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Retooled Penske a contender

After a decline, car owner Roger Penske is back at Indy, cleaning up again after cleaning house.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

After a decline, car owner Roger Penske is back at Indy, cleaning up again after cleaning house.

Rick Mears strode around the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, searching for sponsorship money, and stumbled upon a dream team instead.

Twenty-six years old and trying to make his first Indianapolis 500 with an underfunded team, the sight of Roger Penske's garage left him slack-jawed.

"I'm looking at Roger's garage and everything is clean," Mears said of that day in 1977. "Everything is off the floor. Everything is painted the same color. Everything has its place up on the walls or whatever.

"Then I walked to ours and things were scattered all over the floor and different colors and different things. That doesn't take money. That takes organization."

Mears learned later, through 13 years of driving for the car owner, that organization is one of Penske's hallmarks.

Some fans know the 64-year-old for the thousands of rental trucks that bear his name or snow-white hair.

Most see him and think of a 10-time Indianapolis 500 winning car owner who has returned to the Brickyard after a five-year absence.

"A lot of people are going to be watching to see how we do," he said this week. "As far as I'm concerned, we've put ourselves right on the line."

Penske has owned winning cars driven by Al Unser Jr., Al Unser Sr., Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan, Mark Donohue and Mears. He is relying on a pair of drivers new to the storied track.

Defending CART champion Gil de Ferran started the 1995 Indy 500 but crashed on the first lap. Helio Castroneves, 26, had never driven a lap at the Brickyard before Sunday.

"Everybody knows that when Roger makes a commitment that he is not coming to be a number," Castroneves said. "He's coming to be the number.'"

The spat between CART and Indy Racing prevented Penske from bringing a team to Indy since 1995.

CART's schedule allowed Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Green to build IRL cars and compete at Indianapolis.

"We're not coming here saying we're going to knock anybody off the top," Penske said. "My feeling is, let's put the numbers on the board both in qualifying and the race and see where we are."

This is a modesty bred from past failure.

Indianapolis in May was Penske's personal playground for so many years.

But in 1995, one year after Al Unser Jr. won the race for Penske, the owner watched the race from a suite because Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify.

"Obviously when we didn't qualify, it probably was the longest walk of my life back from the pits to the garage," Penske recalled.

Unser Jr. won three more races and finished second in the championship standings that season. Missing the Indianapolis 500, however, pointed to a forthcoming decline at Team Penske.

Jan Magnussenn, Paul Tracy and Fittipaldi failed to win in 1996, and Tracy's three victories the next year were the last for the team until May 27, 2000.

Wholesale changes were required and Penske made them.

When his CART team started last season, it had two new drivers (de Ferran, Castroneves), a new chassis, a new engine and a modified management structure Penske hoped would enhance responsibility and accountability.

He had parted with Unser Jr., reassigned long-time general manager Chuck Sprague and added president Tim Cindric. Penske also switched to the Honda V-8 Turbo even though he owns 25 percent of Ilmor Engineering, which manufactures the Mercedes-Benz engines Penske had used.

And he dumped his own Penske chassis for Reynard, giving him a combination that propelled Ganassi Racing to four consecutive CART championships.

The monumental risk paid huge dividends.

De Ferran won three races and the CART championship, which was Penske's 10th overall in open-wheel racing. It returned the team to prominence.

"I have been a risk-taker all my life from the standpoint of business and certainly in racing," he said. "I think that being at risk, having tension in the process, is good for you. I think it gets you further down the road."

As founder and chairman of the Penske Corporation, which employs 30,000 and owns race teams in CART, NASCAR and ARC, he is constant motion.

"In my mind, Penske is on the verge of out of control," said former Winston Cup champion Rusty Wallace, who drives for Penske Racing South. "Every time I talk to Roger he calls me from an airplane."

Penske's drivers confirm that their owner never neglects his race teams. They have the top of the line equipment and lots of money.

"Everything in his mind is to have his race cars run as fast as they can," Wallace said. "I've got to tell you, it's just darn good to have an owner that's that interested in a race team rather than saying, "That's my car,' then taking a puff of a cigar and going back.

"This guy is just certified cool. He's just so much of a motorhead."

A motorhead focused on winning his 11th Indianapolis 500.

"He's at about 20,000 RPM like normal," Mears said. "Indy always gets Roger going and I really don't see much difference in him from any other year we've ever been here. He's just ready to go and been wanting to get after it."

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