Penske Racing Ready for Indianapolis 500
May 22, 2009
Helio Castroneves is well aware of the numbers. Win Sunday's Indianapolis 500, and he's got three victories in the famed race. Win another one after that, and he ties the record of four victories. Win another after that? Well, that's where the awareness ends and Castroneves brings himself back to reality.
"You have to wait until it's your time; you can't get too far ahead of yourself," said Castroneves with a chuckle. "We have a chance for a third, and we just have to make the best of that opportunity before we start to concern ourselves with a fourth or fifth. I did it once, then twice. I have the team and the car and the starting position to do it a third time, but that's easier said than done. I just have to be patient and not get too far ahead of myself."
For Penske Racing, though, the 93rd running of the Indy 500 is all about history, landmarks and execution. The team already owns the record for most victories at Indianapolis - 14 - and extended its record for pole positions to 15 earlier this month when Castroneves posted the fastest qualifying effort of the 33-car field and the third pole of his career.
Just because the statistical references are favorable doesn't mean another victory is assured, however. This race, as all three Penske drivers caution, is extremely difficult to win. Good starting positions for the team - Castroneves will start first in the No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda, Ryan Briscoe will start second and Will Power ninth - don't always translate into victory.
"It's a long race," said Briscoe driver of the No. 6 Team Penske Dallar/Honda. "We need to make sure we're in a good position throughout the race. You need to have good track position and try to stay close to the front. You've got to put all of the elements together - fuel, balance of the car, weather, pace - to keep yourself in position to be close to the front as the race nears the end. If you do everything right at the beginning, you should be there at the end."
Getting everything right is a Penske Racing trademark. The experience and knowledge of the team's primary leaders - people like team owner Roger Penske, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, team manager Tom Wurtz, general manager Clive Howell and the experienced Penske crew - are the core of the team's success.
"One thing that I've always thought is crucial to this team is the continuity of people," said Power, who will drive the No.12 Team Verison Wireless car in the Indy 500. "That's what they have here. There are so many guys who have been here for 15 years or more. It's incredible. It's that sort of thing that allows a team to get as close as possible to perfection; everybody gets really good at their particular jobs. That's the situation here."
He stops, looking around at Cindric, Briscoe, Castroneves, engineer Eric Cowdin and four-time Indy winner Rick Mears, now the team's driving coach. Power recalls the Grand Prix of Long Beach, when arrangements were suddenly made to put him in a third car in the middle of a race weekend.
" At Long Beach, I swapped to a different car, a different engineer, a whole different crew," Power said. "I didn't know most of the guys' names, but we still went out there and won the pole and finished second. That shows that this team can change direction in the middle of a race weekend and not lose a step. That says something about continuity."
To Briscoe, there is no wasted motion, no prospect that goes without consideration. Everything is covered.
"I could always see that from the outside, and now that I'm inside, it really is the way the team runs," said Briscoe. "Most of the mechanics have been here for so long that everyone is entrenched in their roles. Even though there is a bit of an internal competition, everybody works together. That's important. The drivers work well together, too, and that's another important aspect of a team. We've been making gains on the track by working together. I don't think any of us has gone onto the track alone this month. It's always been practice as a unit."
Their thoughts return to the race and its possibilities. Five hundred miles is a long distance. Anything can happen. Strategy often plays out as reaction to the on-track circumstances. It's a constant game of risk versus reward.
"There are so many things that can happen," added Castroneves. "There is so much you can do in terms of strategy, yet we're all in the same equipment. If you're going to try to save fuel, how are you going to do that effectively if everybody else has the same car and engine? You have to become creative with your strategies. Sometimes being creative pays off, and sometimes it doesn't. If you're fast but conservative, you might run up against the guy that wasn't as fast but took a chance."
There's no question that the Penske Racing cars have speed. There is no question about the quality of the equipment or the personnel. The question lies with the unforeseen circumstances, the bumps and turns and challenges of the Indianapolis 500 that make it unlike any other sporting event in the world.
"We've got the cars and the ability to run at the front," Briscoe said. "You never know in this race, but I think we've got a good shot at it. As long as we minimize the mistakes and execute as well as possible, we definitely have a good shot at it. But the competition is so close. I know it might look like we have a slight edge, but on race day you never know what surprises are going to come up. So much can go on that you don't expect."
So Penske Racing takes a similar approach to its previous 14 Indy wins - expect the unexpected and react to it quickly and accordingly.
"You can't go into this with just one plan thinking you're going to win," Power said. "Everything changes so quickly in this race. You have to go in there with a conservative approach initially, but if you find yourself in position to win it, you've got to go for it. It's as simple as that. This is one of those races where if you're second on the final restart, you've got to go for it. And I would."
So too would everyone else at Penske Racing.