A Potential Dilemma At Team Penske
As we get closer to the offseason for the IZOD IndyCar Season, it’s becoming apparent that Roger Penske might have a tough decision on his hands regarding the future of his three drivers. More and more, there are signs that The Captain may scale his operation back to a two-car team unless additional sponsorship can be found to run the three cars of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.
Everyone at the top at Team Penske is saying all the right things to indicate that they intend to return all three drivers for 2012. But whispers are now turning to loud murmurs that that may not be the case for next season.
History indicates that Roger Penske prefers a two-car program. Before this season, I’m not sure I can remember when Team Penske ran three cars for the full season for two consecutive years. Prior to 2010, the last time Team Penske ran three cars for the entire season was in 1994 with Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Jr. and Paul Tracy. The next season, Paul Tracy was at Newman/Haas and Marlboro Team Penske was again a two-car team – just as it had been in 1993. Prior to that, newcomer Paul Tracy joined Rick Mears and Emmo for a handful of races in 1991 & 1992. As it turned out, Mears injured his wrist at Indianapolis in 1992 and Tracy served as a sub for Mears at more races than had been originally planned for the young PT.
Team Penske also ran three full-time cars in 1990 with Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi and in 1985 with Mears, Sullivan and Al Unser. To my knowledge, other than the past two seasons – there has never been a time when Penske ran three full-time cars in consecutive years. The odds of him doing it for a third consecutive year are not good.
Regardless of how this championship battle ends up, suffice it to say that Will Power is safe and does not need to be mentioned in this discussion. That leaves Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. There are compelling arguments to keep or drop each one; but I doubt that both will be replaced next season. So who will be odd man out?
Helio Castroneves has been a mainstay at Team Penske since the few dark days that followed the 1999 CART season finale at Fontana, which claimed the life of star driver Greg Moore, who was headed to Penske for the 2000 season. Helio’s ride with Carl Hogan had gone away when Hogan announced he was folding his team following the 1999 season. Suddenly Helio found himself in the awkward position of replacing Moore alongside fellow Brazilian Gil de Ferran at Marlboro Team Penske.
This completed the Penske overhaul, which saw the two new drivers, new chassis (Reynard), new tires (Firestone), new engines (Honda) and a new President (Tim Cindric). It was no coincidence that the overhaul ended five years of mediocrity at Team Penske. From 1995 through 1999, Marlboro Team Penske saw no Indianapolis 500 starts, no CART championships and very few wins.
The 1999 season was the low point. The team started the season scaling back to a one-car team with an aging Al Unser, Jr. as the only driver. The team was surprisingly no longer relevant in the championship picture. Unser crashed on the first lap of the season opener and broke his leg. This set off a series of substitute drivers that included Alex Barron, Tarso Marques and Gonzalo Rodriguez. Even after Unser returned to the cockpit, there was a series of second entries at selected races featuring these drivers. Sadly, Rodriguez was fatally injured during qualifying for his second race with the team at Laguna Seca. The young driver from Uruguay had a decent showing in his only other start for the team – a twelfth place finish at Belle Isle earlier in the season.
Penske had already begun his house-cleaning when the Rodriguez tragedy took place. He signed de Ferran and Moore for the 2000 season, but it never happened as the team experienced its second tragedy less than two months later. Enter Helio Castroneves.
While Gil de Ferran was delivering two championships in a row for the revamped Penske team, the young Helio Castroneves was still honing his skills. It didn’t take him long to deliver. He scored a second-place finish in only his second start for his new team. His first win came at Detroit in 2000 – only the seventh race of the season. He followed that up with another win later that summer at Mid-Ohio, en route to a seventh place finish in the points. His 2001 season had three CART wins along with his first of three wins in the Indianapolis 500 – Penske’s first since 1994. Helio improved to fourth in the standings while his teammate scored his second straight CART championship.
For 2002, Marlboro Team Penske left CART as the defending champion in order to run the full season in the rival Indy Racing League. The team didn’t win the championship, but Helio finished an impressive second in points and took his second straight Indianapolis 500 victory. In 2003, Helio watched his friend and teammate, Gil de Ferran, win Indianapolis and retire at season’s end. He saw Sam Hornish come and go after four seasons, with Hornish winning Indy and the IndyCar championship in 2006. He then witnessed the arrival of new teammates Ryan Briscoe and Will Power.
Since Team Penske jumped to the IRL in 2002, Helio has finished second in the standings twice, third twice and fourth three times – but no championships. He won his third Indianapolis 500 after a very public tax evasion trial shortly after he was acquitted in 2009. This season, Helio sits tied for a distant ninth in points – which is actually an improvement over where he was after the first half of the season. The 2011 season is, by far, the worst of his tenure at Team Penske – much of it due to his own mistakes and poor judgment, which were not common in the early part of his career.
