it. We pulled apart the engines and saw nothing was scratching the cylinder so we decided to go for it.
In the end, Tracy had a turbo issue on raceday, but the other two cars ran well. Emerson [Fittipaldi] had his accident and Al Jr. won. He drove a more conservative race, even though he’d taken pole.
It was a perfect storm for us. We led almost every lap [193 of the 200] which is amazing. But then a week after the race Indy cut the boost from 55 to 50 – basically outlawing our engine. That’s the problem – too much success and they’ll take you right out of the game!
But when I look back I think that was one of the major wins for us as a team because we made such a major commitment to do something new and innovative, and we had also made a commitment to Mercedes. To see their top people in the suites watching the win and celebrating was a big deal because they were so proud to win in front 300,000 people. That’s an environment you can’t replicate with a PowerPoint presentation! From a business perspective, it was the probably the most impactful win we ever had.
1994 Mid-Ohio – Penskes start 1-2-3, finish 1-2-3
I think some people believe we ran that Indy combination – the PC23B and the Mercedes pushrod – all season! But seriously, that was a terrific year for our team. Nigel Bennett had designed several great cars for us already, but that 1994 car was terrific. The ‘regular’ PC23 mated to the Ilmor engine – the 'regular' Ilmor engine! – was magnificent and we had a great lineup of drivers in Unser Jr., Fittipaldi and Tracy . I think we won 12 of the 16 races that year, but I’d pick that Mid-Ohio as a standout because we qualified 1-2-3 and finished 1-2-3, which was a first for us.
[And Penske were to finish 1-2-3 twice more that year…]
2000 Nazareth – Gil de Ferran scores Penske’s 100th win after three-year drought
Boy, it took us a long time to get there after our 99th in 1997. For Gil, it was a huge achievement, his first win for us, and I still have the poster for that 100th win. When you think about where we are today, 18 years later, that was a significant milestone. You can talk about all the fanfare at Indy and our success there, but this Nazareth victory is one of those other precious, critical wins for the team, that get everyone involved excited.
[Regarding the switch, at the end of ’99, from Al Unser Jr./Mercedes-Benz engines/Penske chassis to the combo of De Ferran/Helio Castroneves, Honda engines and Penske-modified Reynard chassis – the ‘Renske’]
You have to make changes if it’s not working; it’s like any of our businesses. If you run them for a while, something goes wrong and then you can’t fix them no matter what you do, then you have to sell them or shut them down. These programs are all based on performance, and if you want a partner to invest for three or four years, then you have to make them work. It’s like now – if for whatever reason we slipped from the front and couldn’t get back up to speed, we’d have to make radical changes again.
Look at Indy in 1995. After such a strong race there the year before, we didn’t even qualify, and as you’re walking down pitlane in front of 100,000 crowd as it was for qualifying in those days, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. But you learn and it only makes you better the next year.
2001 Indy 500 – Castroneves leads Penske 1-2 on the team’s return to Indy after six-year absence
Tim [Cindric, team president] and I had talked about it a lot and knew we weren’t going to get to where we wanted to go with CART, and the Indy 500 meant too much to us to stay away from there. We’d been away too long, and we wanted it to be the backbone of our team again.
We were still in CART – de Ferran won us the 2000 and 2001 championships – but to prepare for Indy, we went to the Phoenix IRL race. We were OK but Sam Hornish [Panther] blew us off, and we heard him and [team owner] John Barnes talking on the radio about us and that got us even more amped up to beat them at Indy!
It was a great day for us to see Helio and Gil scoring a 1-2 for us at Indy. Then winning again with Helio in ’02, and Gil winning in ’03… That was a good run. If you think about it, Helio could have won three in a row, if it weren’t for getting blocked by Foyt’s son on the back straight [in ’03] and allowing Gil to get some momentum to make the pass.
