Penske’s Unfair Advantage

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The latest chapter in a long line of accusations of an “unfair advantage” that have been levied against Team Penske is still unfolding. I am not an engineer, so I won’t even try to go into detail over what the latest fuss is all about. All I know is that Mike Hull of Target Chip Ganassi is upset because he and his team were told in August of 2008; that a third damper on the anti-roll bar was considered ride-control, which was banned in IZOD IndyCar Series competition.

Hull feels that the league misled him. In fact, he says he may have been lied to. Team Penske and a few others are now using a bump-rubber under the anti-roll bar to prevent the car from bottoming out – and Hull believes that should be considered ride control. Since I’m not as attuned as some on the intricacies of car setup, I won’t delve into that anymore than I just did – but apparently, the bump-rubber has been ruled legal.

Roger Penske started entering cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1969, just four years after I saw my first race there in 1965. As a ten year-old kid – I usually chose which driver I wanted to win based on what the car looked like. In 1969, there weren’t many cars prettier in the Indianapolis 500 than Mark Donohue’s No. 66 Sunoco Special. The dark blue Lola-Offy driven by Donohue, qualified fourth and finished seventh for Roger Penske in the first outing for both at the famed oval – but it looked like the class of the field.

I certainly wasn’t aware at the time, but I had just witnessed the dawn of a historical era that day. Except for a five-year absence during the CART-IRL split, that was the beginning of forty years and counting at the Speedway for Team Penske. In that time, Team Penske has amassed an unprecedented fifteen victories at the Indianapolis 500, two USAC championships, ten CART Championships and one IZOD IndyCar Series championship. The team is well on their way this season, as they have won three of the first four races and Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves sit first and second in the point standings.

From that day in 1969 to today, the Penske cars have always had a distinctive look about them. Roger Penske places a lot of importance in the presentation of his product – whether it’s a driver, his team or his cars. They will all have a classic and polished look about them. If you’re ever in the paddock area at any track; look at the cars and the garages of the Penske stable and then look at the other teams. There is a discernable difference. The cars are immaculate, the crewmembers are always well dressed and professional and not a single item is out of place. That’s where the term “Penske Perfect” came from.

Such success breeds contempt. Practically all of my adult life, I’ve heard grumblings from fellow competitor teams and drivers, as well as non-Penske fans – complaining about Roger Penske’s unfair advantage and how Penske is racing’s version of the New York Yankees, because he uses his immense wealth to buy Indy wins and championships. It’s true that Roger Penske is not a poor man. However, it wasn’t that long ago that Roger Penske was not even the richest owner on pit road at Indy. That title belonged to John Menard, yet Menard could never quite get his wealth to work for him at Indy the way Roger Penske could.

Listen to anyone that has driven or worked for Roger Penske over the last forty years. They’ll tell you that the only unfair advantage at Team Penske is Roger Penske, himself. His unfair advantage is nothing more than professionalism, hard work and attention to detail. He also happens to have a keen eye for talent – whether it is with his drivers, his engineers or the guy that sweeps the shop. Nothing is left to chance. Year in and year out, the Penske cars are always the best-prepared cars on the grid. They may not have always been the fastest – as when Penske was building his own chassis, which missed the mark a few times including all of the late nineties – but they were always prepared.

This latest flap over the anti-roll bar is simply a case of Roger Penske having a complete understanding of the rulebook. Although I respect their accomplishments, I’ve never been a huge fan of Target Chip Ganassi Racing – but I am a big fan of Mike Hull. He is the anti-Chipster and stays pretty even-keel, even while being pretty vocal at times. In this case, it’s uncertain if the Ganassi team didn’t interpret the rulebook correctly or if there was a miscommunication by the league. Whatever the case, the IZOD IndyCar Series just announced the formation of a Technical Review Committee to insure proper communication on technical matters in the future. Coincidence?

No one is better at learning the rulebook than Roger Penske. In 1994, he put one over the entire Indy car community when he built his pushrod Mercedes exclusively for that year’s Indianapolis 500. He had found a loophole in the USAC rulebook for Indy, which allowed a purpose built pushrod racing engine. He somehow managed to build and test the engine in complete secrecy and sprung it on the entire racing world, just prior to the Month of May. The engine was rumored to have up to a thousand horsepower, and it was clearly the class of the field; as two of the three cars started in the first two positions and Al Unser, Jr. drove one of the cars to victory. USAC outlawed the engine before next year’s Indy, so it’s an engine that ran in one race only – and won.

