Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Dinner with The Captain

by Gordon Kirby
Mike Conway made everyone sit up and take notice at Long Beach on Sunday. Conway scored an excellent victory for Andretti Autosports in the 37th Long Beach GP and showed many people who had never heard of the young Brit that he's a serious talent who has bounced back mightily from his bad accident at the end of last year's Indy 500. For more on Conway's first IndyCar victory please read my blog at Motor Sport's website www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk

The weather was as perfect as ever at Long Beach last weekend--sunny and warm on Friday and Saturday and overcast and cool on raceday. Ideal conditions brought out a healthy crowd, better than in recent years although well short of Long Beach's heydays from ten and twenty years ago when more than 90,000 people bought tickets on raceday and around 230,000 streamed through the gates over the weekend.

Still, this year's crowds were healthy and promoter Jim Michaelian couldn't have been happier. After finishing third at Long Beach behind Conway and Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti moved back on top of IndyCar's championship points and the Scotsman was delighted to see the energy from the fans.

"On the parade laps the fans were so enthusiastic," Dario remarked. "It was a massive crowd and on the victory lap they were going wild. The enthusiasm and the number of people was good to see. It's been a long time since I've seen that kind of vibe here in Long Beach. It was cool."

Meanwhile, in recent years one of the highlights of the weekend in Long Beach has been the Road Racing Drivers Club dinner on Thursday night. Inaugurated two years ago with RRDC president Bobby Rahal acting as master of ceremonies the dinner has honored Dan Guney and Parnelli Jones. This year's third annual RRDC dinner paid tribute to 'The Captain', Roger Penske, with the focus of the evening placed on Penske's driving career which lasted seven years from 1958-'65.

Adorning the walls of the dining room at Long Beach's Hilton Hotel were photographs of Roger in action behind the wheel of a variety of cars from his Porsche RS60 to the famous Zerex Special with which he won the Los Angeles Times GP at Riverside in 1962, plus the F1 Lotus-Climax 24 he raced in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in '62 to the Ray Nichels' stock car he raced successfully at Riverside.

"To see so many friends and people that we compete with every day and sponsors who have supported me and the team for so long and have my wife Cathy and our family here tonight this is pretty special," Penske said from the podium. "To go back and see some of these pictures is really terrific.

"You have tough times in racing and you have great times and I think we forget about the losses and we live day-to-day by the wins," he added. "But Dan, Parnelli, Bob Bondurant and everybody that's here tonight are people I have such respect for. I want to thank everyone here tonight for having this great evening and honoring me in this way. I really appreciate it."

Roger said guys like Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones were heroes and inspirations for him.

"I first went to Riverside in 1958 and drove a Porsche and here was this good-looking guy in a blue Dunlop driving suit named Dan Gurney. I just wanted to get close to him.

"I looked at the picture tonight of when I won with the Pontiac at Riverside and Parnelli was running. You talk about a tough guy in a race car who could run anything! I remember one day Parnelli drove Bill Stroppe's Mercury off the track and came back out with wheels hanging off, and I think he won the race. There was no tougher guy to race against."

Our MoC Rahal started his questions by asking 'The Captain' if he had seriously considered a career as a driver.

"All the signs were your driving career could have kept on going," Rahal pointed out. "Yet at the height of your career you said, 'That's it. I'm done.' Did you ever consider driving for a living?"

Penske said that, as always, he was looking forward to what was around the next corner in life and that his ambition at the time was to establish himself as a successful automobile dealer.

"I think as I look back for race drivers today it's a real journey for them from the standpoint of the business side and the monetary side," he observed. "I think back to when I was racing our first sponsor was DuPont on the Telar Special and we got $250. Today, I'm not sure you can get a hotel room for that at many racetracks.

"Things were tough. I had a family and had to make a living. I was working for Alcoa at that time and trying to balance going to the racetrack and trying to maintain a job. Through being a member of the SCCA I met a fellow named George McKean who was a Chevrolet dealer in west Philadelphia. He had lost his son and I was going to take over the treasurer's job at the Philadelphia region SCCA.

"I got to know George and he said, 'Roger, would you like to go to work for me at our Chevrolet dealership?' And I said, 'How much?' I was making $375 a month and he said he would pay me $2,000 a month. I said, 'When do I start?' That was an interesting time. I said I really want to go to work for you but I love cars and have bought cars as a young man. I said, 'I want to be a dealer.'

"I remember going to Detroit and meeting Bunky Knudsen at General Motors and I said I really wanted to become a dealer. And the guys at GM said they told Jim Rathmann, the great Indy 500 winner, that he couldn't drive if he was going to be a dealer. This was in February of 1965 and at that point I had to make a decision whether I was going to become a businessman or continue on in racing. And at that point I made the decision to get out of racing."

