Part seven of the 15-part feature series, ‘How Roger Penske Changed The Indy 500,’ which celebrates the most successful entrant at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the 50th anniversary of his first which took place in 1969, peerless chassis designer and race engineer Nigel Bennett.
Bennett’s immediate impact at Penske Cars produced the 1988 Indy 500 winner driven by Rick Mears, the 1989 winner driven by Emerson Fittipaldi, and more, including the legendary Penske PC23 chassis that carried ‘The Beast’, the 1000-horsepower Mercedes-Ilmor stock block engine from 1994.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
FREEDOM TO INNOVATE
“Roger Penske, from my point of view, was ideal to work for. He never ever questioned what I was designing or whether I was doing something right or wrong. I mean, he might say at the beginning of the year, ‘Is this car going to win?’ And I’d say, ‘Well I don’t know but I hope so. We’re doing our best.’
“Teddy Mayer was around because he was working for Roger in a financial sense and he would spend quite a lot of time at Penske Cars. He would question some of the things I was doing and … But we never had — I had very little interference with what I was designing.
“Of course, having success in the early years with the Penske PC17 and the 18, and later the 21 and 22 and 23, I suppose [Roger] had trust in what I was doing, and it was only in the later years with the 25 — well of course at Indy, the year after the PC24, where we failed to qualify. That started to raise a little doubt in what was going on, I think. In the later years we had a tire problem on the road tracks with the Goodyear tires we were contracted to run: They just were not competitive with the Firestones, and our performance in those years fell off; but we could still win on the ovals. There was an ingredient that Goodyear was not allowed to use in the United States because it was considered to be carcinogenic which Firestone could use because their tires were made in Japan…
ISSUES AFTER THE BEAST
“I now think that was due to a particular setup problem which is highlighted in the book, and I think explains it to my satisfaction why we weren’t competitive. It sort of hides the fact that perhaps the PC23, the previous era with the big engine, overshadowed the design flaws that were there on the Speedway.”