But is that dream about to end? RACER Editor David Malsher examines the curious case of Will Power, for whom the 93rd running of the Indy 500 may be his last in a Penske Indy car.
I’m of the firm belief that there’s very little that Will Power can’t do in a racecar. Outside the cockpit, he doesn’t show the effervescent emotion of a Helio Castroneves or the easygoing geniality of a Rick Mears. But Roger Penske has employed all sorts of different personalities in his Indy car team, down the years; all he asks is that when they’re in the cockpit, they deliver. Power does this, while also being one of those rare top-line racers whose ego is completely under control; he doesn’t need to be subversive. He turns up, he does his job, he goes home and avoids politics.
So when Penske needed a substitute for Castroneves while the Brazilian was fighting the law, he didn’t grab Power in an act of desperation. Given the status of his team, The Captain could have taken any driver who wasn’t under contract – and had the firepower, if not the lack of ethics, to entice even those who had already signed for a rival team.
But Penske chose Power, because he’d been impressed with what he’d seen while trackside in 2008, as Power frequently transcended the limitations of a first-year IndyCar team. That and the fact that Will also came highly recommended by one of The Captain’s former employees, Derrick Walker. In 2006, Walker’s team had taken the lad from Toowoomba, Australia to sixth in the Champ Car points standings and Rookie of the Year title, and the following year, the Power/Walker combo had been (eventual champion) Sebastien Bourdais’ most consistent challenger in terms of outright pace.
This year, Will did make a silly error during a pit stop in St. Petersburg, which cost him a definite podium, and possibly a win. But in Long Beach, he was the star of the three-driver Penske Racing lineup. On the Saturday, the returning Castroneves stole the publicity, Ryan Briscoe fouled up his qualifying run which put him on the back foot, while Power simply went out in a zero-mileage car and took pole position. Had he not been out of radio contact with his team, and also devoid of data on his dash, Power would have stopped running full lean fuel mixture, and he’s convinced he would have reversed the result that saw him beaten to the win by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti. Given Will’s often brutal honesty about his performances, it would be foolish to not believe him.
So there shouldn’t be any doubts clouding the future for Power. He’s undoubtedly one of the most talented open-wheel racecar drivers in North America. He’s undoubtedly with one of the two best open-wheel racing teams in North America. And undoubtedly he was chosen by that team for the right reasons.
And yet in two weeks’ time, he may be out of a ride. For now, the 93rd running of the Indy 500 will be Power’s last race for Penske, because Castroneves is back, Briscoe is under contract and Roger has only secured funding for two full-time IndyCar Series entries. Castroneves and Briscoe are both race winners who (despite having never done so) should be capable of winning titles for Penske. Power is now a third wheel.
Yet Penske’s decision cannot be described as brutal: far from it. He legitimately could have dumped Power mid-weekend at Long Beach, but instead gave car No. 3 back to Castroneves mid-weekend and wheeled out a third car, No. 12, and a third crew for Will. Not only that, Penske also told Power that the third Penske Dallara was his for Indy 500. Such a magnanimous gesture wasn’t entirely altruistic: it was positive PR for Penske Racing to be seen to be making a generous gesture of thanks, the No. 12’s Verizon Wireless livery must have made a new (to IndyCar) sponsor very happy, and of course having a third talented driver in a third car increased by 50 percent Penske Racing’s chances of winning a race.
But you can also be sure that there was genuine gratitude there, too, and Power is grateful in return. As he has repeatedly stressed to those who have expressed pity for his plight, he knew going into the deal that he’d only be driving No. 3 for the whole season if the Castroneves court case ended the Brazilian’s career. He had jumped at the chance because even one or two races with Penske are a golden opportunity. After missing the Kansas race, he stands by that viewpoint.
“As I walked in the gates at Kansas and there were Indy cars going around, it was a strange feeling, yeah,” he agrees, when we speak after Pole Day at Indy, in which Power nailed a spot on the outside of the third row. “I mean, it’s the first time in eight years that I’ve sat out a race, so I was a bit… sad at first, feeling a bit sorry for myself. But looking at the bigger picture, I’m racing the Indy 500 with Penske! I’m grateful to get that and Long Beach. They didn’t have to do that, and I appreciate the effort they made to get in a sponsor and run a third car for me.”
