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Recharged

Overhaul That Included New President, Drivers and Cars Was Vehicle for Success as Penske Racing Team Ended Its Three-Year Drought

October 25, 2000|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Roger Penske, the most successful car owner in Indy car history, decided to overhaul his racing team, one of his first moves was to replace himself.

Drastic situations call for drastic measures.

Penske's CART team had gone more than three years without winning. Not since Paul Tracy had won in 1997 at St. Louis, No. 99 for Penske, had there been a victory.

Waiting and wishing for No. 100 was becoming intolerable.

For the 2000 season, Penske had new drivers in Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, a new chassis manufacturer in Reynard, a new engine builder in Honda, a new tire maker in Firestone--and a new president of Penske Racing Inc. in Tim Cindric.

Gone were driver Al Unser Jr., the 1994 CART champion and winner of the 1994 Indianapolis 500 and 11 other races for Penske; the Penske chassis, the Ilmor Mercedes engine of which Penske was part owner, and Goodyear tires, a Penske team staple from the beginning.

Not gone, but stepping aside slightly, was "the Captain" himself, who for years had made the racing team his No. 1 priority while running a $10-billion corporation with more than 34,000 employees at 3,600 facilities worldwide.

Cindric, a tall, slender native of Indianapolis, became, at 31, the Captain's chief lieutenant.

"I had all the changes in place before the race last year in Fontana, but I realized that I had to find someone to run the team on a day-to-day basis while I worked at other things," Penske said.

"I had known Tim for quite some time. His father had built Offy engines for us in the '70s. He had a great reputation. I knew Tim had done great things working for Bobby Rahal so I contacted him. It turned out he had a real desire to work for us. He was exactly what we needed."

The results have been dramatic.

The elusive victory No. 100 was notched by de Ferran at Nazareth, Pa., followed quickly by 101 at Detroit by Castroneves, 102 at Portland by de Ferran and 103 and 104 by Castroneves at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca.

And with only Sunday's Marlboro 500 at California Speedway remaining this season, de Ferran is poised to possibly bring Penske his 10th CART championship. With a five-point lead over Adrian Fernandez, the Brazilian veteran needs to finish second to assure winning the title and its $1-million bonus--even if Fernandez repeats his last year's win.

It's almost as if Cindric was born for the job.

"I had always wanted to work with Roger, as far back as when my father worked for him," said Cindric. "I grew up in Indianapolis, surrounded by the aura of what Penske had done, but I never felt sending him a resume was the right way. I felt if I deserved the chance, it would happen sometime.

"Still, it was quite a surprise when it did. He called me one night at home, just before last year's Australia race [Oct. 17]. Things happened fast. Before we got to Fontana [Oct. 30], I was committed to Penske.

"The organizational changes were made prior to my arrival, but the execution of the transactions were under my command. Without a doubt, no one, at least not in my memory, has ever changed so much at the same time as Penske did."

One thing that didn't change, however, was the team's infrastructure. Except for the drivers and engineers responsible for the engine, chassis and tire changes, the backbone of Penske Racing remained in place.

"Tim has done a magnificent job, but he took over a solid group that has been with us for some time," Penske said.

Cindric, who graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology at Terre Haute, Ind., in 1990 with a degree in mechanical engineering, set a goal for himself--to be a team manager or race engineer by the time he was 35.

"It happened nine years early," he said. "I was only 26 when Bobby Rahal and Carl Hogan asked me to manage their team. I wasn't sure if I was ready, but I learned to rely on those around me with experience."

In 1998 and 1999, Cindric was named CART's team manager of the year while working for Rahal.

Earlier this year, de Ferran called Cindric the catalyst needed to get the Penske machine moving.

"It was not unlike a chemical reaction," the Brazilian engineering graduate told the Chicago Tribune. "You have all the elements all over the place. All you need is a catalyst thrown in the middle to get the process started to get a different final product. I think Tim Cindric had a lot of do with that."

Penske, who seemed at times to be more absorbed with his NASCAR Winston Cup teams, what with Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield winning races, says he decided on his champ car overhaul before the 1999 season began.

"I decided if we weren't able to compete, we had to make some drastic moves.

"The first was with Al Jr. In May, I told him that, based on his performance, I was not going to re-up his contract. We both felt it might be time to go in different directions, for the good of both of us.

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