Can Team Penske Handle Four Cars?
Over the years, I’ve never tried to hide the fact that I am a fan of Team Penske. While some seem to think of Roger Penske as the devil and mysteriously blame him for the dearth of ovals on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule; I shudder to think where this series would be without him.
I’ve always admired the way Penske did things – both on and off the track. Some of his personnel moves may have been unpopular with some, but he basis decisions on what is best for his team – not IndyCar. One such move was when the team parted ways with Danny Sullivan after the 1990 season – a year in which Sullivan had two wins and five more podiums. Sullivan was also just five years removed from his Indianapolis 500 win and only two years from a CART championship. The move prompted Sullivan’s famous quote of “When the music stops, Roger always has a chair.”
The reasons for the breakup were never made public. Some speculate that Sullivan had gone too “Hollywood”. He lived a glamorous playboy-type lifestyle and had done some acting gigs on the side. Perhaps that didn’t mesh with the Penske image of the day. Of course, seventeen years later – Helio Castroneves was given the green-light to do Dancing With The Stars, but that was a different era back then.
Others have wondered if he didn’t get along with new teammate Emerson Fittipaldi. Rick Mears was a constant with the team, but Paul Tracy had already captured The Captain’s eye for the future. Sullivan became expendable.
The move was not popular among Indy car fans. But Penske ultimately ended up looking wise. Sullivan only drove four more seasons after that; with Pat Patrick, Rick Galles and finally with Bruce McCaw’s fledgling PacWest Racing. He won only two more races and was never again remotely considered a threat to win the championship.
Penske also infuriated fans by reducing the role of veteran Al Unser in 1986 to part-time status, despite the fact he was the defending CART champion. By1987, Unser had been dropped altogether. But fate stepped in when Danny Ongais was injured in practice for the 1987 Indianapolis 500 and Unser was brought in as a last minute replacement driving a one year-old show car. In storybook fashion, Unser won the race for his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500. For the next couple of years, Unser drove Indy-only status with Penske before finally being permanently dropped after the1990 Indianapolis 500 at the age of fifty-one.
Roger Penske usually has an eye for talent and also has a keen sense of when a driver has peaked. He has a reputation for loyalty, but will cut drivers lose when they can no longer perform at a top level. I’ve always wondered if that’s why Rick Mears chose to retire when he did. He knew he could retire and stay involved with the team he built his career with, or hang around too long past his prime and risk the fate of Al Unser and Danny Sullivan.
Only twice can I think of times that a driver just didn’t fit in at Penske. Paul Tracy was always too brash for The Captain’s taste, but he won races for him. After two full seasons with Penske, he left for Newman/Haas in 1995 but returned to Penske in 1996. Whether or not he was fired or left on his own, Tracy and Penske parted ways for good after the 1997 season.
The most curious personnel move for Penske was in 1982, when he hired Kevin Cogan to replace the retired Bobby Unser. Cogan had an impressive CART debut in 1981,when he drove well in a handful of races for Jerry O’Connell – including the Indianapolis 500 when he started twelfth and finished fourth.
Cogan seemed to be a star in the making. He was a smart, good-looking guy that seemed to fit the Penske mold. He appeared to be a worthy prospect to be groomed by Rick Mears, who was now the undisputed leader of the team. It looked like a good hire at the season-opener in Phoenix, when Cogan qualified third and finished third. But that race was not indicative of Cogan’s season or Penske tenure which ended up being one in the same.
At Indianapolis that year, the young phenom qualified on the middle of the front row, bested only by his teammate Mears. The legendary AJ Foyt was on the outside of Row One. On the start, just before crossing the yard of bricks – Cogan mysteriously veered sharply to the right and bounced off of Foyt. He then bounced into Mario Andretti, virtually ending Andretti’s day before it ever started.
The race was red-flagged, but Foyt was able to make repairs to his car because he had not officially taken the green flag. The incident produced several famous quotes. Mario Andretti said “This is what happens when you have children doing a man’s job up front.” Foyt chimed in on national television to Chris Economaki that “…He ran right square into my God….d left front”. When Economaki asked who, Foyt infamously replied “Coogan”. Later in the garage area, Foyt was interviewed and he said “It was a stupid deal. The guy had his head up his a..”
Although Foyt’s criticisms are more famous and more comical, Andretti was the harshest Cogan critic when he later said “He couldn’t handle the responsibilities of the front-row” and that the Penske car was “…too good for him”. Ouch!
No one knows what happened. The common perception among fans was that Andretti was right – that Cogan was in over his head. Some reasoned that riding the brakes to build up the turbocharger may have been a factor. Others surmised that a CV joint had broken, sending Cogan uncontrollably into Foyt.
