11 April 2010

My History with Penske

With the Yankees winning a World Series last year, the Lakers taking a NBA title and Duke claiming the NCAA Championship, it only seems fitting that a Team Penske driver would be dominating the IZOD IndyCar Series.  Since the team has taken the first three races of the season after Helio Castroneves' win on Sunday, I wanted to take a look at why I've never really cheered for Penske, but I can't really seem to find a reason to cheer against Will Power.

First, I suppose I should start with my childhood, as it relates to open-wheel racing.  Despite growing up in Indianapolis, I wasn't completely exposed to IndyCar racing as a youth; my parents bogarted the Indianapolis 500 tickets when I was young, going with my relatives or taking friends.  Still, I distinctly remember my dad's favorite driver being Rick Mears, who as we know, drove for Team Penske.

I was too young too realize that my childhood favorite, Danny Sullivan, drove for Penske from 1985-90.  Maybe if I'd had more of an appreciation for it then, I would have stronger feelings about the team.

My first Indianapolis 500 came in 1993, when Team Penske was dominant, as Emerson Fittipaldi led the final 16 laps of the 500 to claim his second win.  As a 10-year old, I was a novice when it came to Indy 500 traditions, but I knew that the winner always drank milk.  And when Fittipaldi pulled out some orange juice prior to the milk, I lustily booed from my perch in the paddock, along with the rest of the crowd.

(And 1994 brought karmic revenge upon Fittipaldi, as he literally did not turn left on lap 184, crashing into the outside wall after leading 145 laps.)  However, the resulting winner was still a Team Penske driver, as Al Unser Jr. claimed his second 500.

Now, no one in my family was an Unser fan - maybe Al Unser, but my mom could not stand neither Bobby Unser nor Little Al.  I'm not sure exactly why, but she wasn't a fun, and therefore I wasn't either.  (In 1994, I went so far as to trade Al Unser Jr. for Jacques Villeneuve in the 500 pool.  Which would have been fine, if Little Al had not won.)

Shortly thereafter, Penske was gone from the IndyCar scene, moving to CART in the split.  As someone who grew up in the middle of it, Penske did not hold the mystique and historical reverence for me at the time.

And with Helio Castroneves' win in 2001, it felt more like a mercenary's win, especially coming on the heels of Juan Montoya's win the year prior, with a full-time CART team.

By the time Penske returned full time to the IndyCar Series (Indy Racing League) in 2002, it was not so much that I disliked them due to their move to CART, but I'd formed ties with other teams, and my memories of the team from 1993-94 were not positive.  I'd focused attention in the meantime on the Indianapolis 500, and the likes of Tomas Scheckter, Eddie Cheever, J.J. Yeley, 
Kenny Br├Ąck, et al. (I will admit, it's not exactly a murderer's row of people to follow.)

With two more wins in 2002 and 2003, Penske began to take hold of the Indy Racing League, and for a while, it seemed as if you could plug in anyone and win a race, so long as they were in a Penske car.

Combine this with me being in college, and the counter-culture nature of it (i.e., disliking successful things - Duke, the Yankees, etc.), it stands to reason why I would not care for Team Penske.

Despite the fact I went to a successful high school and college, Team Penske just didn't cut it.  And in many regards, they still don't.  My relationship is similar to Wes Mantooth's when it comes to Ron Burgundy: "I can't stand you, but damnit, I respect you."

But for some reason, Will Power is different.

Maybe it's the fact he is from Australia, where I spent five formative months in 2003.  But that wouldn't explain why I'm not a fan of Ryan Briscoe.

As for Briscoe, I think I'm not a fan because, on the surface, he reinforces the notion that you can plug any driver into a Penske car and they will succeed.  His 2005 season had to have ranked among the most expensive seasons in IndyCar history, given the number of wrecks he had that year.

But then again, Briscoe took time off and made his way back to Penske via Luczo Dragon Racing, and has acquitted himself well, even if he has a penchant for making mistakes at the wrong time (see: Japan, 2009; Brazil, 2010).

Helio Castroneves is the closest thing the IZOD IndyCar Series has to a national face (though that appears to be slowly changing), but for all of his wins - and his three Indianapolis 500 victories certainly hold a ton of weight - his lack of championships, to me, keep me from living and dying with his results, to be honest.

I respect his excellence, but I'm not captivated with him, for whatever reason.

But when it comes to Power, something appears different from his Penske teammates.  To me, it's his dominance over the last two years.  Think about it for a moment: Power ran a limited schedule last season, but averaged fourth place in six races, including a near wire-to-wire win at Edmonton.

And then to cap the year, he broke his back.

But to his credit (and Penske's), Power has come back and continued to dominate - two wins in three races and a 32-point lead in the points standings is dominance, even if it's short term.  The argument against Power has always been that he's a road-course specialist (it is what he came up on), but he showed improvement last season, averaging seventh place on two ovals (Indianapolis - fifth, Kentucky - ninth) after averaging 17th in 2008, his first year on ovals.

With Penske's prowess on ovals (and overall), it stands to reason that the Australian will continue to improve.

And in his first three races (and parts of 2009), I haven't seen a driver so thoroughly control and cause the field to adjust to him in quite a while.  Maybe that's why I think Power is different; and maybe if he keeps it up, I'll even start cheering for Penske.

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