INDIANAPOLIS — When last year’s Indianapolis 500 ended, Roger Penske didn’t waste time chitchatting. He went back to work.
The Captain met with his three drivers, called in Tim Cindric and spent months trying to get everybody on board with one goal — resolving the uncharacteristic mistakes that derailed Penske’s bid for a 16th Indy win.
Now, the man known for getting all the little details right, is ready to show the world his team is back.
“We didn’t execute last year,” Penske said this week. “We had the tools, we had the drivers, and that’s one of those things where we made mistakes in the pits, Ryan (Briscoe) got into the wall and I think we’ll be much better here this time.”
It’s a good bet.
No team has fared better than Penske’s on the 2.5-mile oval where he has won a record 16 poles and reached Victory Lane a record 15 times and now has a chance to complete a one-of-a-kind double to his resume — adding a centennial celebration victory at Indy to the 50th anniversary win at Daytona.
“That’s certainly something we’d love to do,” said Cindric, the Team Penske president.
But last year, Penske seemed destined to celebrate again at Indianapolis after having three of the four fastest qualifiers and winning Carb Day’s pit contest, too.
Instead, two pit mishaps ended Will Power’s shot, and another pit row mistake dropped three-time race winner Helio Castroneves from first to 15th. Castroneves eventually battled back to take the lead, but when he didn’t get the late caution flag he needed, the Brazilian had to refuel and dropped out of contention with nine laps to go. He ended up ninth.
Briscoe, the only Penske driver with flawless pit stops, caused his own problem by getting too high in the fourth turn. He slammed into the wall twice on Lap 148 — destroying the car, prompting Penske to tug at his white hair and setting off months of reflection on what went wrong and how to fix it.
“That hangover lasted awhile,” Cindric said. “It’s a reminder of how you have to execute here and that the fastest car doesn’t always necessarily win here. You know, I think Dario (Franchitti) and Will would have had a great race if we hadn’t put Will’s car in the back of the field twice.”
Franchitti wound up winning his second title for Chip Ganassi, Penske’s biggest rival in the IndyCar Series on a day everybody in those trademark-colored cars would rather forget.
For Penske, it was a stark reminder of what can go wrong at the season’s marquee race, and everybody got their share of debriefing.
And after spending four decades revolutionizing the art of winning at Indy, it was a bitter pill for everybody.
“Roger came to the shop and met with us about what needs to be rectified,” Briscoe said. “This is a team that is built on the Indianapolis 500. It’s so important to all of us to run well here and not make mistakes that it was tough to have a year when we were so dominant and all three of us had race issues.”
So Penske changed the look of his team.
Gone is one of the red, white and black cars from last year. Castroneves will drive the red, white and yellow Shell car. Briscoe also has a new paint scheme, with a webbed red, white and black look carrying the Izod logo.
The more important issues have not changed.
Power has dominated the early season, winning all four poles and one race. He comes to Indy as the points leader for the second straight year and is one of the favorites in Saturday’s pole qualifying.
Briscoe, another Aussie, had a dreadful start this season but has clawed his way back to fifth in the points with back-to-back top-three finishes at Long Beach and Brazil. And Castroneves, who has only one top-10 finish in what has been a miserable start, finds himself 100 points behind Power as he returns to his favorite track.
Castroneves will make his second attempt to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club that includes former Penske driver and current driving coach Rick Mears.
“After last year’s race, Roger introduced me to some big guy and I was like ‘OK, I got the message. I’ll make it better next year,'” Castroneves joked.
Penske expects nothing less.
His persistence and unyielding chase for perfection have helped him set the standard on the race track and in the business world. His vast empire includes hundreds of car dealerships and a nationally recognizable fleet of yellow trucks, and he has no better advertising platform than the 500.
And with this year being the race’s centennial celebration, those at Team Penske think they’re ready to show The Captain that this time they’ve got it right.
“I think I’m as focused as I’ve ever been,” Penske said. “The main thing for me is perfection and bringing people together so they can execute and bring home the bacon.”