By: Spencer Neff
May 13, 2019 | 9:08 AM
When it comes to dynasties within the sport of auto racing, Team Penske is among the names mentioned. Since 1966, Roger Penske has become an icon in motorsport.
This year, Penske celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Indianapolis 500 debut. With that in mind, here is a look at arguably the greatest team in the history of the race.
Laying a Foundation
In 1969, Penske Racing debuted at the Indianapolis 500 with driver Mark Donohue. After starting fourth, Donohue finished seventh and won Rookie of the Year.
By 1972, Donohue had started top five in three straight races and was runner-up in 1970. In the 56th running of the “500”, Donohue’s teammate Gary Bettenhausen led 138 laps but fell out with 25 to go. With Bettenhausen out of the fray, Donohue cruised to Penske’s first win at a record pace.
Even with an expansion to three cars (Bobby Allison in 1973), a second victory proved hard to come by in the years that followed – but by 1977, things started to click again. While breaking the 200 mph barrier, Tom Sneva earned the team’s first pole position for the race in their nine years at IMS.
Sneva finished second in 1977 and 1978. In 1979, sophomore driver Rick Mears made it three straight pole positions before capping off a dominant day for Penske by winning his first Indianapolis 500.
In 1981, Bobby Unser saw his potential third win overturned a day later due to improper blending under yellow. After months of appeals, the win was given back Penske’s race team and taken away from Mario Andretti. Unser also earned Penske’s fifth pole, which broke the Dean Van Lines team’s record.
Two years later, Bobby’s brother Al replaced Kevin Cogan alongside Mears. Despite Mears starting on the front row twice and leading 79 laps from 1982 to 1983, Penske did not reach victory lane.
By 1984, Mears had things figured out, winning by two laps over Roberto Guerrero (largest margain under green since 1972) and breaking Donohue’s mark for the fastest “500” at the time.
For 1985, Danny Sullivan was added to the fold and scored an impressive win at IMS, outdueling Mario Andretti despite a now-famous spin on Lap 120. Sullivan recovered the out of control car to storm back to victory for The Captain.
In 1987, Danny Ongais’ practice crash left him unable to compete in the race. Left without a third driver, Penske turned to an old friend in Al Unser.
After starting 20th, Unser went on to win his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 in a car that was retrieved from a hotel lobby in Pennslyvania – previously being used as a show car. It was also Penske’s sixth win, the most by a car owner.
The 1987 race kicked off a string of Indianapolis 500s filled with historic achievements for Penske. A year later, Mears, Unser and Sullivan led a front row lockout for the team. Mears went on to his third win, as the three combined to lead 192 of 200 laps.
Mears broke Rex Mays’ record with his fifth pole in 1988, then he and Al Unser started 1-2 in 1989. On race day, it was fellow front row starter Emerson Fittipaldi taking the headlines as the Patrick Racing driver won in a Penske chassis.
For 1990, Fittipaldi took over Unser’s seat and became the first driver to run above 225 mph in qualifications, doing so on all four laps. With Mears starting beside him on the front row, the Brazilian set a record when he led the first 92 laps.
A blistered tire derailed Fittipaldi’s bid for a repeat as he settled for third, with Mears a lap down in fifth.
1991 would be Mears’ turn to rewrite the record books. Despite injuring his foot in practice, Mears stormed to his sixth pole and fended off Michael Andretti to tie Foyt and Unser with his fourth win.
In 1992, the usually fast Penske cars were also far off a record-setting pace. Mears (ninth) was the team’s lone top-ten qualifier. With Paul Tracy, Mears and Fittipaldi out by Lap 100, it marked the first time that no Penske car had finished inside the first ten positions.
Mears retired that winter, leaving just Tracy and Fittipaldi for 1993. In May, both drivers put the frustrations of 1992 behind them for good.
Both Tracy and Fittipaldi qualified in the first three rows. During the race, the veteran Fittipaldi returned to form, leading the last 16 laps for his second win in five years.
1994 saw the addition of Al Unser Jr. That winter, the team began development on the Mercedes-Benz pushrod engine, which proved to be nearly unstoppable.
Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi started first and third, leading a combined 193 laps in the 1994 race. The former took advantage of Fittipaldi’s Lap 185 crash to win his second “500” in three years, adding to the Unser family legacy.
After the Mercedes-Benz engine was banned by USAC for 1995, Penske struggled to get their cars up to speed. In a remarkable turn of events, both drivers failed to qualify for the race one year after being the class of the field.
Return to Glory
In 2001, “The Captain” returned to Indianapolis during the CART/IRL “split”, with his CART drivers Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran after a five-year absence.
Despite starting 11th and 13th, the duo led 79 laps as Castroneves won the race as a rookie. De Ferran came home as runner-up to complete Penske’s first 1-2 finish in the race.
A year later, Castroneves became the first driver to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing his first two starts. For 2003, Castroneves won his first Indianapolis 500 pole but ran second to his teammate de Ferran.
In 2004, Sam Hornish Jr. joined Castroneves. After they started 1-2 in 2006, Hornish passed Marco Andretti at the Yard of Bricks to win Penske’s 14th race.
Although he won the pole in 2007, Castroneves had just one top-five finish from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, he capped off a near-perfect month by winning his third “500” in nine years.
Although Castroneves notched his fourth-pole in 2010, Team Penske saw the 2010s start off without a win through the first six races.
In 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya stormed from 15th on the grid to win his second 500.
Last Year, Will Power earned a long-awaited win at the Indianapolis 500 in a popular triumph among the paddock.
As has become the norm, Team Penske will be a team to watch this May. Open-Wheels would like to congratulate Team Penske on their historic achievements through Indianapolis 500 history.
Header Image By Chris Jones/INDYCAR
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.