RACER.com’s extensive coverage of the Indianapolis 500 is presented by Verizon. Visit http://www.indycar.com/VerizonApp to learn more about the drivers, teams and technology.
Two Indy 500s stand out over the past 20 years for the utter dominance displayed by the winner. Most recently, it was Juan Pablo Montoya and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team in 2000 where, with nearly identical cars, the young Colombian and the ace TCGR outfit dipped in from CART and flexed their muscles over the Indy Racing League regulars.
Go back to 1994 and another element is added to what separated the wining operation from the rest of the field: Its machinery. If you watched the 1994 race, you know the story of how Roger Penske and Ilmor Engineering took the USAC rulebook and built a special engine created specifically to exploit the extra boost allowed for pushrod (and stock block) powerplants.
The entire project, from its inception to public unveiling, was cloaked in secrecy, and by the time Penske’s trio of PC 23’s led 193 of 200 laps on race day, the Captain, Mercedes-Benz and race-winner Al Unser Jr. authored a crushing victory unlike the Speedway had ever seen.
I spoke with Penske for a good 30 minutes during the Long Beach Grand Prix about his team’s finest day at Indy, and for those who don’t know the story, Roger was in fine form as he condensed an epic journey into an abridged tale.
“We’d been at Indy for many years, obviously, and preceding ’94, there were many times that the Buick would come to the race with I think 55 inches (of boost) versus our car with 48, and their 209 cubic-inch [V6] would blow us off qualifying,” he said. “And then after 25 laps in the race they’d be back in the garage. I kept watching that and watching that. We had developed Ilmor through the relationship and my partnership with Paul Morgan and Mario Illien. And I said to them one day, ‘Let’s do a pushrod engine that will last the race.’ And, quite honestly, it took about five seconds and Mario said, ‘Let’s go.'”
Penske helped to found Ilmor Engineering in the 1980s, and drew upon the U.K.-based engine firm and his PA-based racing team to create the clandestine V8 turbo and fit it to the PC23.
“I said, let’s keep this thing completely quiet,” he continued. “In fact, I had only a few people in our organization in Reading [Pennsylvania] that were aware of the project because we didn’t have transient dynos in those days, and a lot of this had to be done on the track. And I said, ‘If we talk about this it’s like taking your paycheck and just starting to cut it apart. We need to keep this quiet.’ We moved down, a group of guys down to a separate building in Reading. They started the design work. Obviously, we had to fit the engine in the car.
“So this was the capability that we had sitting there. And we ended up in a very short period of time developing this. I had a relationship with Mercedes-Benz. Helmut Werner was in charge of the Mercedes-Benz brand, and he and I had gotten to know each other through a business relationship with Detroit Diesel and ultimately on the car side. And I went to him and said, ‘This would be a perfect way for you to join with us. We’ll work on the technical side and you can support us in certain areas. And what we’ll do is we’ll build this engine for Indy.’ He said, ‘Roger, under one circumstance, win lose or draw, you run this engine on all your cars.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ We shook hands.”
Penske underwrote the project until Mercedes-Benz came on board and badged the Ilmor engines, and with the month of May fast approaching, he and his partners finally revealed the bazooka they’d built for Indy’s knife fight.
“So I said to Helmut, ‘Let’s not support any money in this program until we have the engine running; I’ll take the risk to do the engine,'” Penske continued. “And so Ilmor stepped up. And I remember going to Germany about six weeks before the Speedway and had a meeting with Helmut and Jurgen Hubbert and Norbert Haug and a few of the other people, and I said, we’re ready to go. And at that point, I said, let’s have a press conference only a week or two before the Speedway opens to announce it – as late as we feasibly could. And so they had come over and we had this press conference to announce the engine.”
The legend of Penske driver Paul Tracy doing initial testing with the 1000-horespower engine at a snow-covered Nazareth Speedway never gets old, and the lengths Penske went to in order to ensure his team would win is also renowned.
“Now, in between that we were running this car at Nazareth where we shoveled…plowed off the snow, the snow off the track!” Penske said with a laugh. “And Paul Tracy was driving it with a ski outfit on because it was so cold. That’s how we were getting durability. And then I remember even when we were in Indy during the month of May, we ran our first full 500 mile test with it at Michigan, which was a real way to run it wide open at Michigan. To me that was one of the great, I guess, gates that we walked through. One of the areas that was very concerning was after Carburetion Day at Indy. I remember Mario coming down from the stands.
“He said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ We took one of the backup engines for the Speedway off the dyno and looked at it and it looked like we had a wrist pin lock had come out and was scratching the cylinders. And here we’ve got race engines in the cars, we’re ready to go and he and I talked about it and he said, ‘I want to look in the cylinders.’ He looked in the cylinders – and decided that we would go with what we have. That was one point that obviously no one knew. That was right at the end, ready to go race.”
Penske drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi qualified first and third, respectively, and if not for a crash by Paul Tracy on Friday that forced him to miss Pole Day, the Captain might have locked out the front row.
