INDIANAPOLIS – It seems only fitting the 50thAnniversary of Penske Racing’s first Indianapolis 500 in 1969 would also be the 25thAnniversary of what may have been his greatest Indy 500 win ever.
It came at the halfway point of team owner Roger Penske’s historic achievements in the “World’s Biggest Race” and it may have been the last true competitive innovation that has been created to dominate the race.
It was known as “The Beast” and it instilled fear into every other team entered in the 1994 Indianapolis 500. It was a 209-cubic-inch, pushrod engine designed by Mario Illien, built by Ilmor Engineering in England and badged by Mercedes-Benz.
And, it was done in complete secrecy as only a small group of Team Penske crewmembers were invited to be part of a “Secret Team” to work on “The Beast.”
If word got out what Penske was planning, it would be like “cutting your check in half” Penske told his team.
“That was the word I used early on because we set up a separate shop and moved it down away from the race shop where they were working on this car and engine,” Penske told NBC Sports.com on May 11. “It’s a Penske Truck Rental location today.
“I told everybody, what we are doing down there, we don’t need to talk about it because it’s like cutting part of your paycheck off. We kept it quiet all the way up until a couple of weeks before the month of May.
“In that annex, we had four or five people working on the engine overnight.”
In 1993, Penske met with Ilmor’s Paul Morgan and Mario Illien, telling both about his grand idea for the 1994 Indianapolis 500. Illien assured him he could design an engine and the secret project began. Shortly after signing Al Unser, Jr. in September 1993 to join Penske Racing beginning in 1994 Penske whispered in the driver’s ear, “We’ve got an engine” for the Indianapolis 500. “It’s a rocket,” Penske told Unser.
At that time, the team was based in Reading, Pennsylvania. In order to create an engine room in secret, a building down the street was transformed every night into an engine shop. The regular hours at the shop were 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
At 5 p.m., a small group of team members would work through the night on “The Beast.” By the time the team was back at work at 7 a.m., they had no idea what had happened the night before.
This went on for months.
“It was kept secret for quite a while,” Team Penske General Manager, Sports Car, Jon Bouslog explained to this writer for a feature that appeared in Autosport in 2016. At that time Bouslog was a crew chief for Paul Tracy at Team Penske.
“The whole operation was down the street in a warehouse,” Bouslog said. “We used to store stuff down there and we weren’t allowed to go down there anymore, and people started asking, why?
“We were told, ‘We just didn’t need to know.’
“When you came in the next day at the engine shop it was like a normal day. There were no extra parts lying around. There were no signs of any overnight activity. They did a very good job of making sure nobody knew.”
The “Secret Team” built an engine shop in the warehouse and went to work after the day shift had left for the night. This group would work through the night and would be gone by the time the day shift arrived at 7 a.m.”
Team Penske and Ilmor even utilized “The Concorde” as part of this project.
“We flew parts back and forth,” said Mark Swavely, who worked in Penske’s engine shop and was part of the special project. “A lot of times, we bought seats on the Concorde to get pistons and other engine parts to the shop from England.
“My specialty was the valve followers and the arrangement with the pushrods and the rockers. It involved many, many needle bearings to take all the friction out of that assembly.”
According to Penske, the pushrods were two inches instead of 6-7 inches long in a normal V-8.
When Bouslog was allowed into the “Secret Shop” for the first time, he never forgot the eerie scene.
It looked like an alien autopsy.
“The first time I ever saw the car, it was cloaked with large curtains sectioning off the area and once you got inside of the curtains, there was the car propped up on the stands with one, large spotlight shining on it giving it an eerie experience,” Bouslog recalled in the Autosport feature. “Underneath the car was some of our mechanics screaming how they couldn’t see the tunnel bolts in the dark and were using flashlights to try to work on the underside of the car.”
The initial tests of the engine were held in the cold, icy conditions of wintertime in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Ice scrapers and snowplows had to clean the track before Paul Tracy could test the engine in sub-freezing conditions at Nazareth Speedway – a quirky oval that measured less than one-mile in length.
Team Penske crewmember Tim Haslett drove the truck to Nazareth Speedway and helped plow the snow off the track.
“The snowdrifts were 10 feet high the length of pit lane when we finished,” Haslett recalled.
Tracy’s hands were frozen, and Team Penske’s Teddy Mayer had him put thermal socks over his driving gloves, making it difficult to steer and shift the car. The engine would often blow up after just six or seven laps.
A few miles away, Mario Andretti was sitting at his home in Nazareth and heard a strange sound coming from South of town, where Nazareth Speedway is located.
At first, the engine only lasted six or seven laps before blowing up. Issues developed with the engine, but the secret team continued to work even harder on “The Beast.”
The team tested and continued the project in total secrecy. It had to finish 500 miles in one piece before the team could feel secure that it had an unbeatable engine.
When Opening Day began for the Indianapolis 500, Unser was completing a most important test at Michigan International Speedway the same day.
“Up until that point when we were in the middle of the month the engine still hadn’t done 500 miles,” Bouslog said. “It was a huge sigh of relief to finally get that 500-mile mark before the race.
“Now, we are ready to go.”
All three drivers would routinely drive slow in Turn 4 and down the straightway in an effort to not show their advantage. In racing terms, it’s called “sandbagging.”
The three drivers had to be delicate with the engine, however, because it produced well over 1,000 horsepower – nearly 200 hp more than the other engines at Indy that year.
The end result would be perhaps the most-lopsided Indianapolis 500s in modern history.