Penske’s interpretation of the rulebook almost worked against him in 1981. However, after months of legal wrangling – he and his driver Bobby Unser were declared the eventual winners five months after the controversial 1981 race was run.

Roger Penske is seventy-three now, but his attention to detail has not wavered. While the field was on the pace lap at Barber, I was standing behind Ryan Briscoe’s pit. As the field was on the backside of the course and his three drivers were positioned to take the green flag – Roger Penske’s head suddenly appeared from the pit box. He wanted to know where the water was. A crewmember pointed to a case of bottled water, back where I was standing. He told him to get it and showed him exactly where to put it. He wasn’t thirsty; he just wanted to know where it was so that no one would have to look for it when it was needed.

That’s pretty much been the secret to Roger Penske’s success – always be prepared for any situation so that if it does come up, you won’t be scrambling. Fret the details. When you work hard, surround yourself with great people and always anticipate what might happen – the results will look so easy. That’s when the people you are beating will claim that you have an unfair advantage. If they’re talking about Roger Penske – they’re right.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “Penske’s Unfair Advantage”

  1. Every operation or organization needs someone to set the bar. Someone who, by leading, inspires others to work harder. In Nascar, it’s Hendricks. In baseball, the Yankees. In golf, Tiger. In drunken debauchery and public lewdness, Roy Hobbson.

    Victories may be rare when you have to compete against these people, but it makes the victory so much better when it does happen. Penske has set the bar in the IRL for years and his participation makes the IRL a more legitimate venture.

  2. My hunch (and not being an expert, that’s all I can have) on this issue is that Penske’s working the edges the rulebook, which is what you get in almost any competition.

  3. Stephen_P83 Says:

    Great article. I really like that you put some effort into research and incorporating history into your articles George. That’s what keeps me coming back to write everything you read. Your articles are never just a blatant opinion, but instead you put the extra effort into making a balanced article supported by facts. I appreciate that and I truly believe your articles are a cut above the rest out there.

  4. This isn’t about Penske doing anything wrong. It is about the series having a gray area in the rule book and not being consistent with the teams when they asked for clarification.

  5. Donald McElvain Says:

    “Thou shalt have no other God’s before me”. If I was to break that commandment, Roger Penske would be that god. I’ve been a fan of his since the Mark Donohue days. (I’m now 61)

    As an aside, in all the top level racing series, I’m a fan of the owners first and the drivers 2nd or 3rd. Go figure.

  6. Penske didn’t start out rich. If anybody wants to know how to be successful in racing, just emulate Roger Penske. He is always prepared for any situation, and has proved to be one of the keenest decision-makers. There’s a reason the Penske Automotive Group is a Fortune 500 company.

  7. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    Rulebooks are often littered with gray areas, where the intent of the rule may or may not be crystal clear. Exploiting those gray area is one thing, but this appears not to be the case this time. Seems that there were two sets of rules and one was secret. This might resonate with critics of Penske.
    My observation would be that this device would be critical for qualifications on a road or street course where there are extremely limited passing opportunities for a faster driver/car. After the race start the premium is put on track position and making fuel.
    Clarity in rules….approved parts is great.

  8. Andy Bernstein Says:

    People who do their homework win.
    That was a winning article.

  9. What? My vote was in agreement with the majority? What is going on?

  10. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Mark Donahue’s book, “an unfair advantage”. It gives a very detailed history of the beginnings of the Penske dynasty and how they got there. Mark writes about how they worked around the rule book at times in various racing series, as well as the attention to detail and the experimentation that was required to find the right combinations for handling setup. Although I too would like to see other teams win in IndyCar, I have to acknowledge that Team Penske works very hard for their success.

    I would highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to know more about how the Penske success in racing was built.

  11. BentWickerbill Says:

    I guess there are two points in this discussion that I am somewhat confused about….
    1.) At what point between 2008 and now did ‘other teams’, whether it was Roger Penske or otherwise, begin using the rubber bumper (the third damping device) on the anti sway bar?
    2.) How long was Mike Hull going to wait until TCGR began testing a similar device for their cars. He or himself and the team may have initially either misinterpreted the rules or inadvertantly been given incorrect information. Or perhaps their original intention was to use an active damping device of some kind, as opposed to a non-active device, who knows.

    If you are racing against the likes of Roger Penske, you had better obtain any advantage or means of leveling the playing field that you can. I’m not sure that whining that you were misled/lied to, two years later after dozens more races have gone by the boards is the way to leverage that….

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