Penske’s development of the PC23B, powered by the mighty 209 cu.in. Ilmor-built Mercedes-Benz pushrod engine, was shrouded in the same secrecy as Lockheed’s creation of the A-12, which would evolve into the peerless SR-71 Blackbird. If, in 1994, Roger Penske briefly became Indy car racing’s equivalent of Kelly Johnson, so he was rewarded in similar fashion with a weapon that flew much faster than the enemy and remained far out of range.
In “BEAST”, author Jade Gurss has shone a light into the shadows of the Skunk Works-style operation from which emerged one of the greatest ever Indy cars. He’s spoken to everyone who played a part in the Penske PC23B’s one-race history, and has then threaded their anecdotes into a narrative that flows entertainingly and memorably.
In an era when spec cars and reduced funding have evicted most of the technical innovation from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this book is a nostalgic reminder of a time when a top-class team was allowed to win races with more than just slick pit work and fast drivers. Gurss is not only recalling but also celebrating Team Penske’s inspiration, preparation, inventiveness…and staggering ability to keep a secret.
And so RACER is thrilled to present you with an edited excerpt from BEAST by Jade Gurss. This chapter covers the most unlikely first test of the car – on an oval, in snow! We’re sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.
David Malsher, RACER editor.
CHAPTER 18: THE FIRST TEST
Most mornings, Guy Oder was the first to hit the road in his 1984 Honda Civic station wagon, a vehicle named the “Fish Bowl GT” because of its many large windows. From the Penske Racing shop in Reading, PA, Oder would take U.S. Highway 222 north toward Allentown. It was a two-lane highway frequently slowed in the early morning darkness by Amish horses and buggies or a farmer driving his tractor. What slowed Oder most often in 1994 were massive amounts of snow.
“If there were more than four inches of snow on the ground, my car would high-center and I would get stuck in the middle of the road,” said Oder, who had led Penske’s test team since 1990.
After Oder slushed past Allentown, it was a short jaunt on Pennsylvania Route 248, where the sixty-mile journey concluded at Nazareth Speedway, a small, oddly shaped oval track owned by Penske. The speedway featured a dogleg on the front stretch and mismatched turns at each end of the track. Most claim it is a one-mile oval, but officially it’s 0.91 mile in length (a distinction that becomes more important over the course of hundreds of laps). It was here, in the midst of a winter wonderland, that the pushrod engine (called the “E” in team shorthand) and the new Indy-only version of the PC23 chassis from Penske Cars would be run for the first time.
The secret engine project had been hidden from all but a handful of people at Penske Racing. After the parts and pieces were designed and manufactured by Ilmor in England, they were shipped to Reading, where the engines were being assembled and prepared in a small, nondescript garage several blocks away from the race shop to avoid detection. The space was so small and dark, they jokingly called it the Taj Mahal.
Oder remembered being informed of the top-secret engine.
“Clive [Howell] said, ‘Guy, come with me, we need to have a talk.’ He led me toward his office. I’m thinking, ‘God only knows what this is about!’ because there’s always some kind of drama. We passed the door to his office and went down an aisle that leads out of the building. I’m thinking, ‘This is interesting. Maybe we’re going over to the truck-leasing office?’ We walked into a grassy area and he turned to me and said, ‘The walls have ears . . . and you’re privy to this.’ As we went forward, anytime anybody new was brought into the loop, they were taken into his office and threatened with dismissal or bloodletting if anything got out!”
Though certain members of the race team would join the test squad occasionally, the responsibilities fell to Oder and his small band of four other men to run the tests.
The first test date was set irrevocably for Sunday, February 20, and as the day approached, team manager Chuck Sprague created a detailed handwritten note with drawings that was sent to the staff of the speedway. It explained exactly how to clear the track and pit lane. There were several feet of snow on the ground, and the snow-removal process meant walls of snow ten feet high on both sides of the asphalt.
Penske and his management team decided that the team’s newest driver would conduct the first test.
The 1993 season had been a good one for Marlboro Team Penske and drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. Though they lost the CART championship to the “rookie” Nigel Mansell, Tracy tied Mansell with five victories, while Fittipaldi was second in the points with three wins, including the Indy 500. Tracy finished third in the final standings in his first full year in Indy cars. They were a good pairing, the experienced Fittipaldi alongside the wide-open Tracy.
