Presented by Racemaker Press

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

The Way It Is/ Still at the top of his game

by Gordon Kirby
Indy 500 and a few oval races aside, Roger Penske's team has dominated this year's Verizon IndyCar series. His cars have won nine of fourteen races run so far and the championship has turned into an intra-team battle between Simon Pagenaud and Will Power each of whom have won four races. Penske says his team's advantage this year has come from his four drivers and their engineers working closely together and competing to get the maximum from their cars.

"They all have the same cars and it's how they want to set them up to go racing," he remarked. "I think all four of our drivers have shown good speed this year. Three of them have won races and Helio has been fast in many races. It's good because they're all pushing each other.

"I think we've taken advantage of all the work we've done as a whole, all the knowledge that's gone into developing and getting the best out of the suspension and mechanical part of the car. Also, the execution of our pitstops on race day have been outstanding for all four teams.

"I think our cars are quick on all types of racetracks. It's not just about shocks or any one thing. It's the way we've got the car set up. You can burn the tires off if you're not careful. As you know, it's a very technical sport today. It's not just about having the biggest right foot. It's more about knowing when to go and how to go.

© Steve Swope
"I think it's understanding your roll centers and cambers and ride heights and getting that mechanical combination operating at its best. There are so many variables."

Penske admits his team didn't deal with all these factors correctly at Indianapolis where Power finished tenth, Castroneves eleventh, Pagenaud nineteenth and Montoya was the race's first DNF after crashing.

"I think there were too many aero variables at Indy this year and that caught us out," he said. "We made some changes and when there are so many variables it creates anxiety and confusion. At Indy you've got to be ready and we weren't."

Penske is delighted to see Pagenaud come into his own this year.

"I think in 2016 we've executed better with Simon than in 2015 and there's no question that he's found his groove within the company," Penske remarked. "I think he sees the benefit of the knowledge that surrounds him with the other three drivers and he's stepped up his game. I think he and his engineer have done a good job.

"Gil de Ferran was one who recommended Simon to us. Gil was very impressed with Simon when he drove for Gil's IMSA team and that said a lot. He also drove at Le Mans and some other races for the factory Peugeot team and that was a team with a strong team of first class drivers. In that team you had to be on top of your game.

"So I think all that experience in sports cars and long-distance racing has helped Simon build consistency and the ability to not run off the road. He knows when it's time to go and he knows to not make mistakes. I think that's important."

Penske is equally pleased with Power's performances.

"Will is really focused and I think he's achieved a new level overall this year," Penske observed. "When you think about him missing the first race, then coming on strong like he has over the last few months, it's been impressive. He's giving Simon a good run.

"There's been some bad luck as well for all of our drivers but Dixon is our toughest competitor and he's had some bad breaks too this year. Dixon is a very formidable competitor. We always have our eye on him.

"But it's just come together this year. We've just got to continue to execute in the remaining races. Our goal is to finish it off and win the championship."

Penske is enthusiastic about the state of competition in IndyCar and with the good crowds in recent years at Mid-Ohio and at IndyCar's return to Elkhart Lake in June.

"I think the racing product on the track is excellent," he declared. "There are some very good teams out there. We've had some success this year but you win or lose by tenths of a second. I think the series is in good shape.

"The TV numbers are getting better and the attendance for many of the races has been up. Elkhart and Mid-Ohio were tremendous and there was lots of interest at Watkins Glen when we tested there. At the NASCAR race there was a lot of talk about the Indy cars coming back to the Glen."

Penske says he believes IndyCar is making the right steps forward with its schedule.

"I think Mark Miles and Jay Frye have done a terrific job of reaching out to other venues," he said. "They extended their agreement at Pocono and we're going back to Watkins Glen, which is a great opportunity. We also went back to Phoenix this year and that was a great move. IndyCar has also added another oval race at St Louis for next year and there's talk of Portland coming on the schedule again maybe in 2018.

"I think those are all good moves. We don't need more than 20 races. We need stability and date equity so that the promoter can sell their races to local sponsors and the fan interest can build over time. It also helps the teams with our sponsors because we can do more longterm planning to get the best from their programs."

I also asked Penske for his opinion on IndyCar's controversial aero kits.

"I think the cost of developing new aero kits and then trying to balance the performance is very, very difficult," he observed. "I would much rather have one set of criteria which we all have to race by. Then it's up to the drivers and the strategists and the horsepower from the engine manufacturer. Let those be the variables. I have no problem going to a common aero. We'll see what the final solution will be."

It's said that Penske is close to signing a contract with Josef Newgarden for next year. It's also said that Montoya has been offered the lead seat in Penske's revived IMSA sports car team which might race a Honda-powered DPi car either next year or in 2018. Tim Cindric has admitted that discussions have taken place with Honda and other manufacturers about an IMSA program but Penske wouldn't be drawn to make any comment.

"As you know, we make our decisions on our drivers and programs at the end of the season," he replied. "We've been talking to the drivers about next year but no decisions have been made. We're definitely going to run four cars next year. We'll make any announcements about our plans for next year after the season is over."

Of course, Penske's two Cup cars are also in the hunt for this year's NASCAR championship.

"Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano) have both been strong in many races and they're locked into 'The Chase'," Penske said. "They've definitely got a shot at it this year and Ryan Blaney has been doing a great job in our third development car with the Wood Brothers. If he has some good luck he could make it. Ryan has really matured and that's good to see. Next year we're going to add another Xfinity car for a young driver who we have yet to select.

"I think overall we have a very good chance this year. But Gibbs and Toyota are tough. You've got to bring your best horse to the last races."

As we began to wrap up, I mentioned that more and more of Penske's yellow rental trucks seem to be out there plying America's highways.

"We have a fleet now of 240,000 trucks," he said. "Some of them have our customers brand on them but they're all yellow. We have 26,000 people working in that business servicing the truck fleet at 700 locations. We've got a great product and management team. We've built the brand and showed excellence in our execution. We make sure our trucks our clean and well presented."

In closing, I asked if these fast-changing times have brought any new business challenges for the Penske Corporation.

"We have a big automotive business in the UK and there's going to be an effect from Brexit," he said. "There's been some impact emotionally on many of our people but I think it's going to take six months before we see what impact Brexit has on the car market. In the first two months we haven't seen any deterioration in our business.

"We've also been expanding our engine business in New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia. It's a constant commitment day in and day out, like it is on the racing side. You get nothing for free."

As I left Penske stepped into his next meeting, series of phone calls or data gathering task. The work never stops.

*If you're at Lime Rock over Labor Day weekend for the track's 34th Historic Festival please stop by Racemaker Press's stand adjacent to the Lime Rock store. Karl Kainhofer and I will be there to sign copies of 'Penske's Maestro, Karl Kainhofer & the History of Penske Racing' on Saturday between 11am-1pm and on Sunday from 10am 'til noon. As a chief mechanic and engine builder for 40 years from 1958-1997 Karl's cars and engines won an amazing 171 races from 535 starts. He's a truly remarkable man in American motor racing history.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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