LAST WEEK I wrote about the fantastic era that was the 1990s, spurred on by rediscovering the sensational vision of Gil de Ferran smashing the closed-course speed record in his Penske IndyCar.
It was a phenomenal time with cool cars, drivers and technology and it was the basis on which my love for the sport was generated.
Keeping on that theme, another tweet about Penske and Indy Car racing this week promoted me to dig back into another phenomenal story from that decade that sits as one of the greatest cloak-and-dagger tales in the history of the sport.
This tale revolves around the 1994 Indianapolis 500 and Roger Penske’s ongoing quest to add Borg-Warner Trophies to his cabinet.
It has been brilliantly re-told in an extensive and utterly captivating Twitter thread by Patrick Morgan of Dawn Treader engineering in the UK.
Here’s the thread – as this column goes live, it’s still being updated so keep checking it out.
Patrick is the son of Paul Morgan who, along with Mario Illien, was one of the engineering brains behind famed engine company Ilmor.
The story goes that at a dinner prior to the 1993 race, Penske and Morgan discussed a recent Indy Car rule tweak which, in theory, would give a potential advantage to pushrod engines at the 1994 race.
Because the United States Auto Club (USAC)-officiated regulations for the ‘500 differed slightly to the full-season CART regs, a loophole was found that benefited cars running the old-school technology compared to the more advanced, four-cam turbocharged engines that were the standard fare at the time.
Basically, pushrod engines were allowed to be bigger capacity and run more boost – a surefire way to add speed when it came to lapping the Speedway at an average of nearly 230 Miles per Hour.
With Ilmor on board and under almost complete secrecy, it started a program of engine development that would result in the Mercedes-Benz powered PC23 ‘Beast’ IndyCar that dominated the 1994 ‘500.
The first designs of the engine were started in early June but it wasn’t until late January 1994 that the first engine ran.
The program operated under total secrecy, under fears that the Indy Car paddock would get wind of the project and either start developing their own rival pushrod engines, or petition the governing body to close the loophole Penske and Ilmor had discovered.
A small, select group of Penske staff were seconded away from the race team in a separate building and would sneak into the race team’s shop at night to use the Dyno.
After months of secret development, the first proper engine test of what was dubbed the ‘265E’ (at Ilmor’s base in Brixworth, in the UK) was considered an anti-climax as the engine produced ‘only’ 850BHP – just 10 more than the existing engine already used by Penske’s team.
Once the engineers discovered valve train issues, a new camshaft design was implemented, and the power jumped to more than 1000BHP – an enormous leap. Suffice to say, that was the end of engine power development – it was already way more than any other car on the grid had.
The story gets better. The first track test of the completed driveline and chassis package came at a snowed-under Nazareth speedway in Pennsylvania. With the circuit cleared of snow thanks to the loan of equipment from a local airport, Al Unser Jr drove the car for the first time in essential a white-out.
That wasn’t the team’s biggest concern, however – their biggest worry was that one of the circuit’s neighbours would hear the test and catch on to what Penske were doing. That neighbour? Mario Andretti, of course.
The story continued to get more incredible, as unreliability played a massive role and engines and gearboxes continued to break in spectacular fashion. At one point, the team used a combination of a P51-Mustang WWII fighter and the Concorde supersonic airliner to freight parts from Ilmor’s UK base to Penske’s shop.
After convincing Mercedes-Benz to come on board and brand the engine, the project was unveiled to the public days prior to practice, creating an uproar among the IndyCar circus. The remarkable secrecy of the project over a nearly twelve-month gestation was remarkable – it would be almost impossible to achieve in today’s modern world of social media.
It was, however, incredibly successful. Penske’s cars dominated the Month of May, qualifying first and third with Emmerson Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. dominating the first half of the race, though the third car of Paul Tracy withdrew mid-way through after a turbo failed.
Fittipaldi crashed with less than 20 laps to go, however Unser Jr. was in the right position and won the race comfortably ahead of a young Jack Villeneuve and Bobby Rahal.
It was the only race the 265E contested, USAC and CART both changing their regulations to stifle the advantage the Ilmor masterpiece had created.
It’s a remarkable story that would never happen in today’s age of spec formula’s and cost containment.
I’d urge you to check out the twitter thread, but moreso jump online to your favorite book retailer and purchase Jade Gurss’ incredible book ‘Beast’. It documents the full story of the remarkable project, with Patrick Morgan (the twitterer in question here) serving as the technical editor. It’s the best possible way to get the full story and remains one of the best books in my library.
THIS column was late to the party this week (with apologies to editor Benjamin Carrell) thanks in part to the chaos wrought on the Australian media industry by the Government and Facebook on Thursday this week.
It’s a long story I won’t recount here, but suffice to say a piece of legislation designed to get the social media giant to pay for news shared on its platform backfired, with Facebook blocking all news sites in Australia from sharing (or even allowing others to access) news content.
That ban has included a vast majority – if not all, curiously – of category and team social media pages that are in many ways a lifeblood of promotional efforts for the sport.
If a resolution is not found it has potentially enormous ramification for the exposure of the sport in such a connected world. It’s a topic I will cover, hopefully, next week – once there’s some more clarity on exactly what is going on. In the meantime, I’m sorry this missive is late!