Mondays With Murray: You Want a Good Driver? Check with Roger Penske

Last week it was announced that the George family had sold the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and the Indy Car Grand Prix. The 2.5-mile oval in Speedway, Indiana, that has been in the Hulman-George family since 1945 now is owned by Roger Penske.

In honor of Veteran’s Day (Penske is a big supporter of veterans) and Penske’s purchase of the IMS, we bring you Jim Murray’s column from April 19, 1993.

Enjoy!

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APRIL 19, 1993, SPORTS

Copyright 1993/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY

JIM MURRAY

You Want a Good Driver? Check With Roger Penske

  It used to be said, if you wanted a baseball player, you checked with Branch Rickey. He could spot a 20-game winner from the window of a moving train, so the legend went.

  If you wanted a football player, you went with Knute Rockne. He could get George Gipp out of a pool hall.

  Needing a fighter, you would go to Cus d’Amato and tell him whether you wanted a Patterson or a Mike Tyson.

  A Louis B. Mayer could find star quality in a guy parking cars at the studio lot.

  mondaysmurray2But if you want a race car driver — and ones named Unser or Andretti aren’t available — check with Roger Penske.

  Penske can spot a racing champion driving a cab. Or a truck. Look at the record: He found Mark Donohue, who was a graduate of Brown University, no less, and looked more like a refugee from an Ivy League faculty than a speed merchant. Penske won Indianapolis with him.

  Then, he sort of found Tom Sneva driving a school bus in Spokane, Wash. He was principal of a high school, for cryin’ out loud. Penske won Indianapolis with him.

  He found Rick Mears on a motorcycle in Colorado. Penske won four Indianapolises with him.

  None of those guys really fit the mold of the hard-bitten leadfoots of the roaring road. I mean, they didn’t remind you of A.J. Foyt till they hit Victory Lane. Neither did Danny Sullivan when he won for Roger at Indy. Danny had been a Manhattan playboy.

  So, when Penske signed a young Canadian chauffeur named Paul Tracy to replace the retiring Mears last year, a lot of people might have wondered what he saw in him. Except it would be like asking Rockne what in the world he saw in the Four Horsemen. Or what made Doc Kearns think Dempsey could fight.

  Paul did not fit your basic profile of an Indy prospect. He wore glasses for nearsightedness. He was so pale he could haunt a house. You could see through him. If he chewed gum, you could see it.

  But he had been driving cars since he was 6. His father would drop him off at a Go-Kart track with a box lunch and a can of gasoline and leave him there all day. He spent more time on wheels than entire teamster locals in eastern Canada.

  When he was 15, he was competing in world championship Kart races. As he got older he was around cars so much he almost needed a periodic oil change himself.

  Canadian kids are supposed to head for the ice as soon as they’re old enough to lace on skates. Paul Tracy preferred a garage to a rink, wheels to skates. He wanted to be an Unser, not a Gretzky.

  He won a Can-Am race when he was only 16, the youngest ever. He was winning races before his voice changed. He was driving cars when other kids hadn’t gotten off tricycles. He could drive better than he could walk.

  But there was nothing to suggest this was a future Foyt. Until Penske caught his act.

  Penske didn’t want to sit him on the pole at Indy right away. What he basically wanted, at first, was a kid with patience, common sense and an ability to stand boredom. All of these are in short supply along pit row, where the greatest collection of people in a hurry in the world can be found.

  Penske wanted to put his young discovery through a crucible of testing. This is a long, monotonous grind where you road-test cars, not by the hour but by the day. It’s a lonely boring way to spend a day. Or a week. Even a bus driver’s job is more fun than that of a racer, who has to tool a race car for interminable hours on an oval. He drives 500 miles and doesn’t go anywhere. He never sees another car.

  Tracy did it, day after dull day. And the day came when Penske finally decided he had paid his dues and put him in a race car.

  It’s too early to tell if he’s going to carry the Penske flag into further victories, but he got his first victory in an Indy car race on Sunday in the 19th Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix by more than 12 seconds over a former Indy winner, Bobby Rahal, and the current world Formula One champion driver, Nigel Mansell.

  Tracy was like a guy let out of the laboratory. He had company on the track. He even scrubbed wheels with Danny Sullivan. He had the thrill of several flat tires in traffic, and went through the crowded streets of Long Beach, instead of the wimpy surfaces of a test track.

  If you’ve ever looked at the family sedan gas gauge as it wavered perilously close to “E” and sucked it up and hoped it wouldn’t go on fumes as you were going through a rough stretch of road or neighborhood, you can sympathize with Driver Tracy.

  He had been exchanging leadership in the race with the great Mansell until he hit Lap 60 and pitted, surrendering the lead to the Briton. Tracy refuelled. He tailed the Mansell car until it needed to pit on Lap 73.

  Tracy had enough fuel for about 40 laps. He had 45 left in the 105-lap race. He put Mansell behind him and got ready.

  In that situation, you wait for the dreaded cough and sputter in the engine and the sudden loss of power and movement. It never came. Paul Tracy spun under his first Indy-car checkered flag.

  In a race that had Unsers and Andrettis and Formula One champions and six former Indy 500 winners, it came as a great surprise to a lot of people.

  But not to Roger Penske. He can pick a race driver out of a crowd shot at the Vatican at Easter. Winning with Paul Tracy is easy. He probably could have done it with Spencer.

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Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116

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What is the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation? 

  The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.

Like us on Facebook, and visit the JMMF website, www.jimmurrayfoundation.org.

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A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.  

Our mission is to empower women of all ages to succeed and prosper — in and out of sports — while entertaining the reader with Jim Murray’s wit and hyperbole.  An excellent teaching tool for Women’s Studies.

Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization providing sports journalism scholarships at universities across the country.

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