Will Power’s Future At Team Penske

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While browsing around to different web sites, I occasionally run across a common theme, which I don’t understand. There is a school of thought out there which vilifies Roger Penske for not handing Will Power a full-time ride this season. If you’ll recall, Power was second in the point standings after Long Beach but did not have a ride for Kansas. This week in Texas will be the third event in six races that Power has not been entered in.

It is a shame, but don’t blame Roger Penske. When Power was hired, he was expected to do one thing—drive the #3 Team Penske car, while Helio Castroneves dealt with his tax evasion trial. In turn, he would be provided with one of the best-prepared cars on the grid. Power tested throughout the off-season as if he would be in the car for the duration. How else would you expect him to handle his approach? He knew this was an opportunity that could turn into a full-time ride. Power was also fully aware that the possibility existed that he might not get a single race in the car.

As it turned out, Power’s stint in the #3 car lasted but one race – the season opener at St. Petersburg, where he overcame a bad pit stop that ruined Scott Dixon’s race, and finished an unspectacular sixth. During Friday’s practice for the second race at Long Beach, word quickly spread of Castroneves’s acquittal. Helio was in the car by Saturday morning.

One reason that Team Penske has earned the reputation as the most successful IndyCar organization in history, is that Roger Penske prepares for every possible scenario. Rather than simply thanking Power for his time and sending him on his way, Penske was prepared and did the right thing by going well beyond his commitment to Power.

In typical Penske fashion, the team had an extra car and crew on-hand in Long Beach just in case Castroneves was available to race. As Helio assumed his seat in his familiar ride, Will Power was found donned in a black Verizon firesuit and seated in a well-prepared Verizon #12 Dallara that was freshly unloaded from the transporter on Saturday morning. It was such a seamless transition that Power was able to hop into an unfamiliar car and put it on the pole. Except for one bobble, Power drove a strong race and finished second. He left Long Beach second in points and with an uncertain future.

Amidst a good bit of criticism, Roger Penske held firm to his plan to not run Power the next week at Kansas. For one thing, the crew that Penske provided for Power at Long Beach primarily serves as the crew for Penske’s Grand-Am team, which was running a race in Virginia that same weekend. Plus, Roger Penske is wise enough to not get swept up in the swell of emotion to run Power, simply because he was second in points. Although he was not obligated to do so, Penske provided Will Power with an excellent car for the Indianapolis 500, and again Power responded with a solid fifth place finish.

After Indy, Penske announced they would run Power at additional races this season but did not elaborate as to which races those would be. He is not on the entry list for Texas and there is no word yet if he will participate at the next race in Iowa. Since Power excels on street and road courses, those would be the most likely events, but that is pure speculation.

The chatter on the internet has been that Roger Penske owes Will Power a full-time ride and that Penske somehow used Power and cast him aside when Castroneves returned. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First and foremost, racing is a business. No one knows that better than Roger Penske. Team Penske has more than fulfilled their obligation to Will Power. Anything that Power got beyond practicing at Long Beach is a bonus. To Power’s credit, none of the whining about the situation is coming from him. The Australian driver knows full well that he is in a great position for whatever future openings might occur at Team Penske.

Over thirty years ago in 1978, Mario Andretti was pursuing the World Championship with Lotus in Formula One, while also driving IndyCars for Team Penske. There were six conflicting weekends during the USAC schedule that Andretti couldn’t drive. Roger Penske tabbed an unknown Rick Mears to fill Andretti’s seat for those six races. Mears ended up running ten races for Penske in 1978, including Indy where he qualified on the front row as a rookie. The following year, Rick Mears won the first of his record-tying four Indy wins — all driving for Roger Penske.

Mears has said many times since, that he knew that a part-time deal with Team Penske was better than most full-time rides. Thirteen years later, Penske signed Paul Tracy as a test driver in 1991, but promised him a handful of races to run. The first of those was Michigan where Tracy slammed the wall on the third lap, breaking his leg and effectively sidelining him until the last two races of the season.

The following year, Tracy was set to run a few selected races including Indy. But when Mears fractured his wrist in a practice crash at Indy, Tracy found himself subbing for Mears at most of the road courses and ran in eleven events in all, finishing twelfth in points despite not running in five races. The following year, Mears retired and Tracy had a full-time ride with arguably the best team in IndyCar racing.

Neither Ryan Briscoe nor Helio Castroneves appear to be leaving their respective cockpits anytime soon, but racing has a way of delivering the unexpected. Penske may even persuade Verizon to fund Power full-time for next year, although the contract with Philip Morris will not permit a third Marlboro car. It is too early to speculate on next year with so many questions focused on this season.

Whatever happens, Power is smart enough to sit out some races rather than cast his lot with lesser teams, on the chance that this could blossom into a career opportunity down the road. Not many drivers would turn down the chance to drive for Roger Penske. Although it is frustrating for fans of Power to not see him in a car at all the races, the 28 year-old from Toowoomba, Australia has his eye on the bigger overall picture. Has Tomas Scheckter really helped his career by driving a second car at Dale Coyne and then Dreyer & Reinbold? How well did it work out for Townsend Bell last year to split time with Milka Duno? Is Jacques Lazier going to jumpstart his career by taking over the Team 3-G ride for Stanton Barrett?

Will Power is doing the right thing. Of course, he wants to be in a car now, but he is being patient and knows his reward will come. Power seems to fit the Penske mold. His reserved persona meshes with most of those that have driven for Roger Penske in the past, Paul Tracy excluded. By all accounts, he has proven himself as the consummate teammate while testing in the off-season. Roger Penske usually rewards those who perform and play by his rules. My guess is that despite the grumbling you see on the internet from some fans, things will work out just fine for Will Power at Team Penske.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “Will Power’s Future At Team Penske”

  1. indygirl Says:

    Are you saying that Helio has a reserved persona?

  2. I just have to say that this is a fantastic column. I would admit that I was one of those fans that really wanted to see Penske provide a third car for Power for the remainder of the season, but after reading this column you have totally persuaded me to just be understanding with Penske’s decision. Unlike Penske, I would have given in to the realization that Power was second in points after Long Beach and would have tried to get him a third entry for the rest of the year. However, maybe that is why Penske is a fifteen time champion of the Indianapolis 500 as a car owner and I’m just a spectator. Great work and keep it up!

  3. Judy in Texas Says:

    Another great article George. It’s easier to respond to this one than it is the Danica column — since I’m definitely in the minority. For someone so publicity and pr savvy, she said something incredibly stupid. Now, if she were someone with Helio or TKs personality — always joking and having fun — I don’t think it would have been such a big deal. But when is she not serious? I think that the reason that people made so much of it.

    Enough of Danica — just read where Roger Penske is buying Saturn from GM. What an amazing man he is. If I were a driver — or anything else –I can’t think of anyone I’d rather work for. I think Will Power feels the same way.

  4. This post said it all. It’s summed up in: “Anything that Power got beyond practicing at Long Beach is a bonus.”

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