‘You can feel some tension': Team Penske’s bid to win another Indy 500 for ‘The Captain’
INDIANAPOLIS – In the middle of the Team Penske nerve center in Gasoline Alley sits a battered table that’s been a key to winning the Indy 500 for a half-century.
From 1973 to 2006, the table was in a conference room at the team’s former shop in Reading, Pennsylvania. For the last 15 years at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s sat in the center of a neatly organized bank of humming monitors and tidy engineer workstations. Its yellow top and fading wooden bullnose molding seem out of place in such a high-tech hub.
But the table is where virtually every major move – from strategy plays to driver hiring to car and engine innovations – was consummated for a team that has a record 18 Indy 500 victories.
So when the team left Reading, the table went to the Brickyard. In recent years throughout May, it’s where team owner Roger Penske and Team Penske president Tim Cindric have camped out to oversee the machinations of the most storied team in Indianapolis 500 history.
“I wanted to keep the table because in any meeting with Roger, that’s where you were,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “Any decision relative to Penske Racing happened on that table.
“I decided this table is going to Indy and will be in our conference room for the rest of time.”
During its run in the Reading shop, the table was in a room with another keepsake.
It’s a photo of Roger Penske surrounded by 14 Baby Borgs (the team ran out of room to Photoshop in the latest spoils) in front of a mural of Al Unser’s 1987 Indy 500 winner by famed artist LeRoy Neiman.
When the Reading shop was inundated in 2006 in a flood so massive there were fish inside from the Schuylkill River, the water line stopped at 4 feet -- just below the photo.
After being rescued, the photo was relocated when the team moved into the mammoth headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, that also house Penske’s NASCAR and sports car programs.
The photo now hangs in a conference room titled “Indianapolis,” where “The Captain” now is keeping a figuratively watchful eye on all of the work being done to end a four-year drought in the race that means more to the multibillion-dollar business and racing magnate than anything else in the world
“Our idea with the photo was that Roger always would be at all the meetings at that table,” Cindric said a few weeks ago in the Mooresville shop. “And so now he is here, too.”
Penske’s most recent victory was in 2019 with Simon Pagenaud, and much has changed since. After buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series, he has put some professional distance between himself and the team he founded more than 57 years ago. Penske no longer is in his team’s pit stall on race day – today, he will deliver the prestigious command to start engines.
But though his presence with the team has declined, his passion for winning the world’s biggest race remains singularly unquenchable. And he has been dropping hints he has a victory total in mind.
Team Penske managing director Ron Ruzewski heard it while sitting with the boss at the head table of the 2019 Indy 500 celebration.
“He said, ‘Well, now I want to win 20,’ ” Ruzewski told NBC Sports. “If we can give him that, that’s everything.”
At 86 years old, the detail-oriented Penske still is feeling hale enough to tour his pristine 550-acre property on a nearly weekly basis.
But he also is cognizant that the clock is ticking on his time for celebrating at the track that he fell in love with as a 14-year-old in 1951.
“We’ve had longer times we haven’t won the race,” Cindric said. “The difference is Roger has less patience these days than what he had before. He’s always been completely competitive, but when we didn’t win the Indy 500 from 2009-15, there wasn’t nearly as much discussion as now because the expectations have been higher.
“From my perspective, I’m more motivated than ever to win it because I want him to be on that (winner’s) stand on the end of the day, and where he started the race saying the command. He’s brought the enthusiasm back to the start of that race because he puts a lot of energy into it. I want to end the day with him. That is as big a motivator as anything anyone can say or do.”
Within the walls of the Mooresville facility, the sense of necessity for a Penske victory is palatable – even for those on the NASCAR side of a sprawling facility of more than 250,000 square feet.
“They’ve been working hard because honestly the last couple of years, they haven’t been very good at Indy,” Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney told NBC Sports while recently sitting in that Indianapolis conference room. “They’ve lacked speed. Everyone knows about it. Roger has said it in meetings. You can sense the urgency to at least be in contention and have the speed to win it. You can feel some tension in the air. It’s good to have it sometimes.”
Though he never has attended the race, Blaney has gotten a strong read on what the Indy 500 means to the team during his decade as a Penske driver. He occasionally checks in on the IndyCar side of the shop and has stood on top of the famous IMS pagoda beside Roger Penske during the IndyCar road course race in the summer.
“He watches all his monitors there and knows everything that’s going on,” Blaney said. “You see how much every race means to Roger, but obviously especially the 500 and especially now owning IndyCar and IMS.
“It’s way more important, even on our (NASCAR) side. To win at Indy is huge for him.”
Will Power, who won the 2018 Indy 500 for Tea Penske and will make his 16th start today, said Roger Penske has asked “a lot of questions from the drivers and everyone” about the team’s recent dip at the Brickyard.