So what everyone’s dying to know now is Power’s situation as of the Monday after Indy. “For now, I’ve just got the 500,” he confirms. “If Roger wants to retain me for the whole season, that’s up to him. I get the impression that if I do a good job that he may run me in some select races further on, but I don’t know.”
But will you become a free agent, available to drive for anyone, I ask. “I don’t know many teams who want a driver who doesn’t bring money,” he chuckles, before dismissing the rumors about being farmed out to Luczo Dragon. “Nah, that hasn’t been discussed at all; not with me, at least.”
Okay, I admit it was a facetious question. On the Thursday before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – some 24 hours before he knew of Helio’s return – we had chatted about his new circumstances and it became clear that he’d regard anything non-Penske as a step down. “There’s no comparison with any other team I’ve been with,” he told me. “Penske is how I imagine a good Formula 1 team must be like. Honestly, I never want to leave. Why would I?”
I did wonder, though, if the sudden change in his circumstances the next day might have changed his views since that conversation. Mario Andretti he’s not, but Power I’ve always found to be a good interview. He thinks very carefully about a question, so while there might be a long pause before the answer arrives, when it does, it’s worth hearing. So when I ask him, free agent or not, whether he’d be prepared to sit out this season if it meant a guaranteed full season in a Penske IndyCar in 2010, it surprises me that he answers in a heartbeat.
“I would most definitely do that – oh yeah! If there was a chance to have a full IndyCar race seat with Penske next year, I’d happily do Grand-Am for them or even just sit around this year! Man, I just want that opportunity, because I know I can win the championship.”
Given the relatively even distribution of points between the main title contenders thus far in 2009, Power would still be in the running for this season’s championship, despite him missing the Kansas race, if he were given a third Penske. If Verizon were to step up its sponsorship for a third car, however, it would have to be enough to pay for extra staff to be brought in.
“A lot of my crew are from the Grand-Am team,” says Power, “and Roger’s not going to compromise one important part of his operation to come up with what would look like a bonus car, an extra car, for another part of his operation, y’know? I don’t think there is the manpower to go to three Indy cars right now. I think there could be selected races where the Grand-Am guys might be available, but again, that’s a question for Roger or Tim [Cindric, team president]. I can’t answer it.
Select races, eh? OK then, here’s two. Given that the Milwaukee race is just a week after Indy (and there’s no clashing Grand-Am race), it would be a real pity if that No. 12 car was lying dormant. The relatively flat Wisconsin one-miler is one of the most demanding ovals in the world, and was the setting for Power’s first ever oval race in the 2006 Champ Car World Series, yet he qualified an amazing fifth. Last year, driving for KV Racing, he started fourth. It won’t have escaped Penske or Cindric’s attention that Power thus started ahead of both Penske cars. Hmm…
And then there’s Toronto. Again, no Grand-Am race that weekend. Power won the last race there, in Champ Car, in convincing fashion. In treacherously wet and greasy conditions, he made many of his peers look heavy-handed at best, inept at worst. And remember, Castroneves has no recent experience of that track, and Briscoe has none at all.
“To be honest, we haven’t really talked about anything beyond Indy 500," replies Power diplomatically, when I suggest those two obvious venues at which he should run. "They just want me to do a good job there, keep my focus, and after that I guess we’ll sit down and talk about what possibilities there are for me then.”
THE INDY 500
As a Brickyard sophomore, Power’s found preparations for this year’s Indy 500 night-and-day different from last year. But it’s not just track experience, but working with Penske Racing that has made the difference. An incident-free run-up to Pole Day saw him take ninth on the grid. Given that Castroneves and Briscoe had annexed first and second, you might expect Power to have been disappointed. In fact, his mature attitude is that of a veteran.
“The team told me the day before qualifying that they just wanted me to lock myself into the Top 11, so if I do one run and it’s good enough, and I haven’t really got a shot at being on the front row, then it’s not worth going out and risking anything. That’s exactly what happened: I was in line there at the end of the day, but Tim pulled me out because if you look at the overall picture, it doesn’t matter if you start fifth or ninth or tenth. It’s such a long race.
