GK talks to RP
As Roger Penske's CART winning team returns to the Indy 500, Autosport's American Editor Gordon Kirby talks to the legendary team boss about this month's Indy 500 and how he thinks CART and IRL can come together
Roger Penske's team has won the Indy 500 10 times, but his CART team hasn't raced at Indianapolis since 1994 when Al Unser Jr scored the 10th of Penske's record number of wins in the 500.
The following year, 1995, was the last year CART's teams raced at Indianapolis prior to the CART-IRL split, and incredibly, neither Unser nor team mate Emerson Fittipaldi qualified for the race! It was the first time since Penske first entered a car at Indianapolis back in 1969 that his team failed to qualify.
"When we didn't qualify it was probably the longest walk of my life from the pits back to the garage with Al and Emerson," says Penske. "But those were the facts. I've seen other teams and great people who have been here and hadn't made this race, and I guess that's why I respected the place. But I'm a realist. I've had disappointments in business and what you have to do is you've got to move on, and that's all I could do. I had to try to rally the troops. There were a lot of tears in that garage, no question, for a while, but we had to move on.
"I was a little disappointed obviously, when they limited the field the next year. It was like changing a par four to a par five at the Masters. But we're back here after five years, the facility has changed and they've done a terrific job with it, but the track's the same and the requirements to go fast are the same. It's about being precise. But that disappointment is one I'll never forget, so I can tell you my main goal right now is to get qualified for the race."
Neither of Penske's drivers, Gil de Ferran or Helio Castroneves have raced at Indianapolis. De Ferran qualified for the race in 1995 but was taken out in a multi-car accident at the first turn.
"Gil and Helio were with Rick Mears this morning and we talked about the track and this place is the same," says Penske. "It's a precise place to drive and I think they've done a good job to date. We're cautiously optimistic about our chances. We've got an experienced group of guys working on the cars and two great drivers. I can't wait to get through qualifying and get into the race, where it becomes a real process, a thinking man's race where you can win it even if you don't have the fastest car in the first ten laps."
Penske tries to downplay his hopes for this year's 500: "We're coming back here this year in a position of trying to do a good job. We're not coming here saying we're going to knock anybody off the top. My feeling is, let's put the numbers on the board, both in qualifying and the race, and see where we are. We don't have any grandiose ideas that we're going to blow everybody off. It may take us a couple of years to get the momentum to get where we want to be. So far Gil and Helio have run pretty decently. They're not at the very top, but they're not at the very bottom, so I think we're doing quite well."
His drivers leave for the CART race at Motegi, Japan next Sunday, directly after the first weekend of qualifying at Indianapolis, so they will miss the second week of practice at Indy while the IRL teams prepare for the 500.
"We shouldn't have a problem," Penske says about the hectic schedule. "We hope to get some work done here on Sunday. Our guys have to be in Japan for a Honda event on Tuesday, so they'll be out of here as quick as we can on Sunday. We'll come back right after the race in Japan and we hope to be able run here on Sunday of the second week with our race set-up."
Penske retains his quarter interest in Ilmor and his team is running Ilmor-Aurora engines at Indianapolis. This is Ilmor's first year of building IRL engines.
"We've done a lot of durability running with them," says Penske. "There's still more being done. That's always key. Durability is one of the keys as well as reliability on the gearbox and everything else. I've got confidence in Ilmor otherwise I wouldn't have put their engines in the car."
Penske admits he's not familiar with many of the IRL drivers: "I don't know a lot of the drivers, which is interesting. You're used to going into a certain garage and seeing (Jim) Hall's team, or Foyt's team, and now they're names you might not recognize, but they've got a lot of good drivers here, and a lot of good guys coming up who are going to be great oval drivers. There's (Sam) Hornish, who's done a terrific job, and Jeff Ward and Greg Ray, who's a first class young man. But they've done a great job with the facility and made it more user-friendly for the fans, for the media and the drivers and team owners."
Penske says he believes the IRL formula is a little too restrictive for his liking.
"There's no question it's a formula that has a very fixed spec," he says. "You have no ability to develop. The only area you can develop is on the engine side. Maybe there are some tweaks aerodynamically, but it's really trimming out the car to get qualified. I think on raceday you'll see most of the cars carry about the same amount of downforce. So it's driver ability, it's experience around this track, and certainly engines.
"You don't have the innovation you used to have here," he adds. "That was the heritage of the race. But I guess the cost of racing has escalated and one of Tony George's real goals is to try to keep it capped. We all like to see costs in every business we're in come down, but racing is about speed and technology and innovation, and I would not like to see those things eliminated from the Indianapolis race. It would be just like having everybody play the Masters with the same set of clubs. I don't think anybody would ever want to do that. So I would be for opening it up a little bit more. But we don't set the rules. We've got to abide by the rules. If you want to be here, you've got to run by their rules."
Penske runs Honda engines in CART of course, and America's Honda boss Tom Elliott has said repeatedly that Honda has no interest in the IRL's low-tech engine rules. Penske says he continues to hope that CART and the IRL engine rules will come together and that one series will emerge.
"I talked with Honda before we came here and they had no problem at all with us competing here," says Penske. "What they are going to do themselves will be determined based on how the engine rule package goes together. It's a real opportunity to bring the two leagues together it we have a common set of engine rules. I think a common engine in both series would ignite a spark that would potentially drive these two series together because we need one open-wheel series, not two."
He says he's not convinced Honda is opposed to racing at Indianapolis: "You get mixed signals. If the new engine rule for CART is close enough to Indy then I'm sure you're going to see them want to compete here, because they certainly don't want to see their competitors compete here and be able to publicise the fact that they won the biggest race in the world. Knowing how good Honda is and their commitment to the sport, I'd expect to see them be in this business."
Penske advocates a common 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated engine formula.
"I think it's the way to go. Taking some power out of the engines certainly won't hurt, and we've found over the last several weeks that there's 50 percent more complexity in putting a CART car together versus an IRL car, with the turbocharger, wastegates and all the heat around the gearbox and all the packaging required. It would certainly simplify it and take a lot of the cost and a lot of the electronic nonsense you have to have to operate a turbocharged car.
"I think we need to have a common engine that is capable of being put in either an IRL car or a CART car, and I think that will help bring us together. I've been an advocate of that, and I am today. I don't think the fans in the stands know, or care, whether it's a V6 turbo, or V8 turbo, or V10, or naturally-aspirated. They know the drivers, the teams, and the sponsors.
"I think we've got to get rid of the rhetoric on these rule things and get us to where we have a common engine. I think it'll bring the cost down, there will be more pieces available, and overall it certainly would be a benefit. That's my opinion. I've stated it publicly and I've stated it to the (CART) engine committee. We'll see what happens."
Penske says he believes events are moving CART and its engine manufacturers in this direction.
"If I understand the pulse that I'm reading I would say there's more a move to make that happen than ever," he says. "We've got do it now. 2003 is pretty close. That's when IRL has a spec change and Toyota is committed to go (IRL), so you've got Aurora, Infiniti, and Toyota (in 2003) and you've added one more to the series. I think Toyota looks at it that they're going to be a strong advocate of trying to have the engines be crossovers and I think you'll see the other manufacturers follow.
"I sure hope so."
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