But “good” was not a part of Roger Penske’s vocabulary. With Marlboro’s considerable tobacco funding, Penske wanted to add a third top-level driver to the lineup for 1994.
Penske’s driver roster had previously included brothers Al and Bobby Unser from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bobby won the Indy 500 three times, including his final victory in 1981 while driving for Team Penske. Al became the second man to win four 500-mile races at the Brickyard, winning with Penske in 1987. He received the retronym Al Sr. when his son, Al Jr., began racing at a young age.
Also know as Little Al, Junior had barely turned twenty-one when he made his Indy debut. Teamed with fellow Albuquerque native Rick Galles as team owner, Al Jr. won sixteen Indy car races by the end of 1993 and was CART champion in 1990. Most memorably, Unser Jr. won the 1992 Indianapolis 500 in the closest finish in race history, topping Scott Goodyear at the finish line by 0.043 seconds. Including Little Al’s victory, the Unsers had combined for a remarkable eight 500 wins, far more than any other family.
With his Galles contract ending at the close of the season, the thirty-one-year-old Unser Jr. began chatting with Penske about a deal for 1994. He was in the prime of his career and his father and uncle both insisted he should accept a ride with Penske if one was ever offered.
“We shook hands sometime in the fall,” Unser Jr. explained about the agreement and how he became the first driver to learn about the E engine. “After we shook hands, there was a fundraising softball game with the Indy car drivers. We were talking in the dugout and he told me about it quietly.”
“Al, we got an engine that we’re going to Indy with, and it’s going to blow ’em off. Nobody knows this,” Penske told his new driver.
“That’s so great!” Unser replied.
“It verified all the reasons why I always wanted to drive for Roger,” he recounted.
The impending test meant a few more people were brought in on the secret to help the test team prepare. One of those was Tracy’s chief mechanic, Jon “Myron” Bouslog.
“It was a really good secret,” he said. “I learned about it when I saw the car for the first time at the warehouse. People think of Penske Racing as everything being clean and tidy, but this little space they had built was so small, and it had only one overhead light above the car. I was brought in to put on the underwing of the car, but it was so dark, I couldn’t see under there.”
Oder and the test team developed a process that would be repeated many times in the weeks to come.
“We’d show up at [the tiny garage] at 5:30 a.m. and there’d be a motor sitting behind our race car,” said Oder. “It was still hot! It had been run overnight on the dyno and was ready. We’d install it in the race car and then we’d warm it up until the thing was smokin’ hot, because on the one-hour drive to Nazareth it would cool down. If it cooled too much it was horrible getting the thing started again.
“I’d dash up [to the racetrack] and start heating the fuel that was on pit lane waiting for us,” Oder continued. “We had space heaters and we’d put ’em directly on the barrels. The fuel had to be a certain temperature before we could even put it in the car. The fuel pump would freeze up if we didn’t.”
Robin Page was the Ilmor representative at the test, though he wasn’t too thrilled about the prospects of it happening at all.
“I was in the U.K., looking at the forecast and wondering why I was going to be getting on a plane and going to the States,” said Page. “It was snow, snow, snow, and then more snow. I got my flight and my rental car and drove to Nazareth. There was a guard at the gate and it was all very serious. I remember getting out of the car thinking, ‘This is silly. What a waste of time, I might as well go back home.’ I got out of the car and fell on my fat ass because it was so slippery.”
Page’s other concern, beyond his fat ass, was how well the engine would respond on a short, one-mile oval in such bleak conditions.
“We had done a lot of dyno work at full-speed, but no attention had been given to the lower-speed stuff,” Page said. “We ran it very rich and it was coughing out loads of flames! Which got a good round of applause from the guys, because it was some sort of sign that it was going to be a really decent engine due to the amount of flame it was spitting out. We gave ’em a bit of showmanship.”
Another concern was tires and the challenge of getting them up to operating temperatures on frozen ground. The chassis was running Goodyear Eagle racing tires, as Penske happened to own the Goodyear racing tire distributorship.
“Today, Firestone won’t let anybody run at all without it being at least fifty degrees ambient,” said Unser Jr., of the modern Indy car tire supplier. “I’ll betcha the temperature was in the thirties every day at Nazareth. It was cold. Really cold. Today, we wouldn’t be allowed to even run in those temperatures.” (The high temperature reached only forty-one degrees Fahrenheit [five Celsius] on the first test day.)