2006 Indy 500 – Sam Hornish passes Marco Andretti on the final run to the line
That was probably one of the most amazing drives at Indy by any of our drivers, where he really had to come from the back. As I remember, we sent him from a pitstop with the fuel hose still stuck in, and when we took the penalty, we fell almost a lap down, so then we had to use strategy. Everyone else came in and put new tires on and we were at the back. [Dan] Wheldon was on new tires, Sam on old ones, so it was real monster drive for Sam to come through and get back in contention.
It was amazing to watch from that final restart with four to go – Sam made some great moves from deep in the pack, and even got a wheel rub on the sidepod. He got past Michael [Andretti] and then homed in on Marco. With a lap to go, he tried to get him going into Turn 3, and Marco smartly closed him down. But then Hornish came back at him over that final lap and got him approaching the line. It was very exciting and honestly, it’s one I will never forget. Actually from where we were standing, we couldn’t see who got to the bricks first – someone had to tell us, it was that close.
2009 Indy 500 – Castroneves puts legal issues behind him, scores third Indy win
Helio had had an issue with the US tax authorities through the winter. They were looking at the structure of his companies which turned out to be fine but he was under real pressure.
I remember calling Mike Szymanczyk [of Altria Group, parent company to sponsor Philip Morris, whose Marlboro brand had long been a Penske sponsor] and he said ‘Roger, we’re staying with you and Helio until there’s a negative outcome.’ Basically, his attitude was ‘Innocent until proven guilty,’ and that was tremendously supportive. So for Helio to then clear his name and to come back and win the 500, that wiped the slate clean of all the negative publicity. There had been a lot of features out there that had been trying to create a black fog over who Helio was. To get rid of all that for one of our longest-serving drivers… that makes that Indy win one of the great and memorable results for us.
2014 Detroit – Will Power and Castroneves win the double-header
We call that our home track, and of course it’s Chevrolet’s home, too. Detroit had also been where Helio had scored his first IndyCar win, driving for us 14 years earlier – he just had some knack for getting around that Belle Isle track very fast. He had the confidence there to put it all on the line and he knew exactly what he needed from his car to look after the tires and get it stable. And of course Will, he’s always been great on street courses where no one can test, and so that was a great weekend for the team. To have Will on top of the podium one day, and Helio on top the next with Will second… For Jim Campbell and everyone at Chevrolet, it was a very important weekend. You don’t get many weekends like that where everything works out just perfectly, and so they stay in your mind for a long time.
2014 Fontana – Power clinches the IndyCar title
It’s not a win, but Will finally got that championship after coming second three times. We’d seen Will dominate championships and then have [Chip Ganassi Racing’s] Dario Franchitti pick our pocket, and we saw Helio running strong in 2013 and had [Ganassi’s] Scott Dixon pick our pocket. Will had started building his momentum towards the end of 2013 to take a strong run at it in ’14 – he scored his first 500-mile victory at Fontana in 2013, a really masterful drive. By the time we went back there for the finale in ’14, he was in a position to clinch the championship and it was a big weight off his mind, and a relief for us all. It was what he’d deserved.
2016 Sonoma – Simon Pagenaud wins the race and championship
Simon struggled a little bit in his first year with us, and we were just getting that fourth team going so we also were still getting up to speed with that program. Then with the people around him working well together in 2016, he was just tremendously consistent, couldn’t be shaken, and he capped it perfectly with that win at Sonoma. That was very gratifying, especially after what had happened to us there the year before [when Dixon beat Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreak].
2017 Sonoma – Josef Newgarden wins title, Pagenaud takes race victory
Well, we got a 1-2-3 that race and had our bases covered. Simon won the race, Josef was second and won the championship, and Will was there in third. That’s the perfect scenario where you have three strong drivers and two different strategies. So now we have the great situation where all three of our drivers are champions and all three are capable of leadership and guiding the team on any given weekend. If one of them has an edge, his two teammates trust his judgment and can lean on him.