Mistakes aside, Helio is well known outside of the IndyCar realm due mostly to his winning Dancing With The Stars in 2007. With Danica Patrick leaving for NASCAR at the end of the season, Helio Castroneves is probably the best known IndyCar name to mainstream sports fans. That name recognition appeals to marketers and sponsors. It is probably much easier to sell a sponsorship package with Helio’s name attached to it than say, Ryan Briscoe’s.
Helio will be thirty-seven before the next running of the Indianapolis 500, which is not young in today’s IndyCar world. In the days of Foyt, Rutherford, Andretti and Unser; productive days were still ahead at forty. Not so much, these days. Although Helio is now in the back-end of his career – there are still some good years left in him. That is, if he wants there to be. Remember what Chip Ganassi said about never seeing a driver speed up after having a child. Helio became a father in January of 2010. Some have wondered privately if old age and fatherhood have worked to prevent Helio from taking quite as many risks on the track. Of course, some of the boneheaded moves he’s pulled this season would counter that line of thought.
Ryan Briscoe, on the other hand, has no children; but he is not exactly a young man either. He turns thirty this Saturday, which should put him in right in the middle of his prime. Like Helio, Briscoe has no IndyCar title on his resume. He came close in 2009, but one of his patented brain fades while leaving the pits at Motegi that season seriously damaged his championship bid. He ended up third that season, behind Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
Unlike Helio, Briscoe has no Indianapolis 500 wins on his resume either. In fact, Briscoe only has six IZOD IndyCar Series wins to his credit in almost four seasons with Team Penske. Furthermore, he had only one in 2010 and like Helio – is winless this season. Briscoe also doesn’t have the history at Team Penske. He was not part of the renaissance from those dark days of the late nineties back to prominence like Helio was. That’s not Briscoe’s fault, but if Roger Penske has a tough decision to make, that may weigh into it.
Unlike his Penske teammates, Briscoe hasn’t been a recent lightening-rod for controversy. Last year, Helio had a classic meltdown in Edmonton. We may have thought it was funny to see Helio grab the walking mountain that is Charles Burns, but I doubt that The Captain saw a lot of humor in it. Last month, Will Power was shown all over the world in his Penske Verizon firesuit giving his now-infamous double-barrel salute. Then just this past weekend at Motegi, Helio took to Twitter to blast Brian Barnhart for penalizing him fifteen places for passing under a local yellow. These incidents are not the kind of publicity that brings a smile to Roger Penske’s face. Meanwhile, Ryan Briscoe keeps his mouth shut, maintains a positive outlook and plays the good soldier.
Ryan Briscoe has shown the ability to be a rocket, periodically. There have been times when he was the class of the field. He has proven he can win on ovals (Milwaukee, Texas, Kentucky, Chicago), road courses (Mid-Ohio) and street courses (St. Petersburg). Unfortunately, Ryan Briscoe is also prone to brain-fades at very inopportune times. Probably the one that haunts him the most is the aforementioned gaffe at Motegi in 2009. While leading the race and the championship – both in the late stages – Briscoe had an inexplicable shunt while exiting the pits. He finished eighteenth and ultimately lost the championship at Homestead. Another more publicized goof occurred at the 2008 Indianapolis 500, when his back end came out while leaving the pits and he committed the unenviable act of taking Danica Patrick out of the race. This led to Danica’s infamous stomp toward Briscoe’s pit. Danica was the one who looked like a complete fool, but Briscoe did allow the car to get away from him.
More recently, he had another unforced error while leading at Brazil in 2010 and then made a foolish move that took out Ryan Hunter-Reay at Baltimore. These are the things that will make any car-owner pull their hair out. Much less, someone like Roger Penske who demands perfection from every member of his organization.
The company line is that if sponsorship can be found, all three drivers will return for 2012. But I tend to doubt it. It’s a sign of the times when someone like Roger Penske struggles to find sponsorship as he has for the past two seasons. Will Power has been funded properly by Verizon for the past two seasons, but the cars of his two teammates have changed appearance from week to week. Word has it that Penske funded Briscoe’s car out of his own pocket this past season. Wealthy individuals didn’t get that way by throwing their money away and making ill-informed choices. They achieved their fortune by being prudent with their cash and making sound business decisions. If a major sponsor cannot be landed, one of the two drivers who aren’t named Will Power will probably be headed elsewhere.
Danny Sullivan once said that when the music stops, Roger Penske will always have a chair. If a new sponsor doesn’t emerge soon, either Helio Castroneves or Ryan Briscoe have a good chance of being caught standing without a chair. Which one will it be?
Note: One Take Only; the video blog at Oilpressure.com, returns tomorrow, Thursday Sep 22. John McLallen joins me to discuss the championship race and the potential dilemma at Team Penske. Be sure to check back and check it out. – GP