Monday, May 28, 2001

Penske's winning ways still same

        INDIANAPOLIS — Normalcy returned to The Brickyard Sunday in the familiar form of Roger Penske.

        The gray eminence of open-wheel racing ended his estrangement from the Indianapolis 500 with a two-car exacta that emphatically renewed his dominance of the event. His drivers ran 1-2 in the Greatest Spectacle In Raining, timing their pit stops, stretching their fuel, anticipating the weather as if the climate had been choreo graphed.

        With Team Penske, all things are possible. No detail is too small to escape scrutiny. No goal is too grandiose. No handicap is too hard.

Tony George's efforts to standardize Indy cars, to narrow the competitive gap created by big money and superior brainpower, succeeded in pushing Penske away from the place where he came to prominence. Yet after six years of exile from Indy — Penske chose to remain with the CART circuit instead of joining George's fledgling Indy Racing League — the “Captain” returned to America's preeminent race having located the technological loopholes in the IRL rules and equipped to exploit them.

        Sunday's victory was Penske's 11th at Indy, a remarkable feat made more im pressive because it has involved seven different drivers.

        The man behind the winning wheel Sunday was the rambunctious Brazilian rookie, Helio Castroneves, who celebrated his triumph by scaling the fence in front of the grandstand and dousing himself with the ceremonial milk. Yet a slightly quicker pit stop could have made a winner of another Penske prote ge, runner-up Gil de Ferran.

        “What I want to know,” Michael Andretti wondered wistfully, “is why the Penskes came back the same year I did.”

        Note that Andretti did not speak of specific drivers, but of the collective power of Penske's production line. The star of Penske's system is not the guy with his foot on the gas, but the system itself.

        Drivers tend to be transient, like tires. Engineering endures. Penske drivers customarily climb into their seats confident that their car is on the cutting edge; that its engine has been tested, refined, retested and refined some more.

        “You could tell that he was really excited,” de Ferran said of Penske's preparations. “They went not the extra mile, but the extra thousand miles.”

        “That's why they call him "Captain',” Castroneves said. “He gives you everything, but you better deliver. That's the way it is. That's the way it should be all the time.”

        It isn't that way in most places because few of Penske's rivals have the financial resources or the organizational skill to operate as his equals. Chip Ganassi's stable ran 4-5-6 (and 29) Sunday, further underscoring the economic advantages of the elite CART teams.

        Penske said his 1-2 finish ranked close to the top of his career achievements, but his glee did not give way to gloating. Like many open-wheel advocates, Penske understands that the winner in the CART-IRL feud has been NASCAR. The Indianapolis 500 remains America's most crowded sporting event, but its crowds continue to decline.

        “I don't think we need to look at the statistics here to say it was CART vs. IRL,” Penske said. “(But) If this helps us get back together, that's important to me, too. We need to have one open-wheel circuit.”

        Whenever that happens, count on Roger Penske to set the pace.

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