Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Penske proud of success this year as two-car team

No plans to partner, but may bring on Hornish in 2008

It often seems as if Roger Penske has conquered all in racing -- with the notable exception of NASCAR Nextel Cup, where a championship has eluded the otherwise prolific car owner and businessman.

Penske has been involved in racing since he began driving himself in 1958, an endeavor he gave up in 1965 to begin building a sprawling business empire that has enabled his open-wheel race teams to capture the famed Indianapolis 500 a remarkable 13 times. Today that empire includes not only the Penske Racing South operation that oversees his NASCAR interests, but the vast Penske Corporation and its subsidiaries that employ some 34,000 people at more than 1,700 worldwide locations.

His Cup teams have won 60 races, including two this season by Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 2 Dodge. And although Busch got off to a rough start in the Chase for the Nextel Cup last Sunday, struggling to a 25th-place finish at New Hampshire that dropped him to 12th in the Chase standings, Penske said he is proud of what his two Cup entries have accomplished this season (he also fields the No. 12 Dodge for Ryan Newman).

Kurt Busch entered the Chase as one of the hottest drivers in Cup. Could this be your best chance to win a championship?

Well, with Rusty (Wallace in 1993) we were right there under the old setup (when Wallace ultimately finished second). But I think we have a very competitive combination. Ryan's running good, so that helps, too, because we get the cross-pollination of information. So to me, this will give us a real opportunity now to show what we have -- something that we've tried hard for. Just to get in was the first step; now we have to show what we have. The good news is we've won two races (with Busch), so we've shown we can win races.

If you field a Cup team next year with Sam Hornish Jr. and some others defect from open-wheel racing to NASCAR as expected, will there be more Indy 500 winners participating in the Daytona 500 next year than in the Indy 500?

I think we'll wait and see how all that plays out. There has been a lot of discussion about that now. People who have been able to execute and win the championship in the 500, to have them now have a chance to come over and get a good NASCAR ride is very tempting for these drivers. That's what they do as a living, and you know, at the moment there is probably more commercial opportunity in NASCAR.

But that's not going to ever keep us out of running open-wheel cars. I think there's clientele and fans on both sides. I know for a fact that this year we made a lot of progress from the standpoint of the fans and I think the races were good (on the open-wheel side). We got some new venues. And with that, we will continue to grow. It takes time. You don't build these series overnight, and they don't fall apart overnight.

How disappointed were you that Hornish failed to qualify for last Sunday's Cup race?

Well, you know, I talked with him after he practiced and he felt pretty good. He practiced 20th (fastest), and I just felt like the discussion with him was, 'Don't overdrive it in qualifying.' I think what he probably didn't realize is that you have to overdrive it a little in order to get in. That's part of the learning curve.

But we're on our plan. We said we'd run him in five or six races until the end of the year. That way, we can make a decision (on next year). He can make a personal decision if this is what he wants to do. The good news is that we have some flexibility there.

Since he missed last Sunday's race, will you look to add another Cup event that he could attempt to qualify for over the last nine races of 2007?

I really haven't looked at the schedule. Obviously, if we can add one and it enables him to keep his rookie status (for 2008), we certainly will. Because every bit of track time he can get will only make him better next year, if he runs.

Which way are you guys leaning with that?

I think we definitely want to go. But we're going to look at the facts, and be honest with him and honest with the team. I think it's too early to say. This now gives him a chance. He practiced well (at New Hampshire), I think he's had a couple good tests.

Sure, we were disappointed that he didn't make it (last Sunday). But as I told him, we didn't make the Indy 500 in 1995 and we're still here. So don't cut your wrists.

Hornish has said it has been a dream of his to run the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. Are you at least committed to letting him attempt to run those Cup races next season?

Well, we'll see. I think we need to look at what the circumstances are. If he's in the series, he'll obviously be at those races, I hope.

If so, and obviously this is far down the road, but do you think Hornish also would attempt running the Indy 500 (which would be run the same day as the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C.)?

Oh, my gosh. That's a long shot here. I think we just need to determine where we are, and I guess that's a decision we'll make as we get closer. But, you know, we'll surely always have a car for someone like him if we could figure it out.

Why are so many open-wheel drivers suddenly wanting to make the switch to Cup racing, and can they be successful?