As a driver that was, because the gears were already turning in Penske's mind about the possibility of becoming a team owner. He pitched Sunoco to sponsor a Corvette he planned to run in the Daytona 24 Hours and thus began Penske Racing.

"It's great to see Sunoco here tonight," Roger remarked, "because they go so far back in the history of our race team. Elmer Bradley was head of marketing for Sunoco and he came up to our dealership in West Philadelphia and wanted to buy a Corvette. By the time I got him sold on the Corvette I said, 'Did you ever think that Sunoco--and they had their 260 fuel at the time--would ever want to sponsor a race car?' And he said, 'I think that might be a good idea.'

"So Sunoco agreed to sponsor our Corvette at Daytona. I think it was $1,500 and we didn't even paint the car. We didn't have enough money to paint the car but we took it to Daytona and ran the 24 Hour race and that was really the start of Penske Racing.

"Then we moved on. We raced in the Can-Am and USRRC and the Trans-Am and in 1969 we said we would like to go to Indianapolis, and Sunoco agreed to sponsor us. So meeting the Sunoco folks was obviously the catalyst for me to start in the sport as a team owner."

Of course, Penske famously turned down an offer during this time to test drive one of Clint Brawner's Dean Van Lines Watson-Offy roadsters. Roger rejected his chance to drive at Indianapolis and chief mechanic Brawner and car owner Al Dean looked around and chose a young Mario Andretti in Penske's place.

"At the time that I got out of racing I got a call from Clint Brawner," Penske said. "They wanted me to take my test at Indianapolis and when I turned it down they got Mario Andretti. So I think they got the better guy."

Penske then discoursed on his philosophy of hiring drivers and the effort required to win in motor racing.

"I think if you've been a driver you understand the trials and tribulations that a driver goes through," he observed. "I've always said you're not auditioning for this job. You're not buying your ride. You've got the ride because we think you're the best. I always felt that way along the way.

"Many of our drivers have been so good for the team and Rick (Mears) was one of those. You always have some ups and downs and I remember when Rick came to me at Elkhart Lake in the summer of '92 and said, 'You know Roger, I just don't have the fire in my belly anymore to go as hard as I've got to in order to go and race these kids.' And that's the kind of guy you want our your team.

"Rick had come back from bad injuries many years before and delivered and we've seen that today with Helio and Will and Ryan. They've all bounced back from setbacks and delivered. Those people have made such a difference in my life. They've helped us carry the brand and we've been able to build business because of the integrity of the team and the reliability and the teamwork that we've been able to deliver.

"Effort equals results is something we've always pursued. My dad gave me a coin way back and he said, 'Guys aren't lucky. The ones who work hardest are the guys who win. The guys who burn the midnight oil are the guys who are the most successful.

"I think we've been tempted over the last several years on the NASCAR side to try to build young drivers. My view--and we shared this with guys like Carl Kainhofer, Derrick Walker and Tim Cindric today--is we look for someone who knows how to win. You want someone who knows how to close the deal. I think there are a lot of people who can run fast but can never close the deal and it's so important to have drivers who are committed to the team.

"I think the technical understanding is so important today. One of the reasons we gave Will (Power) the chance was because he was committed to come back from his injuries and certainly it was the same way with Ryan (Briscoe). Helio has been with us for a long time. But more important today is the commercial point of view. How are these drivers going to act and how are they going to carry the brand?

"I think we've got to put all of that together. Hopefully, when we get that individual we can get the right people around them. The success of our drivers isn't all them. It's the people around them. Look at our pitcrew. Some people have been with us for six or seven years and some have been with us for many years or decades. Continuity is so important. I look at the success that Chip has had with Dario and Dixon and with Mike Hull who's been there for many years and having that surrounding a driver who's committed that's what we think will bring you success."

Rahal asked Penske to talk about the Zerex Special sports/racer built around a Cooper F1 chassis with which he won the LA Times GP at Riverside and the Guards Trophy race at Brands Hatch in the UK almost fifty years ago.

"I bought a Cooper that Walt Hansgen had driven in the US Grand Prix," Roger said. "It was wrecked and I bought the chassis for $1,250. We fixed the chassis and Jack Brabham had run at Indy with a 2.8 liter Climax engine so we bought that engine and put it in the chassis. A local guy in Philadelphia named Roy Gane designed the body and put it on the chassis with the seat in the center."

After he won aboard the Zerex Special at Riverside the other competitors complained that the car's centrally-mounted seat contravened the rules for Group 7-type sports/racers.

"Of course, if you have too much success in racing they change the rules," Penske grinned. "We moved the seat to the right and still won and I sold that car to Bruce McLaren. He put an Oldsmobile in it and that was the start of McLaren. So that was the start of a long history for $1,250.

"We were running in what became the Can-Am back in those days with guys like Jack Brabham, Stirling (Moss), Dan, Parnelli and Bruce and Denny Hulme. They came over and embraced the American drivers. They were big stars in their own right and they were all tough competitors.