“It’s crazy we went back to back (with wins in) ’18-19 and then just took a big hit and suddenly there’s a big performance deficit,” Power told NBC Sports. “In the ’20 offseason, we did a lot of work and weren’t fast in ’21. Then we did a lot of work and in ’22, we weren’t fast.
“We’ve worked extremely hard. I think we’re going to be closer, no question.”
As with any championship-contending IndyCar team, the preparation for the 107th Indy 500 began several months ago.
Last September, Team Penske crews in Mooresville began “rubbing” on the cars that Scott McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden and Power will race at the Brickyard.
“I always ask whose car was the first and the last one to be done,” Power, who lives nearby and checks weekly on his cars, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “Because generally the last car to be done should be the best from having the experience of all the cars beforehand.”
It’s a meticulous process that doesn’t happen for any other race. Team members smooth out every inch of the cars’ bodies to eliminate any edges or seams in the endless quest for smooth aerodynamic perfection and optimal downforce levels.
And then they do it again. Ruzewski said the cars are in their third iteration when they arrive at the Brickyard in May.
“We put them together once at Christmas and inspect the fit for what needs to be changed and improved,” he said. “Then we do it again and prime and paint them. We look at them again and then we do them again, rubbing the fit and finish really nice and getting all the decals flat. The attention to making them all the same is a big push. We’ve got three championship-caliber drivers, and we try to make them all the same.”
That task also falls on Team Penske production manager Matt Gimbel, who oversees a staff of 30 in the machine and carbon fiber composite shops.
With Team Penske also competing at the premier level of NASCAR and IMSA, these are the departments that feature the most intersection between the diverse racing series. With the trio of teams each facing marquee events in the next 30 days, Gimbel helps ensure there’s no dropoff in effort.
“I’ve got three customers, and each one is a priority, especially looking at May,” Gimbel told NBC Sports. “The Indy 500, you can’t say enough how important that is to RP. You’ve got the (Coca-Cola) 600 the same month, which is a crown jewel of the NASCAR series. Throw the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, and it can get pretty interesting.
“There are no favorites. Anything that can be done for either program is a priority. It’s a balancing act at the end of the day. We try to keep them separate as we try to get everything done. No is not an acceptable answer. We just figure out a way to get it done.”
Until the switch to the Next Gen, the workload in the machine and composite departments generally tilted 70-30 in favor of NASCAR.
But since NASCAR’s adoption of a more standardized vehicle that is similar conceptually to the spec Dallaras used in IndyCar, it’s become a 50-50 split with both series essentially adhering to the same competitive philosophies.
It’s put more of an emphasis on the Cup stock cars of refining parts in a way that’s been commonplace for 11 years in IndyCar.
Travis Geisler, Penske’s NASCAR competition director, said it’s another way that has helped make the Indy 500 an overriding concern in Mooresville – even though the chief priority for a couple hundred employees is trying to win the Coca-Cola 600 later Sunday night.
“Having the IndyCar program in house, we all feel May now as a special month because it is so intense in the building,” Geisler told NBC Sports. “You can tell the energy level. Anyone you interact with that has exposure to IndyCar, whether they be in the machine shop, paint, body, pit departments. There’s just this extra level of energy and attention to detail. In that way, peer pressure is good for us as a company. Because it really just drives everybody to have this we need May to be a perfect month.
“You walk through the shop floor on the IndyCar side, and you can see and feel that. That energy bleeds over. The tone of our whole place is set by the top. And that’s why it’s such a great place to work because Roger has an intensity for racing that’s above anything I’ve ever seen. His intensity for Indy is above anything anybody has ever seen. You add those together, and it runs down from the top. It’s a fun place to be a part of in May, and it’s amazing what we can accomplish in this month if we do it well.”
The crossover between the IndyCar and NASCAR teams is far from lip service.
In scouting the Next Gen transition, Geisler attended some IndyCar events in 2021 to get a handle on the new vehicle that has bridged the gap of open wheel and stock cars.
“It’s much more similar than what it was before,” Geisler said. “When we were building spindles, chassis and everything all over the place, it was very different than how IndyCar teams were doing it. Now it looks much more like how IndyCar is doing it. So especially since last year, we’ve been able to really tap into some of their processes of how do you beat other teams when you all have the same parts.
“They were able to accelerate our learning curve and mental processes on what’s this really going to be like? Because none of us really knew.”
There’s been some degree of payback after the IndyCar team benefited from watching the NASCAR side annually building 100 cars virtually from the ground up while trying to maintain a consistently excellent production line. With measurements to the thousandths of an inch, many of the quality control procedures have been adopted by the IndyCar teams.
“They had a manufacturing company and a race team, and we were always just race teams,” Ruzewski said. “When they were building cars, a lot of that understanding can flow over into how you understand these spec parts better. They were definitely ahead in certain areas. NASCAR led the charge in understanding the components while building cars with 100 cars all the same. They refined processes and some are certainly applicable to help us out that we still are learning from it.”
