Part eight 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, welcomes author Jade Gurss.
His fantastic book “Beast” chronicles the unbelievable efforts expended by Roger Penske and Ilmor Engineering — along with the precarious nature of the project which could have failed on multiple occasions — to produce an unbeatable stock block engine for the 1994 Indy 500, which Al Unser Jr. used to win for Team Penske.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
MORE MONEY THAN A SINGLE-CAR TEAM TODAY
“I never got anyone on the record that would fair with me the budget. I don’t know why that is, but I never really got a handle on the full budget. My best educated guess is it had to be somewhere in the 10 million [dollar] range, which, with 10 million, you could run a whole team a whole season at that point and run it very well. It’s interesting to me that no one ever admitted to what that number was. You also had Penske who was committed to winning. It was the winning on the race track that was the halo for his entire brand — all of his auto dealerships, his truck leasing companies, Detroit Diesel. To him, winning [and] success on the track really brought a halo to all of his businesses.
“To him, it was a business decision that applied or that gave benefit to all of his other businesses. Mercedes came aboard very, very late. Roger was attempting to develop a relationship with Mercedes both for Formula 1 and in IndyCar. The rumors are that that Mercedes didn’t pay a cent to come aboard, put their name on this engine; that it was mere chance to prove to them what capabilities Penske and Ilmor had. It proved to be fortuitous for all of them, business-wise: Mercedes won Formula 1 championships with Ilmor and really came aboard in CART and did very well there, too.
ONE PART COULD SLAY THE BEAST
“It was really smart business on Roger Penske’s behalf even though it was hugely expensive and risky. He thought it was worth the risk. They would do things like the crankshaft, for example. The process to make a crankshaft was 23 weeks. That was the longest time frame to create a part. It became the very first item that had to be designed and then sent to start being constructed. That was the pressure, and they knew that. They knew that if this crankshaft failed, the project was done. It was off. They were aware of that and they recognized that.”
“They also discovered that when Paul Tracy had come in from a run, the tire engineers looked at the back tires. They use markings to line up the tire with the wheel. Those markings had had moved. The tires had moved on the wheel. It was so much power. They said, ‘Look at this. It’s moved two inches.’ Rick Mears said, ‘No, it’s two inches, the wrong way. It going around the entire wheel.’ Rick said, ‘We don’t know if that’s just one rotation or many.’ They ended up finding a local shop. They had to sand blast every one of the wheels at the bead to get it to connect, where the tires wouldn’t spin around on the wheels at speed, which is just the best example of how much torque this thing had.
“It just exceeded the capabilities of the tires. Come race day, they again were not only worried about the engine, but about the Goodyear tires. Would they last? Would they be reliable? It was just another element of the problems that 1000 horsepower would cause you at the Speedway. There was no shortage of amazing things they had to overcome to make sure it would get to the finish line.”