Friday, August 15, 2008

Penske at Indy

Ah, the life of a humble scribe, eh? As once again the critics have come out of the woodwork... Most notably Mr. Indy-breath, a.k.a. Indiana Bureau Chief Danny B, who has been demanding the following correction to my recent post; McLaren at Indy, in which I wrote regarding the year 1973; “At the end of the season Gulf Oil withdrew its sponsorship of the Works team, while Penske quit USAC in favour of NASCAR and in 1974 Penske campaigned a lone Indy entry for Gary Bettenhausen.”

(Recall that 1973 was the year of the original Arab Oil Embargo!)

Thus, upon Danny B informing me that The Captain ran a two car effort in the 1974 Indianapolis 500 for Gary Bettenhausen and Mike Hiss, further research has revealed the following information and I apologize for these mistakes...

Amazingly in 1973, Penske Racing had contested Can Am, with the all conquering Porsche 917/30; NASCAR, with the anemic AMC Matador; Formula 5000, with an AMC-Lola entry and the USAC championship trail, as the defending Indianapolis 500 winner. Even more impressive was the fact that this was accomplished by the same driver, Mark Donohue.

Yet, The Captain had made the decision to have Donohue only contest the three USAC 500 milers that year, while Donohue talked Penske into purchasing a customer AAR Eagle for him to contest Indy aboard, with Gary Bettenhausen becoming the team’s primary full season USAC pilot, while Bobby Allison piloted a third Penske entry for Indy only.

Thus, for 1974, Roger did indeed refocus his team’s efforts that year, scaling back to only three programs; the NASCAR (AMC) Matador program, Penske’s initial foray into Formula 1, with his own in-house design, along with continuing in USAC, purchasing two new McLaren M16C chassis in favour of the Gurney Eagle.

1974 would also be the first year that Donohue wasn’t behind the wheel of one of Roger’s Indy Cars, having been so thoroughly frustrated by the ’73 USAC campaign that he’d announced his retirement from racing an began his role of “Official” Team President, overseeing the daily Management/Engineering duties for Penske Racing, a position that would later be filled by Tim Cindric.

Thus, Gary Bettenhausen would be designated the primary driver with a second Indy 500 entry slated for Peter Revson, which sadly would never occur as Revson was killed in F1 pre-season testing in South Africa.

Bettenhausen’s entry was sponsored by Score, a motor oil product developed by Sunoco which would later be renamed CAM2, as Sunoco was hesitant to run its Oil Company sponsorship in the wake of the current energy crisis, even though Methanol wasn’t an oil derived product.

Penske selected Mike Hiss, a Californian native to replace Revson, as Hiss had previously been the 1972 Indy 500 Rookie of the year and substituted for Bettenhausen in ’73. Hiss was the first driver to pilot the “Norton Spirit,” as Norton Industries would become a major sponsor of Penske Racing, culminating with Bobby Unser’s controversial 1981 Indy 500 victory.

Hiss was quick to show up his elder teammate, by qualifying third at Indy, while Bettenhausen could only muster an 11th place grid slot. Yet, Bettenhausen’s Offenhauser engine would expire on lap 2 while Hiss would suffer two painstakingly long pit stops to diagnose and rectify electrical problems before ultimately finishing 14th, albeit 42 laps behind.

Hiss would fill in for the oft-injured Bettenhausen, who had injured himself once again in a Dirt Track race and after a pair of mediocre showings; Penske pulled the plug on his USAC program prior to the season’s final two events. Yet, interestingly Hiss would be pressed into service for Penske in 1978, when he would qualify Mario Andretti’s Penske/Cosworth at Indy, as Mario was busy contesting Formula 1, enroute to becoming that year’s World Champion...

Hopefully these corrections will meet with Indy 500 Aficionado/Fact Checker Danny B’s approval... Please check out the updated version of; McLaren at Indy

And for a fully detailed look into the annuals of the Penske Racing operation, you may wish to check out the excellent ‘lil book I’ve just began reading; Penske Racing Team, 40 years of Excellence