If this is the place where a driver wants to make a living, and he can demonstrate that he can run up front, it's a great opportunity. (Jeff) Gordon has done it. (Tony) Stewart has done it. But this is tough. The competition today is tougher than it's ever been. You've got to make the races.

You saw it (last weekend) with Hornish. But it wasn't that he's not a good driver. ... He just needs to get his qualifying down. He'll learn how to do that.

How does it impact your teams and other teams if Dale Earnhardt Jr. reaches out to a larger audience? That appears to be the goal with the announcement in Dallas on Wednesday, where he is expected to unveil the No. 88 car he'll drive next season that reportedly will be sponsored by some combination of Mountain Dew and a Pepisco energy drink, along with the National Guard. Does it make it tougher for you to reach people and generate your own sponsorship dollars?

I think from our sponsorship perspective, we have long-term relationships. Most of our relationships go for a long term. We know that there are other people that are out there getting notoriety and have track records -- some better than us, some not as good as us. So what we have to do is sell our programs on the basic fundamentals that we have within our team -- our drivers and our sponsors and what we do in our B-to-B, business-to-business relationships.

With all that has gone on recently with mergers and working partnerships in the garage, does Penske Racing have any interest in possibly forming some kind of arrangement with another team similar to what was recently announced between Roush Fenway Racing and Robert Yates Racing?

I'm not looking to merge right now. I've got plenty to do on my own right now.

But do the mergers that have occurred and things like the Roush-Yates agreement, where in theory Roush could one day be getting information from as many as eight cars (four under the Yates banner in addition to four Roush Fenway cars), concern you and make you think you might need to expand somehow in the future?

We have two (Cup teams) today. We can plan to run three or four. But we would build that within our own organization. I think over time we need to have an infrastructure. We certainly have that capability at our shop in Charlotte to expand. And without running a Busch car ... I think in the future, the Busch car doesn't give us the information that it did in the past because of the Car of Tomorrow and the different setups.

So you know, at this particular time, I'm very comfortable with the way it is and we'll have to deal with it whether it's two against four, or three against four, or two against eight. But right now, it gets very complex, too -- because of the number of people you have to have and the number of good people. Sometimes it's harder to manage and harder to get off the ground floor when you have so many people that you have to deal with at one time.

You mentioned scaling down or possibly even doing away with your Busch Series operation, which was a one-car deal this year. Why?

I think we have elected from our perspective, at least under the current circumstances, to focus on the Cup -- because the cars are so different (with the Car of Tomorrow coming on line full time on the Cup side next season). Now if you're trying to bring up a driver or you've got a sponsor that wants to start with a lower budget, then obviously Busch becomes a real good option.

It appears that John Henry, who is partners now with Jack Roush in Roush Fenway Racing, is in the process of pursuing ownership of the New Hampshire International Speedway as well. What complexities does that involve?

I think it's two different businesses. I've had race teams and we own Michigan and we owned California (Speedway) and we were able to survive under those circumstances. You have people that run those (venues) on a day-to-day basis. The good thing is if you're a competitor, you probably have a better understanding of what the fans need, and what the teams and sponsors and media need. So I think it's plus for the sport.

But you know, overall, I don't know about the outcome of this track on a long-term basis. It's obviously a great spot. You could see the interest just flying in here (Sunday), just to see all the motorhomes. I couldn't believe the number of people that come in from wherever just to see this race.

So owning race teams and tracks are two different animals?

Yeah, but it's like any big company. You have different people with different skill sets. But the bottom line is that it's the fans that make the difference. We don't come and race if there are no fans. We don't have a track if there are no fans. So there is a reach there that's consistent across both of those constituencies.

Kurt Busch is the only Dodge driver in the Chase and the only driver who isn't joined in the Chase by a teammate. Does that put you guys at a disadvantage?

At least he doesn't have to race his teammate and get into trouble with him. I think everybody that's in the Chase in these top 12 cars are going to have to utilize their heads in these first races, to make sure they're not getting knocked out. I don't think you'll see any teammate issues here, and NASCAR's got a pretty good eye on things and knows what to look for in regards to everything else.

Obviously that's something that you might say (about having no teammate in it). But it could be an advantage and it could be a disadvantage.

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