Whatever the case, Cogan was persona non grata – not only among fans and the media, but within his own team. Rumor has it that Mears had an identical incident leaving the pits at a private test session at Michigan and it was a broken CV joint. Informing the public of this could have exonerated Cogan, but that was not the case. Cogan and Penske parted ways at the end of the season. His image with fans never recovered. From that point on, he was damaged goods. He bounced around and had a couple of decent years with Pat Patrick, finishing sixth in the championship in 1986. His last appearance was when he drove three races for Rick Galles in 1993.
As far as I can tell, since Roger Penske first came to Indianapolis with Mark Donohue in 1969 – Kevin Cogan is the only full-time driver to be hired by Penske and last only one year.
But for the most part, Roger Penske is loyal to his drivers so long as they produce and fit the Penske mold. In my opinion, Rick Mears and Mark Donohue were the prototypical Penske drivers. But legends Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser and Al Unser, Jr. have all had successful stints with Roger Penske. All of those mentioned brought home at least one Indianapolis 500 victory, except for Andretti.
Rick Mears has long been the example of longevity at Penske. Mears drove fifteen years for Penske, winning four Indianapolis 500’s and three CART championships. But one little-known fact is that this season will be the sixteenth season for Helio Castroneves at Team Penske. He has three Indianapolis 500 wins on his resume, but no IndyCar championship. He has come close, including the last couple of seasons – but it has still alluded him. But that probably doesn’t haunt him near as much as barely losing out on his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, at the line, to Ryan Hunter-Reay.
But Helio is still competitive. He is very loyal to Roger Penske, who showed his loyalty to Helio as he stood by him during his tax-evasion trial in 2009 and some sub-par seasons afterwards. Some say Penske showed no loyalty to Ryan Briscoe, but I disagree. Briscoe was given some very good cars and won some races with them. But he also threw away a championship in 2009 with a bone-headed move and was unimpressive in good cars for the Indianapolis 500. The Captain’s patience (and sponsorship) ran out by the end of the 2012 season.
But for the second time in two years, I’m questioning some personnel moves by Team Penske – even though I’m a lifelong Penske fan. I was eventually proven wrong last year, but I thought it was a mistake for Penske to expand back to three full-time cars and add Juan Montoya’s combustible personality to the team. I’ve heard rumors that he and defending champion Will Power don’t get along very well, but they’re both professionals and it seems like they have kept any personality clashes under control. Ultimately, all three Penske cars won in 2014.
But now, Team Penske is headed into uncharted waters – by adding a fourth full-time car. Now Simon Pagenaud is joining Team Penske. Personally, I like Pagenaud and think he fits the Penske mold. But I think The Captain may be biting off even more than he can chew. Four cars are a lot.
Chip Ganassi has not been that successful when running four cars. Yes, Dario Franchitti won an Indianapolis 500 and an IndyCar championship in their expansion year of 2011, but the divisions in the team were clear. Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were the stars, while Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal were the support players. When They scaled back to three cars in 2013, Dixon won the championship. Last year, they ran four cars, all driven by previous race winners – Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe. There was four drivers all thinking they should have equal say, and it didn’t work out so well.
Michael Andretti normally runs four cars in a season, but there is usually a clear leader. Coincidentally, the one year they scaled back to only three full-time cars was in 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay won the championship.
All four drivers for Team Penske won races last season and all four finished in the Top-Five in points, with Will Power winning the championship. Each one has reasons to believe, in their own mind, that they should have an equal say and have equal value in the pecking order. Being an outsider, I don’t see it that way. I would rank Helio and Power both 1a and 1b, then Montoya based on experience and then Pagenaud would be the newby.
But successful drivers have egos. That’s part of what makes them successful. They all think they are the most important for various reasons. If Roger Penske and Tim Cindric aren’t careful, they could have a huge battle of four egos on their hands. They’ve never had these many drivers to contend with. It could prove daunting. How they manage these personalities internally could have as much to do with how their season goes as much as how well the Chevy aero kits perform.
I see this as a transition period for Team Penske. Helio Castroneves will turn forty before practice gets underway for this year’s Indianapolis 500. Juan Montoya is thirty-nine. Clearly, they don’t have too many years of competition in front of them. They are likely moving into retirement in the next few years. Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, who had a spirited rivalry between them last season, are clearly the future at Team Penske. Will they scale back to only two or three cars when Castroneves and Montoya move on? That remains to be seen.
But I was wrong last year, when I thought Penske was making a mistake to add Montoya. Will I be correct in thinking Team Penske is making a mistake to add a fourth car for 2015? That’s what we’re about to find out.