INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske treats the Indianapolis 500 like his personal playground.
Having earned an unprecedented 14 Indy wins, Penske and his team came to the speedway this month with only one thing in mind — another victory.
This race is Penske’s Holy Grail and, with two-time winner Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe starting from the front row on May 24, it looks like The Captain is right where he wants to be in the quest for win No. 15.
Even so, the 72-year-old entrepreneur takes nothing for granted after years of running his racing team as a small part of a transportation services corporation that employs 40,000 people worldwide.
"Each race here has its own difficulties and opportunities and thrills," Penske said. "We focus each year on winning this race. We know what it takes. We understand the type of preparation. We understand the reliability.
"But, more important, it’s the teamwork. I think when you look at this group of employees, team members, we have here, we probably have 600 or 700 years of experience at this racetrack."
One of those longtime employees is Rick Mears, who started driving for Penske in 1979 and gave him four of his Indy wins, the last coming in 1991. Since retiring after the 1992 season, Mears has worked for Penske Racing as a consultant and driver coach.
Over the years, the equipment has changed, the team has moved its headquarters from Reading, Pa., to Mooresville, N.C., and drivers have come and gone. But one thing that never changes is the way Penske Racing approaches Indianapolis.
"I think that, overall, the feeling, the desire, the goose bumps this place gives you — this being Indianapolis, the 500 — I don’t think that has changed," Mears said. "I think the effort put in, it may seem like even more effort today.
"Roger still tries to get good people, put people in the right places to do the best job you can do and not have a weak link anywhere. … It’s like driving; I think the basics of driving have changed very little. I think the basics is what has made this team good."
Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, oversees an operation that also fields a three-car team in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series and races in the Grand-Am sports car series.
But the open-wheel team has been operating since 1968 and remains the flagship of Penske’s fleet, with the Indy 500 its most important objective.
"We start preparing for this race when last year’s ends," Cindric said. "We felt like last year maybe we missed a step, you know, and we felt like we certainly needed to be better for this year. … Everything we’ve done throughout the offseason, throughout last year, is completely focused on what happens here."
It’s been three years since Penske last won with Sam Hornish Jr., who is now driving one of the team’s stock cars.
Dario Franchitti won in 2007 for Andretti Green Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon took the checkered flag last year.
Since he first came to the speedway in 1969, Penske has never gone more than three years without a win — except for a stretch from 1995 to 2000.
Al Unser Jr. won the race for Penske in 1994, but the next year the inconceivable happened when Unser and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify. The Penske team then skipped 1996 through 1999 at the speedway, joining other top CART teams that boycotted the Indy Racing League’s biggest event as that rivalry grew.
Penske decided to return with a one-car effort for Jason Leffler in 2000, testing an IRL car and see if he wanted to make the jump to the IndyCar Series. He was back the next year with a two-car effort, with Castroneves winning the first of his two 500s in a row and Gil de Ferran giving Penske a 1-2 finish. De Ferran then won the race in 2003, giving Penske three in a row.
For a while this year, it looked like Penske might be without one of his most important assets. Castroneves was on trial for tax evasion and the team hired Will Power to fill in until its No. 1 driver was able to return.
Castroneves missed winter testing and the first race of the season, but he was acquitted in time to race in the second event at Long Beach.
The team didn’t hesitate to put Castroneves back in his No. 3 Dallara and he has rewarded them with his third Indy pole — and Penske’s 15th.
"We told Helio when he took his vacation there, we were still working hard here," Cindric said, grinning. "When he showed up, it would be ready for him, and I think we showed that we were ready."
The return of Castroneves made Power’s future with the team uncertain, but the Australian driver, who finished sixth at St. Petersburg and second at Long Beach in a third Penske entry, is also racing here.
"Here, I’m stepping into a team with an unbelievable amount of experience," said Power, who qualified a solid ninth for the 500. "I’ve got two really good teammates with heaps of experience. … The team is giving me a great opportunity and I’m going to do what I can to take advantage of it."
Penske is as excited as ever to be at Indianapolis and says all those previous wins won’t mean much when the green flag waves next week.
"Winning here in the past doesn’t really make any difference other than the fact we have the experience," he said. "Nobody gives us an extra lap. In fact, people expect more, our sponsors expect more, so there’s more pressure on us."
And, should his team win again, Penske will continue a tradition that began after Mark Donohue gave him his first Indy win in 1972.
"I take my license plate that I have on my car, it says 1INDY14, and I get to change it to 1INDY15," Penske said.