Penske’s Unfair Advantage
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.