They are the Dream Team of U.S. auto racing, unless of course you happen to be one of those spoilsports from the American Lung Association. Maybe if the tobacco companies had thought to send Dream Team III—Al Unser Jr. (filtered), Emerson Fittipaldi (menthol) and Paul Tracy (light)—to the recent congressional hearings, we would all be smoking in restaurants and on elevators by now. Instead, the full carton of Marlboro Penskes was standing on the winner's podium at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sunday, having smoked the field in yet another Indy Car race.
The Marlboro cars have ruled the circuit all season. When Unser took the checkered flag in Loudon, N.H.—less than a second ahead of Tracy and less than two seconds in front of Fittipaldi—it was his seventh victory in the 12 races run this season. Even more alarming, it was the Penske team's ninth win, a level of dominance for the pro-smoking forces not seen since the days of Bette Davis and Paul Heinreid.
Four times now this season the Penske flying wedge has crossed the finish line one-two-three, the same formation in which it appears destined to finish in the series points championship. The only surprise in any of this is that when one of the three inevitably prevails at the end of the season for team owner Roger Penske, it will be the first championship one of his drivers has won since 1988, when Danny Sullivan did it.
Three-car teams are rare on the Indy Car circuit because the difficulties of managing such a hydra-headed beast seem so much more obvious than the benefits. But Penske realized the advantage of having multiple drivers on hand when he was able to send Unser and Tracy out last winter in snowmobile suits to test the new Mercedes-Benz engine that would ultimately win him his 10th Indianapolis 500 in May.
"The biggest management challenge has been to keep them from running each other into the ground early in a race," says Penske. "They all want to win." Maintaining his own neutrality is sometimes another matter. As the owner of all three cars but the manager of Unser's team on race day, Penske is sort of like Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons—impartial, with a definite soft spot for Chip.
"With other teams I've been on, there's been a difference between the two cars at some point," Unser says. "But even with three cars, Roger tries to keep it all equal." No mean feat, considering these guys are as unalike as three drivers could be: Unser is a brilliant tactician, Tracy a cold-blooded speed freak and Fittipaldi a smooth stylist. Filter, light and menthol.
As a partner in Ilmor Engineering in England and owner of the chassis that bears his name, Penske, 57, is the only owner able to use the results of a test on Tuesday at one of the two tracks he owns—in Nazareth, Pa., and Brooklyn, Mich.—and convert them into a victory on Sunday. But even with an almost endless supply of sponsorship money, Penske had to dig into his own deep pockets this year to field a three-car team, which was the only way he could add Unser to his stable and still maintain his commitments to Fittipaldi and Tracy.
Penske refers to this as "maintaining organizational continuity," although the Surgeon General might have another name for it: Murderer's Row. But just as the cry "Break up the Penskes!" is rising in racing pits across the land, it appears Penske may cut the team to two at season's end. Though Penske would concede only that he spent five hours last week reviewing his racing budget, Tracy's exit seems to be imminent. Apparently Nigel Mansell, whose flirtation with a return to Formula One has already embarrassed and infuriated team owner Carl Haas, will leave the Newman-Haas team at the end of this season and will be replaced by Tracy, who has already been offered a contract by Haas.
This season has been a wall-to-wall adventure for Tracy, who crashed or spun five times in the first three races, then knocked his own teammate Unser into a tire barrier and out of the lead at Detroit, the only race Tracy has won this year. A year ago he finished only nine of 16 races but won five times and seemed to be Penske's fair-haired boy. This year Tracy's hair turned prematurely gray—as if he had frightened himself once too often—but he remains so translucently fair-skinned that standing in a bright light, he very nearly disappears. Unser's glow seems to have finished the job.
The three Penske drivers took turns controlling the race on Sunday, leading all but four laps. "The thing we're after," Unser says, speaking of the championship that is so close at hand, "is the number 1 on that Marlboro car next year." Well, as they say in the Penske garage, smoke 'em if you got 'em.