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Why Penske push-to-pass scandal presses all the wrong buttons for IndyCar

OPINION: Team Penske’s double disqualification for illegal push-to-pass overtake system use from the IndyCar opener at St. Petersburg has sparked credibility questions for America’s premier open-wheel series, with key figures involved split over the answers

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

On track, the IndyCar Series offers the most competitive open-wheel racing on the planet, including one of its greatest races in the Indy 500. Off track, it’s an absolute basket case and its appetite for self-harm has reached a new level.

The storm that blew up around Team Penske last week is just the latest in a string of dysfunctional mishaps to roll your eyes at. While exploiting grey areas in the rulebook is part and parcel of motorsport, Penske’s gold standard has been smeared by this scandal, railroading through the push-to-pass overtake system to give the opportunity for its drivers to gain an advantage over their rivals by illegally using it at starts and restarts.

IndyCar officials only tripped over this when they failed to enable the system for warm-up at Long Beach, and all three Penske cars lit up the P2P live data stream in race control. Had that not happened, who knows how deep into the season it would have gone undetected?

Consider that Team Penske should be whiter than white on such matters. Due to Roger Penske’s incredible passion for the sport (and wealth), he owns the series, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a team with a glittering history of success, built on a reputation of attention to detail. To avoid the potential for conflict of interest, Penske Performance Inc includes the IndyCar team, Penske Entertainment Corp owns the IndyCar Series and IMS, while RP also has an ownership stake in Ilmor, the technical partner that oversees Chevrolet’s IndyCar engines.

Team Penske president Tim Cindric, who runs the race team to further separate Penske’s church from its state, explained that a line of software code had been erroneously copied and pasted from its testing setup with the hybrid system. Starting in August 2023, they needed to access the push-to-pass in an unrestricted fashion, so the on/off variable was set to a constant ‘on’. This one line of code had wrongly been included in the central logger units of its 2024 race cars.

For outsiders, it seems hard to believe that one of IndyCar’s top teams, which prides itself on getting details right, would make such an egregious error. For series insiders, there’s a far more sinister undercurrent of suspicion: “It’s unbelievable,” one long-time team owner told Autosport, speaking under anonymity. “Was this a one-time deal, or had it happened before? I certainly don't believe Tim Cindric’s explanation.” McLaren chief Zak Brown chimed in from the Monaco Formula E event, stating he was “disappointed in the various
excuses or explanations that the team and drivers have made” and “none of that, I think, stacks up”.

IndyCar and Penske have laid out how events unfolded but it has left a bitter fallout

IndyCar and Penske have laid out how events unfolded but it has left a bitter fallout

Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images

Cindric remained adamant, telling the Indy Star: “To say we purposefully did this to gain an advantage, I don’t know how you can come to that conclusion unless that’s what you want to believe. The difficulty with this whole situation is people expect that we were trying to circumvent the rules with the software, and honestly, we weren’t.”

But here’s the chaser: Penske’s three drivers – all top-tier champions – all behaved differently in the St. Petersburg opener. Will Power didn’t use it at all, which meant he wasn’t disqualified but was given a points penalty for the illegal software. Scott McLaughlin used it once for 1.9s, claiming he doesn’t recall doing it but accepts that the data says he did. But Josef Newgarden used it thrice for 9s, including his pass for position on Colton Herta.

In a hastily arranged press conference at Barber on Friday morning, an emotional Newgarden then made the revelation that he was under the misapprehension that push-to-pass was allowed at regular-season restarts, as it was for the exhibition race at Thermal, which took place between the St. Pete and Long Beach rounds. In the media bullpen afterwards, McLaughlin remarked “I’m not sure why he had that impression”, while Power stated: “Wasn’t in my mind that it was a thing, that’s why I didn’t press it.”

"Did I try to come up with a conspiracy and then cover? The truth is, somehow, we got that mixed up, it got entangled with the mistake" Josef Newgarden

None of Penske’s drivers used it at the St. Pete start, which was also allowed at Thermal, the point at which it would’ve been most detectable. Race control gets a live stream of push-to-pass usage, which it passes on to be used for TV graphics, and teams get an end-of-lap report after each completed tour. Had it been used on the first lap it would have stuck out like a sore thumb compared to a mid-race restart.

Not only had Penske manipulated the software to make it available, but its drivers did (Power and McLaughlin) or didn’t (Newgarden) know the rules not to do so. You’re left with these improbables: That Team Penske’s software checks and balances completely failed, that neither it nor Ilmor had noticed the anomalies in data reviews (Cindric claims “deployment isn’t typically looked at”) and that its two-time champion and reigning Indy 500 winner doesn’t know the rules after a dozen years in the series.

Some of Newgarden's comments on the scandal have contradicted others coming from Penske

Some of Newgarden's comments on the scandal have contradicted others coming from Penske

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt

Newgarden’s radio messages that his P2P wasn’t working on restarts in Long Beach (which he claims backed up his mistaken belief that it was legal) were confirmed by TV broadcaster NBC. But why wasn’t he alerted pre-race by Cindric or team manager Ron Ruzewski about the situation and that a fundamental electronics fix, to ensure legality, had been made? Why did Cindric say last Thursday that none of his drivers know their push-to-pass would work, but Newgarden contradicted that a day later by saying he thought it would?

“Did I try to come up with a conspiracy and then cover?” suggested Newgarden quite out of the blue during his presser. “The truth is, somehow, we got that mixed up, it got entangled with the mistake.

“It's created some ridiculously unbelievable storyline now.”

That last line is the one element of this sorry tale that is undeniably true.

Can IndyCar and Penske bounce back from this saga?

Can IndyCar and Penske bounce back from this saga?

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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