‘I’ve never seen Roger more nervous’: Penske’s triumphant Indy return in 2001

Helio Indy 500 2001
JEFF ROBERTS/AFP via Getty Images
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(Editor’s note: As Helio Castroneves attempts to make history May 29 as the first five-time Indy 500 winner, NBC Sports will review his four previous victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and examine how each race was a significant and unique milestone for both the driver, series or track — and sometimes for all three. The series begins on May 27, 2001 with Roger Penske’s triumphant return to IMS and Castroneves bursting into the national consciousness for the first time.)

INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves’ first Indy 500 victory was nearly two years in the making, and it started with a “no” to Roger Penske.

Tim Cindric was hired in the fall of 1999 to become the president of Team Penske, and the first directive from the new boss was to get his team back to his treasured Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a dominant victory by Al Unser Jr. in the 1994 Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske’s cars failed to qualify in ’95 and had skipped the race from 1996-99 while racing in the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams series (which had split from the Indy Racing League).

Penske bought a Riley and Scott chassis with the full intention of returning to the Indy 500 in 2000 – until Cindric hit the brakes on the plan.

106th INDY 500: Start times, schedules, TV, stats, historical details about the race

“They hadn’t won an IndyCar race in two and a half years,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “Roger wanted to create a wind tunnel model to go to Indy, and I talked him out of going in 2000. In my first month of working for him, I’m fighting him to not go to Indy 500. I said, ‘Roger, I’m the last guy who wants to tell you this, but we can not properly go to the Indy 500 next year. You missed the race in ’95. We can’t go back not ready.’

“We got through that conversation and decided to mothball that process.”

Castroneves had yet to join the team when the decision was made. Penske was dealt another blow with Greg Moore’s fatal crash in the Oct. 31, 1999 season finale at California Speedway. Moore already had signed to join the team, and the seat was filled by Castroneves, who was teamed with another new incoming driver, Gil de Ferran.

Penske rebounded by emphatically snapping its winless drought in 2000 with five victories (three by Castroneves, two by de Ferran). And he still had a presence at the Indy 500, sponsoring Jason Leffler’s car for Treadway Racing in a deal that also embedded Cindric (as the strategist) and a Penske engineer with the team to lay the groundwork for returning.

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Helio Castroneves, Roger Penske and Tim Cindric celebrate victory in the 85th running of the Indy 500 (Robert Laberge/ALLSPORT).

“The Captain” entered the 2001 Indy 500 among the favorites (after Juan Pablo Montoya led 167 laps to win the 2000 Indy 500 for Chip Ganassi Racing, the first CART team to cross over).

But Cindric recalls the team owner being extremely leery about making the show. On qualifying day, Penske refused to set any goals for qualifying (“He was like, ‘Just go do it. Just handle it,’ ” Cindric recalled) and had to be persuaded to come to the pit lane to help wave the green and yellow flags that signified a team’s laps were official.

“Roger was pretty nervous all month, because he hadn’t been in the race,” Cindric said. “I’ve never seen Roger more nervous and probably still haven’t since qualifying day in 2001.”

Some key moments and vignettes associated with Castroneves’ first Indy 500 victory on May 27, 2001:


THE RACE

Castroneves started 11th and led the final 52 laps, taking his first lead on Lap 149 and never relinquishing the point again. He finished 1-2 with de Ferran, who started fifth and led 27 laps.

The duo methodically advanced the front through attrition and pit cycles, overcoming a lack of track time. Because CART had raced in Japan a week before the Indy 500, Penske was unable to compete in the second weekend of qualifying at IMS.

Penske gained an advantage through swift pit work and strong in and out laps on green-flag stops by Castroneves and de Ferran.

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Helio Castroneves climbs the fence after winning the 85th Indy 500 (Robert Laberge/ALLSPORT).

After a red flag for rain, the finish was determined by the final pit stop, and Castroneves beat de Ferran, Tony Stewart and Michael Andretti out of the race.

“I left Helio a little short on fuel to get out first,” said Cindric, the strategist for all three of Castroneves’ Indy 500 wins with Penske. “Michael ran into the back of Stewart, and we waved Helio right in front. It was a real mess.

“From then, Helio controlled the restart and won. I remember going to victory lane, Helio climbed fence, which we didn’t expect at Indy.”


THE SIGNIFICANCE

Castroneves’ first win is Roger Penske’s favorite of his trio with the Brazilian.

“When we hadn’t been at the Speedway, we were off on our trying to run something else as a group of car owners and came back, and it was amazing,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Not only for him as a driver but us as a team. To think we’d been away from the track, the last time we’d won it was ’94.”

It also was special to return to IMS after essentially boycotting the race with CART since ’96 – which Penske now says “was probably one of the bigger mistakes I’ve made over my business career.”

Nearly 20 years after the return, Penske would buy the place, bringing the story full circle. “To depart from the Speedway for a few years but come back and now here we are in a much different position,” he said. “Now I really care who’s running and that we have a great event.”

The May 27, 2001 race also was the first Brickyard victory for Cindric, whose father had worked on Indy 500 teams from 1968-92 but never reached the Winners Circle.

“I said to Roger in victory lane, ‘I know you’ve won this thing 11 times, so this is old hat for you, but this is a big deal for me,’ ” Cindric said. “And Roger says, ‘I’ve never finished first and second here.’ So it was really cool that he’d never done that before.”


THE LEGEND OF ‘PICASSTRONEVES’

Having grown up following Formula One and Brazilian hero Ayrton Senna, Castroneves had no appreciation of what Indy was about – but he got a literal “crash course” in one of the track’s “traditions” after his first incident.

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Helio Castroneves and Tim Cindric in 2001 (ROBERT LABERGE/ALLSPORT)

Castroneves smacked the wall between Turns 1 and 2 in practice during the first week, bending the right-side and left-side suspension on his Dallara-Oldsmobile.

He managed to drive the car back to the garage, and Cindric gave him some bad news.

“I told him there’s a lot of traditions here, and you’ve got to go paint the fence at night,” Cindric said. “And he believed that was true! We called him, ‘Picasstroneves.’ ”

Speedway employees were recruited for the gag, meeting Castoneves with a bucket of paint at the point of contact.

“I was telling him you need to live up to it, and he went out there and painted the fence where he crashed,” Cindric said with a laugh. “Then he found out that wasn’t really true.”

After the victory, Castroneves came to love the Speedway and its many traditions.

“It was fun to watch his evolution through that now to the of four-time winner. I look back to the first day we tested there in October (2000). He said, ‘I don’t care what you say, this place, I don’t really see it.

“But Helio had no idea what Indy was about. I was trying to explain to Helio, and I knew he had the personality that if he was successful at Indy, he’d embrace Indy.”

Helio Castroneves
Helio Castroneves replicates his celebratory fence climb at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two days after his first Indy 500 win (Robert Laberge /Allsport).

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”