Indy building track record for change Roger Penske watches a tradition-filled race keep adding new twists

May 30, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Change has arrived at Indy with a blazing sweep, like a state-of-the-art Penske car whipping through four corners, leaving only a color stream in its wake.

Tradition has been the password here. At a place where the danger lurks around every corner on race day, tradition and familiarity lend a sense of security.

But this year, the largest redevelopment project in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history is under way, two four-time 500 winners have retired and more foreigners than ever -- 15 -- have earned starting spots in today's 77th annual 500.

"We're seeing more change this year than in any year, certainly since I've been here," said car owner Roger Penske, who is celebrating his 25th anniversary at Indy. "But through the years, we've seen a lot of change."

Penske, who arrived at the track with a crew cut and a briefcase back in 1969, has seen stopwatches give way to on-car telemetry.

"I mean in 1993, we can measure RPM, speed, the steering

angle, the ride height of the car and the shock movement," said Penske, whose teams brought the sport air jacks, impact guns to change tires and changes in the wing angles on cars.

This year, the past gives way to the future.

A. J. Foyt and Rick Mears, both four-time winners, have called it quits, leaving only Al Unser with an opportunity to win for a fifth time today.

Taking the place of Foyt and Mears are two of the hottest young drivers -- Robby Gordon, driving for Foyt, and Paul Tracy, driving for Penske.

Tracy will start on the inside of Row 3 and Penske's other driver, Emerson Fittipaldi, will start on the outside of the same row.

Gordon, whose qualifying speed was just .065 of an mph slower than Fittipaldi's, starts inside Row 9, qualifying on the last day.

Mears and Foyt knew their times had come.

"Rick's a pretty smart guy," said Penske, who hired Mears in 1978. "Rick realized what it took to run out front and be on top. And he said he didn't really have the fire inside that he had had. And he probably felt at that point as Foyt did, that younger guys were coming along. And his feet were still bothering him."

Mears' feet were crushed in a crash at Indy last year.

Penske and Foyt are contemporaries. Even before the current remodeling, they had seen the Speedway's brick surface paved in asphalt, seen Gasoline Alley remodeled to house cars that no longer run on gas, seen carburetors become a thing of the past.

When Foyt, 58, decided on the first day of qualifying this year to quit, a year after he first announced his retirement, Penske was there in full support.

"I told him he'd be absolutely crazy to run anymore," said Penske, 56. "Number one, his professional career has been, if not the greatest, then one of the greatest in Indy cars, and he's won in a lot of different cars. To continue and possibly hurt himself -- I just think it would be a tragedy if he would get hurt. Now he can use his name and his tenacity and his ability to build a team."

And the good news for Foyt is car owners don't have to retire. Penske proves that.

Penske once turned the Speedway and its traditions topsy-turvy, with his businesslike approach and his image-conscious appeal to advertisers. Now the well-groomed, silver-haired car owner is the establishment.

Penske is as much a tradition at Indy as the glass of milk the winner drinks in Victory Lane. With eight victories in 25 years at Indy, his teams are recognized as the ones to beat.

"The one thing that I've seen change me is the pressure that has built on me over the years in sponsor expectation," he said. "There is so much more commercial requirement in order to fund an operation -- cars used to be $10,000 and engines about the same. Today, you've got engines in excess of $125,000 and cars cost anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000. You have to be sure you spend the time with the sponsor and provide it [racing] as an entertainment medium for your sponsors.

"And once you've won here, people's expectations -- it's like Greg Norman or Ray Floyd, every time they go up, people expect them to shoot 66. It's difficult and the more you've done it, the more pressure there is."

Through the years, Penske has seemed to run his businesses, racing and otherwise, like an automaton. He speaks of people as "human capital."

Yet when his Winston Cup driver, Rusty Wallace, took a monstrous end-over-end tumble at Talladega last month, suffering a concussion and broken wrist, Penske was out of the corporate suite and by Wallace's side before rescue workers could get him out of the car.

"Other owners I've had would still be in the sky box eating chicken," Wallace said. "He stayed with me at the car, in the ambulance and in the helicopter to the hospital. He never left my side once. People told him he couldn't go in the ambulance and in the helicopter, but he said, 'I'm going.' He was right there."

He was there for Mears when he crashed at Indy last year. And he has continued to be there even in Mears' retirement, signing him on as team consultant.

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