“I remember Al Unser Jr. wasn’t the greatest qualifier but we ended up qualifying first with the engine,” Penske recalled. “Raul Boesel was second in Dick Simon’s car, so we didn’t have all three cars up there, but it started to set up an environment which was going to be probably one of the most historic wins for the team that I can remember. And then race day was even more dramatic. Early in the morning, the top four people from Mercedes arrived at my garage. All in coats and ties. That was a big deal for me. And they saw that I had a Penske Mercedes white shirt on. And they said, ‘Do you have any of those?’ And I remember all four of those guys, the highest level guys from this legendary company, stripping down, putting on a Penske Mercedes shirt in the garage…”
A late crash for Fittipaldi who was leading comfortably and an engine issue for Tracy left Unser Jr. with an uncontested win – the second and final in his illustrious career. Penske & company pulled off a surprise start to the month and produced a demoralizing end as his team and its insane engines left the field to fight over their scraps.
“To me, to see those cars come down and take the green flag and lead – I think we led every lap but just a couple to win that race,” he noted. “And, obviously, it was a shame that Emerson had that problem. I think he was worried about Al and got in the wall. But that to me was probably the best execution from the standpoint of technology; looking at the rulebook, executing, team effort and absolute security over the whole program till we had to announce it.
“And then the satisfaction that I had of being able to deliver, not only for our sponsors, but also to Mercedes. And that became probably a catalyst for me within the Mercedes organization that has lasted now 20 years to date, where people don’t forget that we were able to have that kind of success. It was Mario and Paul, it was certainly the Ilmor guys, our people from the Penske Racing team keeping their head down and delivering.”
Any thoughts of going 2-for-2 with the mighty Mercedes-Benz were put to rest soon after the checkered flag waved.
“And then, ironically, within three days after the race, they took the boost from 55 down to 51 and then a week later they disallowed the engine altogether,” Penske said with a look of disappointment. “So to me, it’s just typical racing. Someone figures it out and the first thing they do is cut your legs off. That was the end of the program.”
Even with Penske’s great success in motor racing and at the Indy 500, he admitted the pushrod Ilmor decision was an ambitious choice, not to mention a big gamble.
“We had our balls on the line on that one,” he declared. “There was no question. I mean, there was a situation there that we just knew what we wanted to do. We had three great drivers with Fittipaldi, obviously with Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy. So the driver lineup was strong. Great crew chiefs; the whole team. And then, of course, with Marlboro, you couldn’t have a better sponsor in motorsports at that point, when you think about us and Ferrari. And then with Mercedes-Benz. Nobody, I mean, people had not seen that dominant of a German brand come to the Speedway forever. But to me that was the thing – that’s what keeps me going in this sport is that we do something different.
“And I think the ability to attract big partners who want to be a part of what we do is why we’re able. I think people trust us; when we say we’re going to do something, we deliver. And I know some of my people think differently, but I want to see this sport be as successful as we can. I want to race in a quality environment, not in some backyard organization, and that’s why we’re still here in IndyCar today.”
If we stopped the story here, 1994 would be a perfect tale about the best team with the most resources aiming higher than anyone else and reaping the rewards. Unfortunately, the defending Indy 500 winners found the 1995 race had a brutal dose of reality awaiting the team.
“We’re always looking for an opportunity and I think that the disappointment was the next year in ’95,” said a less enthusiastic Penske. “We didn’t even make the race, which is an interesting situation. Firestone had worked for a couple of years to get back in the race and had a tire that was better than the Goodyear tire. There were a number of cars that made the race that wouldn’t have made it on the same [Goodyear] tire that we had. We didn’t execute very well. But that to me is the sport. And I use that as a tool, I talk about that, how we led most every lap at the Indy 500, sat on the pole. You go back the next year and you don’t even make the race. Didn’t make the cut. That’s the way sports are. That’s the evolution. But that just made us work harder.”
With one of his cars on the front row for the 2014 Indy 500 and all three cars starting inside the top 10, Penske wouldn’t mind tapping into that 1994 mojo and leaving the rest of the field behind once more.
“To me, our race team is built with people and I think where we’ve had the most success is when we’ve had… the choir was singing all on the same notes,” he said. “It wasn’t a case where we had two good drivers and we were trying to get a better crew chief or the engine wasn’t up to what the competition was or we were on the wrong tires. We’ve got to have all those kind of together. And I think we see that today. With the three drivers we have, I think Montoya has been a great addition and we’ll see him, he’s only going to get better and better. He understands my expectations. If he knocks the cover off the ball, OK, but I will expect him to get to a certain level. And then on the NASCAR side, the team we have now is starting to show… and it’s competitive. It’s never been more competitive than it is today. And that’s just where we like it.
“That’s probably how we built our business. We don’t have an environment where nobody fails in our company. Most companies do, they just move people to the corner. We have a different scenario here. If you’re not going to make it, you move on. We understand that. If we don’t make it, we’ve got to move on, our sponsors expect that from us. And I think that I’m no risk, no reward. I learned that long time ago. Now, you could take risks that are catastrophic, or you could take risks were you have capital and you have the ability to say we’re going to invest. We’ve invested heavily, like we did at Indy in ’94, and it paid off big. I look at the team we have today and know it can pay off just the same.”