"I was talking to Dario and Chip tonight and we've got one relationship for a couple of hours on the racetrack. But I think if I needed something or vice-versa, they are there for you. The team of people in racing are a family and you can count on them. I have respect for all our competitors.

"When we took our car over to Brands Hatch we blew off all those guys, including Brabham and Graham Hill. In those days Dunlop had these 'green spot' tires and they said you couldn't run them in the dry. But I ran them in the dry and we beat everybody and of course I had to go through inspection. They were going to be damn sure this car wasn't going to pass inspection and I remember Graham Hill came over and said, 'Guys, he won the race. Pull the car out of there.' And that's the kind of friends you have in this sport. Those are the people you never forget."

'The Captain' then talked about pursuing the legendary 'unfair advantage' which became Mark Donohue and Penske Racing's moniker.

"The most fun we ever had was in Trans-Am when we were freezing the fuel," Roger said. "We had a twenty-five foot fuel rig standing up in the air and we had a hose that was about six inches in diameter and we could refuel in about two and a half seconds. The first time we ran it at the track we got there real early in the morning and you had to have a crane to put this thing up! We didn't have a dry break. We just had a flapper valve and two guys. One would put the hose in and the other guy would pull on this slide valve."

Another trick Penske resorted to with Donohue's tremendously successful Trans-Am cars was to lighten the chassis by dipping them in acid. To keep the acid-dipping a secret from the SCCA's tech inspectors the team fitted its cars with vinyl roofs--a Chevrolet option at the time.

"When the sun came out the roof would bend a little," Penske explained. "We were able to save a bunch of weight but it wasn't long before they took the vinyl roof off to find out what we were doing."

Yet another famous example of the 'unfair advantage' was the 209 cubic inch, single camshaft rocker arm Indy 500 engine designed by Ilmor's Mario Illien for Mercedes-Benz in 1994. Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi dominated the '94 Indy 500 with the engine.

"We kept going to Indy and Guerrero and Scotty Brayton and those guys with the Buicks were always faster than us in qualifying," Penske recalled. "I said, we've got to do something. So we decided quietly that we would build a pushrod and Paul Tracy did most of the early testing. We had the engine shop in a separate building and I took a dollar bill out and told the guys that every time you talk about this you're cutting your paycheck off.

"So nobody talked about it and we had Paul Tracy in a snowmobile outfit testing at Nazareth Speedway in the winter because we didn't have transient dynos in those days. We took the snow out and Tracy was running this test car around there.

"We ended up coming to the Speedway two weeks before the track opened and we announced the engine. Of course, we sat on the pole with Al Jr., led every lap I think with Al Jr. and Emerson, and won the race with Al. If Emerson hadn't had an accident we would have finished first and second.

"And of course, as usual, they changed the rules on us. A week after the race they took our boost from 55 inches to I think 48 inches. And then a week later they banned it. It was typical of when you get an advantage they ban you or change the rules."

Penske also commented on the importance of his race teams to the Penske Corporation's 40,000 employees.

"Winning obviously is the ultimate goal," he remarked. "But I think being competitive every race is the key. You're not going to win every race but when I go home after a race I want to see that we were competitive today. Maybe we didn't compete the way we wanted to, but I get probably more satisfaction today seeing one of our drivers get in the winners circle because of all those people who are directly involved with that driver and the team get on such a high and it just spreads through the organization.

"To me, that's the most important thing--what it does for us with 40,000 employees. Every Monday they know whether they've won or lost and that's a big thing for them."

Rahal closed the evening by asking Roger about a $200 bet he made with Augie Pabst at Laguna Seca in 1961. Roger bet Pabst that he wouldn't drive his rental car into the hotel swimming pool.

"This whole circumstance started because we had standing starts in those days and Augie stalled and got hit in the back end," Penske grinned. "So Augie never made it through the start/finish line and I don't think I had a very good day either. So got back to the hotel which was a fabulous place and we were standing around the swimming pool. Augie was so damn mad he wouldn't come out of his room. So we said we've got to make something happen here tonight.

"So Peter Ryan and myself went up to Augie's room and we said we'll each give you a hundred bucks if you'll take your rental car and drive it into the swimming pool right between the diving board and the ladder to get out of the pool. So Augie got down to his shorts and he drove the car into the pool with the lights on, honking the horn, right into the deep end. The car went down to the bottom and it was sitting on the bottom with the lights on and Walt Hansgen's luggage was in the trunk!

"So Walt stripped down to his undershorts and dove into the pool and opened the trunk and all his clothes floated to the top! I remember coming back the next year and I'm not sure whether Hertz rented us cars or not, but they had a sign next to the pool that said, 'No parking.' I guess if any of our drivers did that today they'd be in trouble!"

Thus, amid much guffawing, the evening came to a close.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page