“We weren’t trying to find the hot lap at Nazareth,” said Oder. “It was too cold, we could never get the tires hot. We were there to log miles and prove the package.”
The new chassis had arrived from Penske Cars, and there was no time to worry about aesthetics. The car had a nose and front wing covered only in primer paint. The bodywork ahead of the cockpit was white and had the beginnings of the Marlboro look, but from the mirrors back to the rear wing it was entirely black.
With Penske observing, a chilled Unser slipped into the car and gingerly drove onto the track. With flames emanating from the tail pipes, Unser began putting his right foot farther and farther down. The crew were excited but realized they couldn’t see the car, except for a microsecond as a blur streaked by either end of the pit lane.
“We couldn’t see the car at all!” laughed Clive Howell, about the massive quantity of snow. “We had to stand on top of the snow banks just to see it.”
“You’d just hear the motor,” said Oder. “The car would go ’round and ’round and ’round, but you were sitting in an alleyway.”
“It had a lot of power,” said Unser of the first run. “And, it was quiet. The RPM was so much lower than what we were used to. It was a really throaty sound.”
The sound was very distinctive: a deeper, warmer note than the high-revving, high-pitched sounds from the “normal” Ilmor engine. But the glorious sound of the engine did nothing to help warm Unser Jr. in the cockpit.
“Your feet are the first thing that gets cold,” said Unser. “They’re up in that nose of the car. All that wind on the nose and the chill. Your feet got really cold.”
“We had to make stops, not because of the engine, but to thaw the driver,” recalled Howell.
“It was a strong engine but we couldn’t put any real lap times together because it was so cold,” said Unser. “I was driving in this tunnel of snow. I had to be very careful because the last thing we wanted to do was spin the brand-new car or anything like that. I had to be really careful.
“You are aware of it,” said Unser, about the chance for catastrophic failure. “When you’re developing an engine like that, I was ready at any time for an engine failure. You’re really paying attention to how everything sounds and how everything’s feeling. You had to really listen and be aware of every little thing that engine did.”
The engine completed the targeted 150 miles without any failures. The crew even installed a second engine and Unser Jr. did a ten-lap shakedown before the team called it a day.
Unlike at Indy, where the driver is typically hard on the throttle for much of the lap, the readings for day one showed that Unser Jr. had been at WOT (wide-open throttle) only fifty percent of the time on the short oval.
“What do you think?” Penske asked Unser, point blank.
“It’s powerful, but I really don’t know how powerful,” answered Unser.
“Roger kept asking me because nobody really knew how the engine ran,” Unser recalled. “I was the only one that could feel it.”
“It’s got a lot of power and a lot of torque,” Unser told Penske. “But if we want to make it live, we need to go to Michigan. If we can make it live at Michigan, then it’s going to live at Indy, no problem.”
Michigan International Speedway is a two-mile, high-banked oval that offered a much closer match to the expected speeds at Indy. The track was owned by…well, by this point you can probably guess. But Michigan was in a freeze even more severe than Nazareth. And it was hundreds of miles from the race shop.
Despite its proximity, the Nazareth track posed one very particular problem not solved by the security guards at the gate. Nazareth was the hometown of Mario and Michael Andretti. As the crow flies, both lived within a mile or so from the track. The team debated fiercely about the Andrettis. Could they hear the unique tone of the engine? Perhaps they were away on a ski trip? Could they even tell it was an Indy car? Were they testing elsewhere? Maybe they were on a warm tropical island? Was it quiet enough inside the tall snow banks that they might not hear it at all?
Both Andrettis were driving with Ford-Cosworth power in 1994, and although it was too late in the game for Cosworth to counter with an engine of their own, they certain could join with Honda and fervently lobby the Speedway and USAC to restrict or ban the no-longer-secret Ilmor engine if Mario happened to hear it running.
Could months of finely honed chicanery go for naught if a legendary driver heard it from his front porch?
Beast – The Top Secret Ilmor-Penske Engine that Shocked the Racing World at the Indy 500
is written by Jade Gurss, published by Octane Press, and has a Foreword by Mario Illien of Ilmor.
It is a 6 x 9 hardcover book of 256 pages with 20 color images and 20 b&w. Price: $29.95