SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
May 31, 1971
A couple of college chaps, Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, go into Saturday's Indianapolis 500 with the fastest racer ever to appear there and a faith that science can beat old black magic
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May 31, 1971

The Slide-rule Boys At Indy

A couple of college chaps, Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, go into Saturday's Indianapolis 500 with the fastest racer ever to appear there and a faith that science can beat old black magic

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Remember those quaint old days when colleges were enclaves of study rather than revolution? There were two main types on campus in that period: the Liberal Arts Major and the Engineer. The former could generally be found outside the library, draped over a slim volume of verse—poetry so morbid that a single unrhymed couplet had the depressant effect of 25 Nembutals and a slug of gin. Alone and palely loitering, this fellow got his kicks by proclaiming life to be—alternately—a fountain or a dung heap. The Engineer, by contrast, marched briskly past the library toward the lab, his slide rule slapping his hip like a Dodge City sheriff's six-gun. When and if the Engineer stopped to speak to the Liberal Arts Major, it was in curt, quick accents: "You don't like the way things are? Well, we can fix it. Let's see—Pi equals the square root of Smog plus DDT divided by War and Highways to the nth power. There, it's fixed." Quoth the Liberal Arts Major: "Bushwa!"

Which is by way of prologue. When and if you ever enter Roger Penske's garage in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—and be forewarned that his security is so tight that you probably never will—the first thing you may notice is a neat sign tacked above the telephone. It reads: "Those of you who think you know it all are particularly annoying to those of us who do."

Aha! The Engineer personified. A quick glance around the garage seems to confirm the diagnosis. There stands Penske himself, not a hair out of place on his charcoal-graying head, not the least fleck of lint on his Sunoco-blue cashmere sweater, nor a wrinkle in the creases of his Sunoco-yellow slacks. At 34 he seems too fit and tidy for germs—his direct, unblinking, China-blue eyes surely have never known a tendril of hangover red, his lungs in dissection would doubtless prove pink as a baby's, despite all the engine exhaust he has inhaled in 13 years as a racing driver and team manager. His voice might be Hal's from 2001—a learned phrase followed by another and yet another, each sounding quite logical but the total a bit too fast for comprehension. Like Lily Tomlin's Ernestine the Telephone Operator, he seems to be saying: "You're dealing with no man's fool. I am a college gradyooate...."

He is indeed. Lehigh University, 1959, industrial management. He is also, by virtue of his highly successful automobile dealerships in Philadelphia, Allentown and now Detroit, a member in good standing of the Young Presidents' Organization. He owns an office building and a Lear jet. He can balance two dozen business deals at once on his cleanly chiseled, matinee-idol's nose. He skis frequently at Vail. No man gets that successful that fast without discipline, as a further tour of the garage reveals. His men call him Captain, as in Bligh, though with no rancor intended. After all, Roger wins.

From fuels to tools, every item in the garage has its place—and heaven for-fend if it is not there when needed. Wrenches and bolts, screws and their drivers are all graded as to size and function. Even if a tool is left momentarily on a workbench, one senses that it had better be squared with the angles of the table. The car itself—Penske's superbly tuned, meticulously painted blue-and-yellow Sunoco McLaren M16 Special, to give it its proper title—is the centrum of this squeaky clean world.

Like any Penske car—his Trans-Am Javelin, his spanking blue Ferrari 512M, or even the Formula A that briefly led the Questor race at Ontario last spring—it is lovely to look at. All clean angles and distorted reflections, pluperfect in its polish, ominous in its aura of total readiness to race. Beyond a doubt, Penske's McLaren-Offenhauser is the fastest car ever to run at Indy. That is not to say, however, that it will win Saturday's 500. Too many other factors—some of them named Revson, Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Ruby; others random and incalculable—enter into the Indy equation. But a fast contender is always a magnet, and during the weeks that preceded the 500, the Penske racer was the focus of up to 50,000 fans per practice session and 250,000 for first-qualifying. Hitting a top lap speed of nearly 181 miles an hour—a leap in performance comparable with Bob Beamon's Mexico City long jump—Penske's driver and alter ego, Mark Donohue, consistently broke the lap record of 171.953 mph. Though Donohue ultimately lost the pole to Peter Revson of the McLaren factory team (SI, May 24), the Penske men learned a lot in the process. And since the mind of the Engineer is at once open and skeptical, direct and detailed, it is possible that the disappointment of qualifying day could produce victory on race day.

What makes the Penske car so quick? Roger bends over to whisper confidentially: "It's the attention to detail. Take a look at that paint job! Take a look at those polished hubs! Nobody ever did that before." Bushwa, Roger. What makes the car run so well is a combination of superior design and superlative preparation. The M16 reflects the late Bruce McLaren's intention to build an open-cockpit chassis that could take on a fresh engine in a mere 35 minutes, and take the hard raps of Indy without self-destructing. Essentially, the car is a tub (engineers call it a monocoque) with tubular frames projecting from either end. There are two small spoilers at the front and a large wing at the rear that runs the width of the car and is about 10 inches deep from leading to trailing edges. They are in effect upside-down airplane wings; they reverse the lift that makes an airplane fly, and thus force the car down onto the road.

"If you can keep all four wheels on the road all the time, particularly when you're going through banked corners, you obviously go much faster than a car that has a wheel up in the air part of the time," says Donohue. "The wing is only a partial solution to the road-holding problem. If you ran a ground-effect vehicle—a vacuum-cleaner job like Jim Hall's new Chaparral—at Indy, you'd never have to take your foot off the throttle. You could go around the course flat-out. Lap speeds would be 195 mph or so. All we're trying to do with spoilers is come to some point in between—trying to get more down force so we can take the turns better."

Holding these concepts in mind, a Liberal Arts Major begins to sense some answers of sorts. The Penske McLaren's speed is due primarily to a design concept that Roger himself did not dream up but which provides the potential for a grand victory. That hoped-for event obviously depends on the most elaborate of automotive preparations: finding the right tires to go with the right suspension settings and then shaping the right wings to precisely the right angles of attack. And, finally, having the right engineers, mechanics, pit crew and driver to put it all together.

"This is the most businesslike operation I've ever been involved with," says Lujie Lesovsky, the 58-year-old chassis wizard with Holman & Moody of Los Angeles who is on loan to Penske this season. "Roger is an excellent administrator—the sort who has the good sense to accept advice—but Mark is the catalyst. He's a driver and an engineer, so he can come in from a practice run and translate that 'seat of the pants' feeling into precise, meaningful language. This helps us make the right adjustments. Mark is a lot like Rex Mays [a big-car hero of the '40s]. You'd do anything for him."

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