Emerson Fittipaldi led 145 laps, and was attempting to put teammate Al Unser, Jr. one lap down in an attempt to make his final pit stop on Lap 184. Fittipaldi’s greed proved costly as he crashed into the fourth turn wall.
That put Unser into the lead, and he won his second Indy 500 after leading 48 laps in the race. The only driver to lead laps that day was second-place Jacques Villeneuve, who led seven laps and was the only driver other than the winner to complete all 200 laps.
Roger Penske sat down with NBC Sports.com at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 11 to recall the effort it took to create an engine so powerful that it was outlawed by USAC less than a month after the 1994 Indy 500.
Penske executed a great plan that nobody saw coming.
“The 1994 race was really special because we decided after the 1993 Indianapolis 500, with my relationship with Mercedes and Helmut Werner, the CEO at that point, we talked about making this happen,” Penske recalled. “We said, let’s sit down with Ilmor and make a decision whether we can build a pushrod engine that can compete at Indy. We saw the Buicks with John Menard year after year sit on the pole and lead the race, but they had problems finishing.
“With the boost benefit of 55 inches versus 48 for everybody else really gave us an ‘Unfair Advantage.’”
Ever since Roger Penske and his racing partner Mark Donohue started Penske Racing in 1966, the “Unfair Advantage” is something the team strove to achieve. They dominated the Can-Am Series so thoroughly; it went out of business.
Then, the combination dominated Trans-Am.
But it was Penske’s dream to dominate the Indianapolis 500. He arrived for the first time as a team owner in 1969 with Donohue as the driver. Donohue started fourth and finished seventh on the day Mario Andretti won his only Indianapolis 500 in a Brawner Hawk.
Donohue gave Penske Racing its first Indy 500 in 1972, just three years before he was killed in a crash while practicing for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.
Penske Racing did not win another Indianapolis 500 until Rick Mears in 1979. That would be the first of a record four Indy 500 wins for Mears. Other wins would follow including Bobby Unser in 1981, Danny Sullivan in 1985 and Al Unser’s fourth Indy 500 win in 1987. Mears won in 1979, ’84, ’88 and ’91.
Fittipaldi scored his second Indy 500 win in a Penske Racing car in 1993.
What Penske wanted, however, was complete domination and in order to achieve that, he needed “The Beast.”
“I met with Mario Illien at Ilmor, they gave us a design and I said let’s go,” Penske said. “We kept it under our hat and announced it two weeks before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened.
“If you looked at the cubic inch size of the engine, plus the power we would have from the turbocharger and boost classification, we knew it would be as good or better than the Buick,” Penske continued. “With that, we needed to execute a reliable engine.
“We were running that engine, in a car, during qualification time up at Michigan to try to get 500 miles out of it. We weren’t ready.”
As Race Day neared, however, an issue developed with the engine.
“The story nobody knows is Mario Illien came down to me after the last practice and said, ‘We ran a backup engine and had a problem with a wrist-pin lock. I think we need to look at the engines we have for the race,’” Penske told NBC Sports.com. “We decided to leave them alone.
“We could have had a failure on the engines, but we didn’t.”
The 1994 Indianapolis 500 proved to be no contest. According to Brian Barnhart, a lead mechanic at Team Penske at that time, he looked up at the scoring pylon after 175 miles and Unser and Fittipaldi were the only two cars on the lead lap.
“We weren’t even 200 miles into the race, and we had already eliminated 31 other cars,” Barnhart recalled.
“The Beast” created so much torque, the rubber on the tires would spin off the rims. In order to solve that, the team had to cement the rubber to the wheels. The engine bearings were the size of needles and the pushrods were two-inches long, instead of the standard 6-7 inches long.
The biggest drama came when Fittipaldi tried to lap Unser and crashed in the Turn 4 wall, near the end of the race.
“As we stand here, I close my eyes and still see the rear wing coming off the car right now,” said Rick Rinaman, who was Fittipaldi’s crew chief at that time. “It’s something you won’t forget.
“I can understand what we were trying to do. We had to make a pit stop and if the yellow came out, Al would be right there with us. If we get ahead of Al and the yellow comes out, then we are in good shape.”
Penske had complete domination, thanks to “The Beast.”
But the celebration did not last long.
“It turned out to be a tremendous engine,” Penske said. “After the race, they cut the boost down to 50 inches and a week later, they outlawed the engine.”
The Mercedes 209-cubic-inch engine became one of the greatest “One Offs” in Indianapolis 500. Even Andy Granatelli’s famed STP-Turbine engine competed in two Indy 500s in 1967 and 1968 before it was outlawed.
Major change was on the horizon. Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George had announced the created of the Indy Racing League in March 1994. The Indianapolis 500 would be its anchor event. In 1995, the IRL announced rules with production-based engines beginning in 1997.
Turbocharged engines didn’t return to the Indianapolis 500 until 2012 – four years after CART and the IRL unified to create today’s IndyCar Series in 2008.
Under the current rules, there is no opportunity for any race team to create another “Beast” of an engine.
“The Beast” never competed in another race. Today, one of the cars is on display in one of Penske’s museums; the other is in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
“For us to come here with that engine and win the race was absolutely amazing,” Penske said.
It proved to be the ultimate “Unfair Advantage” team owner Roger Penske had sought to achieve.
How impressive was “The Beast?” Four-time Indianapolis 500 winning driver Rick Mears, who retired from racing in 1992, summed it up best.
“That engine almost brought me out of retirement,” Mears said.