The pain of missing out on the Indianapolis 500 was eating at Roger Penske as the CART and IRL wars raged on. A force of nature at Indy, Team Penske scored the most lopsided win in ages as the 1000-plus horsepower Penske PC23-Mercedes driven by Al Unser Jr. stomped the field in 1994. And, for its follow-up act in 1995, the unthinkable happened as The Captain’s drivers failed to qualify for motor racing’s biggest event.
Mortified by the Speedway’s stinging rebuke, Penske wears the shocking outcome like a scar.
With the advent of the IRL in 1996, and a thriving CART series to support (Gil de Ferran’s Reynard-Honda in 2000, above), Penske was unable to correct the costly errors of 1995, and watched throughout the rest of the decade as his favorite race was won by names and teams that probably wouldn’t stand a chance if his outfit was in the field.
By 2001, Penske and his sponsors had enough of The Split, and at the season-opening IRL race in Phoenix, Penske crossed the dividing line with entries for Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran.
The Brazilian duo were interlopers, adding to their full-season CART calendars with the familiarization race at Phoenix before returning in May to bring Penske back to his favorite 2.5 miles on the planet.
Castroneves went on to win the first of his three Indy 500s, and The Captain put the lingering emotional effects of 1995 to rest. To Paul Tracy’s eternal frustration, Castroneves would be awarded the win in 2002, de Ferran would take the 2003 race, and from there, Penske would capture five more Indy 500s – through last year with Simon Pagenaud – to amass 17 victories at the Speedway.
If it weren’t for a new, young Team Penske president by the name of Tim Cindric, though, the story might be different. Radically different.
“Roger had bought a Riley & Scott chassis, do you remember that?” Cindric asked. “Somewhere in that ’98, ’99 timeframe, he bought a Riley & Scott because Michael Kranefuss was at one point his partner in the NASCAR world, back in the Jeremy Mayfield days, and Kranefuss had sold him on a Riley & Scott.
“When I first started talking to Roger, he says, ‘Hey, confidentially, I’ve got this Riley & Scott, and I’m going to go to Indy in 2000. You and I are going to figure out how to (do that).’ I remember thinking about it, and I remember when we went to Penske Cars in Poole (England) that year in ’99, Roger was still on about going to Indy in 2000.”
Having idolized Penske while coming up in the sport, the ex-Team Rahal team manager knew the glory and sorrow experienced by his new boss in the pre-IRL days at Indy. He also knew the Riley & Scott IRL machines were no match for the all-conquering Dallaras and G-Forces. A massive dilemma presented itself when considering the team’s chances at Indianapolis.
“I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘The most important thing for us is to keep Marlboro and find success in CART, because, when I came in, 1997 through 1999 were pretty brutal for the team,” Cindric said. “So nobody was pushing to go to Indy at that point in time, other than Roger. And I’m sitting there staring at the ceiling, going, ‘My dream is to go the Indy 500 as part of Roger’s team, right? But I’m going to have to talk one of my heroes out of going (there) in 2000!’
“We got over there to Poole, and we talked about all this stuff, and I sat down with him and I said, ‘Roger, this is impossible for me to say this, but we really…I don’t see any viable way that we can go to Indy in 2000, be successful and get the CART program back on track, and do the 500, especially with the Riley & Scott.’”
Fear of Team Penske going 0-for-2 at its last two Indy 500s drove Cindric’s handling of the topic in the early stages of the 2000 CART season. Making matters worse, the last time a Riley & Scott chassis qualified for Indy was in 1998.
“I’m like, ‘Think about it, Roger. The last time this team went to the Indy 500 was ’95 and you missed the show; so for us to go back there in 2000 and try and make the show with this … When we go back, we need to be ready to win the race.’
“It was a real tough conversation. And he was like, ‘You know what? You’re right. We’re not going to go to Indy. You’re going to go to Indy.’”
With the crisis averted, Penske hatched a plan to embark on a co-entry run by the 1997 Indy 500 winners at Treadway Racing. No direct entries in a Riley & Scott chassis, and almost no risk of failing to qualify. Penske’s passion for returning to Indy, prematurely, and with the wrong car, was only surpassed by Cindric’s refusal to allow The Captain to return one year too early. Had he insisted upon executing the original 2000 plan, there’s no telling how its negative effects would have shaped the organization.
Along with Penske race engineer Ian Reed, Cindric flew back and forth between CART obligations in Nazareth and the Indy 500 to look after the Treadway-Penske entry for USAC star Jason Leffler. The insights gained during the month would serve Team Penske as it ramped up its plans for a proper run at the Borg Warner trophy in 2001. The rest is history.
“Roger’s like, ‘Let’s take one of our engineers and have them engineer Leffler’s car,’” he added. “And then he said, ‘You need to go in May and call the race and look after Leffler’s process, so that when we go back in ’01, you know the game, you know what we need, you know what the race is like with these cars, and Ian knows what works and what doesn’t work.
“And we’ll figure out what cars to buy and we’ll go run.”