Friday, July 27, 2007

Penske opens up about his future, Indy

Roger Penske's first trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway came alongside his father in 1951. He returns for Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard with the most wins by any owner at the track, although all 14 of those victories came at the track's marquee event, the Indianapolis 500. Penske, 70, has yet to enjoy the same success in NASCAR as he has in other series. Last year, Penske Racing earned championships in the IndyCar and American Le Mans series. However, his two cars in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series, driven by Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, missed the 10-race title run. Penske recently spoke with USA TODAY's A.J. Perez:

Penske Racing went with Dodge in 2003, two seasons after the manufacturer re-entered Nextel Cup competition. If the season ended before the Brickyard, Dodge wouldn't have a car in the Chase. Are you concerned?

I don't think we have a car that's inferior. We have good engines and good cars. There are races that we could have won. We've qualified well and raced well. At restrictor-plate races, we've led a lot of laps. I certainly don't have any excuses or complaints. Right now, it's hard to blame it on the manufacturer. I don't think I could ever say to you or the public that our performance has been because we don't have the tools. We've been competitive (but) just haven't been able to put it all together.

The Brickyard kicks off NASCAR's Cup coverage on ESPN, and Rusty Wallace, a longtime driver of yours, will be in the booth as an analyst. How do your rate his work on TV?

I think Rusty made the right move. He has an excellent knowledge of the sport. He's certainly come a long way from his work at Indy last year. He's only going to get better. I think it's great to see a driver (in the booth). You've seen so many of the football players move in front of the camera. It adds credibility to the sport."

You ran Toyotas in the IndyCar Series, competed against them while in Champ Car and own the USA's largest Toyota dealership, in El Monte, Calif. Did you expect Toyota to struggle like it has in its first season of Cup?

I didn't think it was going to be easy for them. They've been in Formula One for some time, as Honda has, and it's been tough for them there. You have teams that have years and years of experience and have the best drivers. I don't think you can come in overnight and expect to have instant success. They are a company that has a long track record of patience, and, certainly from my perspective, they will be very successful.

Sam Hornish Jr. won his third IndyCar championship and his first Indy 500 title last year. Along with his IndyCar Series duties for Penske Racing, he's run seven Busch Series races for you along with some ARCA events, leading some to believe you're about to expand to three cars. Are there any firm plans for expansion?

I don't think it's something we have to do. I think we are going to do it at our cadence and not anybody else's. It's based on having sponsors to support the costs (of a third car). There's lots of talk about whether Sam will go or won't go. We haven't made that decision. Within the next 60 days, we will be clear on what we want to do. We have the capability. It's a matter of wanting to take the Busch program and make it a Cup program next year.

The Nextel Cup is becoming the Sprint Cup. AT&T won an injunction to replace the Cingular branding on the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, which brought about a $100 million countersuit by NASCAR. How happy is Alltel, the third mobile company involved in Cup, with its Penske Racing sponsorship?

I'm sure cooler heads will prevail and (the AT&T situation) will take care of itself. We are grandfathered in and have the opportunity to continue with the sponsor. We've given them some good years and had some lean years, too. The blue Alltel car has been dominant at times, (and) I think you will see it in the Chase.

In 1979, you co-founded CART, which now is known as the Champ Car World Series, and have run for its rival, the Indy Racing League, since 2002. Since the split more than a decade ago, NASCAR has completely overtaken the U.S. racing scene. Do you think open-wheel will ever be on par with NASCAR like it once was?

NASCAR has been consistent for 20 years with the same management, running 25-36 weekends a year, twice in some markets, with cars that have been pretty exciting to watch. That's what's led to a lot of the growth. Right now, Champ Car is a road-racing series running many of its races outside the United States. We certainly could use the teams that are there and vice versa.

You've gotten back into the track business by creating a street race on Detroit's Belle Isle, an IndyCar Series event that debuts Sept. 2. How fun and challenging has it been?

If you went down there today, you wouldn't believe it's the same place. Most the work has been done to the track. It's going to be a great event. For me, it's giving something back. It's all for the city of Detroit, the people who live there and the families who support racing. We are putting our arms around this track like we own it.

Earlier this month, Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George said Formula One wouldn't be back at his track. As somebody who used to field a team in F1, how did you take the news?

I was really disappointed when I read there would be no race there. Obviously, they've had big crowds. It's been exciting for the people who love F1. Those I talk to in F1 all wanted to run there. (F1 chief) Bernie (Ecclestone) is a shrewd businessman, and he knows where he wants to go. Tony had to do what was right for his family and his track.

NASCAR first raced at the Brickyard in 1994, and Penske Racing has finished as high as second twice, both with Wallace at the wheel. How much emphasis do you put on the race?

It would be a real feather in our cap to win. We've been close. We've been second and led (but) haven't been able to finish at the end.

Penske Racing didn't compete in a NASCAR race from 1981-1990. Why did you return in 1991 to field a car for Wallace?

One of the things that intrigued me (enough) to get back in was the size of the sport. We've always used racing (to promote) our businesses. We had open-wheel fans, and we had NASCAR fans. Our relationship with the Miller Brewing Co. allowed us to get back together with Rusty. All those things made a big difference, and it's brought us to where we are today.

You ran Donnie Allison, Mark Donohue and Dave Marcis a total of 12 races in 1972, the first year you competed in NASCAR. How does your relationship with your early drivers compare to the ones you share now with Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman?

When you think about drivers, we've always thought about them as part of the family. I don't think it's any different today. We do anything we can for our drivers. Many of them have managers and agents, but 99% of the time I deal with the drivers (directly).

Penske Racing's first NASCAR victory came at the since-demolished road course at Riverside, Calif., in 1973. What do you remember most about that win by Donohue?

It was very important. We won with the (AMC) Javelin. To go down to Riverside with that car and to beat the big guys with some big factory support … gave us a little momentum in the sport and also (helped) from a sponsor perspective.

Your first entry into NASCAR back in 1972 coincided with Winston as the first sponsor of NASCAR's top series. How much did that cigarette maker change the landscape of the series?

That's what really ignited the flame of NASCAR. They contributed money to the purse and were able to promote itself every week. The next step was the big TV deal, which really drove the sport to where it is today.

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