Team Domination – It’s Nothing New

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One of the main laments for this year’s IndyCar season thus far, is the total dominance by two teams – Penske and Ganassi, and rightfully so. All six races this season have been won by these two teams. Furthermore, the top four drivers in the point standings belong to these two teams. If Will Power was driving the full season for Penske, I have no doubt he would make it five-for-five. This does not help a series that is struggling to create some relevance, an identity and quite simply…more fans. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that this is something new to racing or IndyCars in particular. It is not.

Without even touching Ferrari’s Formula One dominance earlier this decade, or the Hendrick team in NASCAR, we’ll focus strictly on U.S. open-wheel racing.

It is tough to watch a race, while all but knowing that one of only four drivers has a chance to win. I am openly pulling for Helio Castroneves to win the championship this year, but I find myself hoping against hope that Panther or Dale Coyne can somehow pull off the unthinkable and win one of these things. But I remind myself that team dominance is as much a part of IndyCar heritage as wings, turbines and drinking milk.

As far back as 1920, the Frontenac team of the Chevrolet brothers was practically unbeatable on the board tracks for 1919, 1920 and 1921. They also won the Indianapolis 500 in 1920 and 1921. The remainder of the 1920’s was pretty much dominated by the factory teams of the Duesenberg Brothers and Harry Miller. Even then, fans were complaining of how boring the racing had become with the same cars winning all the time.

The early 1930’s proved to be more wide-open because Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker’s “junk formula” allowed more leeway. It is a mistaken belief that this formula was introduced as a response to the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. In fact, the plans for the “junk formula” were laid out over six months before the stock market crashed. Fans had complained that the races had become boring. The cars were purpose-built for racing and fans thought they should look more like passenger cars on the streets. Rickenbacker invoked a novel concept – he listened to the fans. Therefore the Speedway relaxed its required specifications for its cars. This also led to riding-mechanics being made mandatory again, beginning in 1930 and ending for good in 1938.

Car owner and union boss Mike Boyle was one of the most successful car owners at Indianapolis during the thirties, finally winning in 1934 with Bill Cummings. Then he had two more victories in 1939 and 1940, with Wilbur Shaw in one of the best, if not THE best cars to ever run at the Speedway…the Boyle Maserati.

When the track re-opened after the war, the late forties were again dominated – this time by a former Mike Boyle driver, Lou Moore, who was now an owner. His Blue Crown Specials had a Penske-like record at Indy. They were first and second in 1947 and again in 1948, with Mauri Rose winning both and Bill Holland as runner-up. Then in 1949, Bill Holland won and the other Blue Crown car driven by George Connor finished third. Holland followed his win with a second-place finish in the Blue Crown Special in the rain-shortened 1950 race.

Although no one team dominated the fifties to a great extent, Bill Vukovich dominated the early fifties at Indianapolis with two wins driving for Howard Keck in the Fuel Injection Special Kurtis roadster, which may also be considered one of the best cars to ever race at Indy. The mid-fifties featured dominance with the John Zink teams winning Indy in 1955 and 1956 with AJ Watson as Chief Mechanic. Another of the greatest cars, the Belond Exhaust Special — the unique creation of car builder George Salih, won the 1957 and 1958 race.

By the time the 1960’s rolled around, owner Bob Wilke had recruited AJ Watson to the Leader Card team with driver Rodger Ward. Ward won in 1959 and finished second to Jim Rathmann in 1960, in one of the great all-time battles of the Speedway. Ward won again in 1962, while completely dominating a fairly boring race.

The 1970’s saw two wins by Roger Penske in 1972 and 1979, but also two wins by the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing Team in 1970 and 1971. The “VPJ” team was comprised of Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones as owners. They also won the USAC National Championship in 1971, 1972 and 1973. In 1972 they formed the first “Super Team” featuring Al Unser, Joe Leonard and Mario Andretti as drivers.

Moving ahead to the eighties, nineties and today, Roger Penske has certainly had periods of dominance interspersed with some lean years, as well. The late nineties saw Chip Ganassi win four CART championships in a row, while Penske suffered through a very tough, un-Penske-like dry-spell.

For 2000, Penske completely re-tooled. He hired away promising drivers Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore; he shelved his own chassis program in favor of customer Reynards and switched to Firestone tires and Honda engines. Sadly, Greg Moore was fatally injured in a crash at Fontana before he ever drove for Penske. After Moore’s death, Penske hired Helio Castroneves for the second seat. Since then, Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 five times, won the CART championship twice and surprisingly has won the IRL championship only once – with Sam Hornish in 2006.

Ganassi won Indy in 2000 and again in 2008 (he won Indy in 1989 as a co-owner with Pat Patrick). Ganassi also won the IRL championship in 2003 and 2008.

Unless something fairly dramatic happens in mid-season, it’s a pretty safe bet that the 2009 IndyCar champion will be a driver from either the Penske or Ganassi stables. With eleven races remaining, it’s a sad commentary that we have already discounted the remainder of the field. With the mundane, single-file parades we are subjected to each race; it would be nice to have a little suspense as far as the season championship goes. But before we complain too much about team dominance in IndyCars, just remember – it has pretty well been this way for close to a hundred years.

George Phillips

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2 Responses to “Team Domination – It’s Nothing New”

  1. Thanks for the historical perspective!

  2. Nothing against Helio, but when Helio wins another 500, I think – “That should have been Greg Moore”. I wonder if Greg would have had the same success as Helio. And – would Helio have had tax problems if he had not signed with Penske.

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