“Yeah, I’d love to have gone for another run, because the track had got 1mph quicker and that would have moved me up quite a few spots. I’m a competitor, and that’s what I like to do, you know? But looking at the bigger picture, it really doesn’t matter. It might have been interesting to have tried to get a Penske 1-2-3, and tied up the front row, but because you have to withdraw each run, you can get caught out and not make the top 11 at all…”
“Anyway, one thing I’ve learned – and man, I’ve already learned a lot with Penske already! – is what a good car feels like on an oval. My run in the morning I think were the easiest four laps I’ve ever done on an oval,” he laughs. “They were as solid as you like, very easily done. I came back in and I thought, ‘Damn! I should have trimmed it out even more.’ That’s why I would have been happy to go for that second run, because I knew I could go quicker with both the track conditions and the trim levels.
“But I know from talking to people like [Penske driver coach] Rick Mears and also from my own experience, that that’s exactly when it can all go wrong. When it comes so easy that you think there must be a lot more to find, you can get too confident, you over-reach yourself and suddenly you’re chewing on the wall. I had said that to Mike Conway – 'Be careful. This track eventually catches everyone.’
“I went up to visit him in hospital last night, and I tried to cheer him up. I pointed out that I can’t think of one person in the field this year who hasn’t hit the wall – and that’s just at Indy! It’s a very, very weird place like that.”
You’d think that Indy 500 being the biggest race in the world, and Penske having such a great track record there – 14 wins, 14 pole positions – that Power might feel the pressure to win. The “logic” might go along the lines of the fact that he’s not a rookie any more, he’s in a Penske, therefore he’s an automatically a victory contender.” If he has felt that pressure, Will’s good at concealing it.
“The way that Roger and Tim run the show is that your first year at Penske is like your rookie year, basically,” he observes. “You’re just going into it to qualify in the Top 11 and run a solid race. Apparently it was the same for Briscoe when he joined: one run in qualifying, and then bring the car home in one piece on race day. The last thing you want to do is end up in the wall. The best thing you can do is be consistent all day, don’t make a mistake on the track or in the pitlane, and if you’ve got a chance to win at the end of the race, obviously you’ve got to go for it. But otherwise, you want to finish strongly and make no mistakes.”
OK then, what about the pressure from within? Does he feel like he’s driving for his career?
“Hmmm… Yeah I do sort of, but not to impress other teams. I’m driving for my career at Penske. You know, if I was here to impress other teams, it would be a different story: I’d be out there trying to lead every lap and win. But I want my career to be at Penske, and Roger doesn’t like seeing his cars in the wall! So I’m going to try and do a solid job and race smart. Listen to what they say, and listen to people like Rick.”
Ah yes, Rick Mears. When ex-Indy car ace Bryan Herta did a Racer2Racer interview with Rick Mears for RACER magazine at Long Beach, I took the chance to ask Rick about his thoughts on Power. “Oh, he’s super-quick, isn’t he?” he replied, “a very special talent.” Will is equally enamored of his mentor, as the four-time Indy 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion passes on his race smarts and sage advice.
“Rick is on the radio all the time, and he’s there in the debrief, guiding me constantly,” says Power. “He’s very, very knowledgeable, but also just so good to talk to. There was one point in the first day of running here at Indy and I was getting more confident. We started trimming the car out, and I was saying that we should go the next step. And Rick said, ‘Hold on, be careful, because the car was really moving around on that last run.’ That kind of kept me in check. He’s there to remind me not to just drive fast but to make sure that the car is going its quickest, that its balance is right. He’s very, very good to work with.”
The same goes for the whole team, he says. “There’s a complete data exchange between Helio, Ryan and myself. It’s an open book: that’s how Penske works. No secrets. It’s such a great environment. Everyone knows in this team that if you do a good job, you’ve got a great future. In most teams in open-wheel racing, you can be doing really well and still lose your job at the end of the year – you never know when your last day will be, and I’m talking there not just about drivers, but the mechanics and engineers. At Penske, you’re kept up to date all the time, and between everyone on the team there’s such a positive atmosphere, it’s a real happy place to be. I suppose to put it another way, there’s no uncertainty at Penske.”
I think he may have missed the supreme irony in that last comment. The only uncertainty in Penske Racing’s IndyCar squad surrounds Will Power and his future there. He has done a great job so far, and he’s in the ideal environment to have his shattering pace on street/road courses molded into oval racing excellence. As part of the Penske environment, he’s even becoming sponsor-savvy. At one point during our conversation, the phone connection died. He called back immediately: “Sorry mate. This bloody phone drops calls. It’s obviously not a Verizon, is it? We’d never have dropped a call if it had been Verizon…”