With the Next Gen switching the Cup Series to single-lugnut pit stops long in place for IndyCar, the pit crews also became interchangeable to an unprecedented level.
“We have NASCAR guys come over to work here, and it is a benefit on many fronts,” Power said. “There is so much crossover from the performance standpoint.”
Even though the cars are totally different, some of the aerodynamic R&D also has become more transferable.
“It’s closer now than ever as far as the spec side and where do you find speed,” Blaney said. “We’ve always had that philosophy of combining different minds and picking the brain of this strategist or crew chief on this side or that side. We’re all bouncing ideas off each other. Maybe it doesn’t always specifically help you, but it’s nice to have different mindsets and outlooks.”
It’s extremely effective in the most burgeoning sector of development in motorsports: The impact of information technology, particularly on setup simulations and race strategies.
“Where is technology going and how you use it in racing, those are the areas that we’re starting to work together on more,” Geisler said. “The world is changing at a pace in that field that it’s hard to keep up.”
It’s also complicated for Team Penske, which runs Chevrolet in IndyCar, Ford in NASCAR and Porsche in IMSA.
Each multinational automaker has their own intellectual property safeguards on sophisticated data and simulation systems that have become instrumental.
“I have to be the gatekeeper from a technology standpoint and respect the boundaries of the OEMs in racing Chevrolet, Ford and Porsche in the same building,” Cindric said. “In the first meeting about running Ford in Cup, Edsel Ford asked, ‘How does that work?’ I said, ‘The best way to answer that is if it doesn’t, you’ll let us know.’
“We’ve evolved all facets of our racing with the exception of technology. We’ve kept engineering separated so we can keep the boundaries up and respect the integrity of the OEMs without cross-pollinating their proprietary information. They have whole teams that move from one manufacturer to another, and that hurts their dissemination of IP much more than us. We don’t move around. We’ve been a Chevy team from the point there was a choice (in 2014) and with Ford since 2013. We have different disciplines, but the continuity we have with manufacturers and people protects the IP much more so than drivers going from team to team.”
Team Penske is the only team in the country racing in the top three national series and having the IMSA, IndyCar and NASCAR teams under the same roof has its challenges.
“Certainly from my perspective, it’s easier to manage one discipline in one building,” Cindric said. “When I was in Reading, Pennsylvania, running just the IndyCar team, I knew everybody and all their families and how many kids they had. I had everyone at my house for a pool party after we won Indy in ’01. I cooked burgers and brought the race cars over and just had a big time. You can’t do that in the same way here. I enjoy having that atmosphere more than this big thing you’re trying to keep connected and moving.”
But with the “recipe for success for racing in general is getting more similar, and the differentiator is the people,” Cindric said there are human resources advantages to the team’s structure. He meets monthly with management leads and discusses potential promotions and crossover of employees across series.
“I call it our ‘90-Day Return Policy,’ where you can take this person, and if it doesn’t work, you can return them, and they’ll do just fine in their previous role,” he said. “But it works 90 percent of the time.”
When it ends or mothballs programs (such as its Xfinity team and its sports cars teams multiple times), Penske also can avoid layoffs by absorbing employees into other areas “to keep good people engaged. You’re not as susceptible to the pluses and minuses of the economy in a place like this.
“There definitely are more opportunities here for people to grow and do different things,” he said. “In racing, the ceilings are all pretty low for where you can go, how you get there and how you justify getting raises. This gives people opportunities they wouldn’t have had elsewhere without moving, changing jobs or losing tenure.”
While the manufacturer allegiances have been compartmentalized, the barriers have come down between IndyCar and NASCAR in the halls of Team Penske, where a long concrete corridor cheekily referred to as “the Mason-Dixon Line” separates the teams’ work areas.
At the outset in the relocation of 60 IndyCar employees from Reading to Mooresville, uniting as one organization under one roof was far from harmonious.
“I hate to say it, but I felt like an outcast,” said Ruzewski, who remains one of a few dozen who remain since making the move in 2007. “You were one of those guys from Penske North. There wasn’t a lot of collaboration on things.”
The vibe shift began to happen around 2011 when the entire organization was rebranded as “Team Penske” (Penske Racing previously had been the moniker with a “South” attached to the NASCAR teams). Ruzewski recalled the 2013 switch to Ford in Cup as another marker, and Cindric pointed to the 2009-14 stretch of Team Penske going winless at the Indy 500 while the NASCAR team won its first two championships (Xfinity in 2010 and Cup in 2012).
“Ever since then, we’ve continued to evolve where we are three different disciplines under the same roof, but everyone benefits when Team Penske wins,” Cindric said. “Everyone monetarily benefits and winning the Indy 500 benefits the most relative to IndyCar.
“The awareness is there, and everyone feels part of that tradition and wants to be part of Roger’s legacy at Indianapolis.”