In preparing the Will Power cover feature for the August issue of RACER magazine, we needed some background information on why Roger Penske chose the man from Toowoomba, Australia, to sub for Helio Castroneves in 2009 and how it became possible to promote him to a full-time Team Penske ride in 2010. The Captain's answers were enlightening.
RACER: Derrick Walker had recommended Will Power to you, but did you already have your eye on him?
ROGER PENSKE: The first time he registered with me was intrigue when I read his name while he was racing for Walker. I know that Derrick Walker knows how to pick drivers, so I watched Will race for Derrick, but never really had any conversations about him. But when he went to KV Racing [following the Champ Car/IndyCar merger], I was obviously more able to see his skill set and at that point I had some communication with Derrick.
We have people come up to us all the time, saying, “You should look at this guy,” but Derrick was very high on Will. And when we had the [tax trial] situation arise with Helio, we had to have someone who understood the situation completely, yet also, if Helio was in trouble – we didn't want that to be the case but if he was – then we had our game plan for going forward.
So we talked with Will and told him that he would run the first race in St. Petersburg and that we were also going to see about Long Beach. If the trial ended in time, then we'd put Helio back in the No. 3 car. The caveat was that we'd guarantee Will a ride at the Indy 500. “So at the worse case,” we told him, “you'll get one race with us at the start of the year and also a race at Indy.” And he said, “Look, I want to be with your team, I think it's a great opportunity, and I'll give it 120 percent.”
It's a similar situation to when Mario Andretti was running for us in Indy cars, but full time for Lotus in Formula 1. I had to find a driver who might only have a partial season. I talked to Pancho Carter and he wanted a full season, but Rick Mears said, ‘I'll drive for you if it's one race, two races, whatever.' Well, of course, the rest is history.
Will was someone Derrick Walker had recommended, we'd all seen how fast he was, and so Tim [Cindric, Penske Racing president] and I sat down and decided yes, he'd be our choice going forward. And I think it's been a win-win.
So you went to Long Beach planning to run three cars?
No, I was planning to run two, but I had an extra crew and car there, so as soon as we knew Helio was on the plane from Miami, we pulled out that No. 12 car on Friday night, put Will in it the next day and he stuck it on pole! So it shows how adaptable he is and he knows his way around that track. He had won at Long Beach a year earlier, so it was the perfect place for him to execute.
When did Verizon decide to go with the plan to be on a third car full-time this year?
Well obviously Verizon is one of the finest companies in the world today and their presence and brand fitted so well with Team Penske, so I went to Lowell McAdam, Verizon's president and CEO. We had run Alltel on the No. 12 NASCAR, and when the acquisition by Verizon happened, they were doing away with the Alltel brand. But at that same time, we weren't allowed to run Verizon on our car [because the NASCAR Cup Series is sponsored by Sprint], so we ran a car in Penske colors that looked similar to the Verizon colors that Justin Allgaier ran in Nationwide.
Anyway, letting Will run more races with us last year in the Penske Truck Rental colors meant we'd know exactly what we were getting with him, and the race he won at Edmonton I thought was a world-class win. At that point, I became completely committed that we wanted to run him in 2010.
So it became a very open discussion with Verizon about running a third full-time car. Because Verizon are such good partners and had run with him at Indy last year, they looked at him as a potential member of the Verizon team, so Lowell McAdam said, “Let's take a portion of our sponsorship that we would have run in NASCAR – it was a two-year contract with one year left – and let's go to IndyCar with Will and have a multi-year deal." That's how it all came together. It was commercially good for Verizon and for us, and now we've got a real hot prospect on our hands.
Traditionally, Penske doesn't just look for raw speed in a potential driver. What are the other qualities you look for?
“I'd say there are four or five attributes we look for in a driver,” says Penske. “First, he has to know how to win. There are a lot of drivers who are fast, but can they win? Do they know how to keep a car under them? I think Will went through a period when…Well, you saw down in Surfers Paradise in 2008, he was lightning fast for KV, but Ryan won the race for us because Will got into the wall. But Will had won three races in Champ Car already, and we felt we could put him in an environment where he wasn't under so much pressure to prove every lap how fast he is. So being able to win is key.
“Number two, he has to understand the car and communicate with the engineers, and there's no question that Will has that attribute. In my opinion, that's one of the reasons he's so good. Third, is he in physically good shape? Is he committed enough to keep his daily routine and be self-disciplined? Fourth, is he a team player? That's important because this is one team – not three. And fifth: he must be able to communicate and interface commercially with our sponsors, because without sponsors, we don't have the revenue to run a race team.”
Do you think [Power's race engineer] Dave Faustino has helped to extract even more potential from Will in 2010?
I think Will has found a spot in the team that is very comfortable. We have a lot of transparency: it's not one engineer who's better than another. It's an engineering group and they have access to each other's information. So if Ron Ruzewski [Castroneves' engineer] has what he wants, Eric Cowden [Ryan Briscoe's engineer] has what he wants, so can Dave Faustino.
I think one of the pluses with Dave is that he had run Will before and again Derrick Walker became a pivotal player. He said to me that Dave was a very good guy, I asked Will about it and so he asked Dave if he'd be interested. Walker was a fabulous guy for our team and had delivered so much for us since back in the 1970s, so to have him come in and give us some pointers is welcome. You know, you've got to be on the ground; no one sends you this in the mail. You've got to have relationships, and you've got to listen to people.Did you bring Will in expecting him to be a championship contender right off the bat?
We hope we don't have anyone on the team that isn't a championship contender. We knew he was fast, and he's been our lead dog in the road races, although Helio won at Barber and Ryan has had some good runs. On the ovals, Will still has some learning to do. Of course, Indy is more like four fast corners of a road race than a high-speed oval. That's why some people have come to Indy and been successful even without much experience – people like Jimmy Clark, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya. They can run the track because they're used to running high-speed fast corners.
But in answer to your question, we feel all our guys are capable of winning the championship. I don't think Will has a thing to prove to us. He's delivered to date. All he wants to get is more and more experience and racing, and he's only going to get better.
To receive the August issue of RACER, including an interview with Will Power, click here.