With so much tumult in the news these days about a seemingly endless array of leaks to the media, it struck me how the book BEAST detailed great efforts which remained almost completely secret for 10 months. The engine was conceived in June and unveiled to the world the following April, two weeks before practice begun for the 1994 Indianapolis 500.
To folks who aren't fans of racing, I often describe the book as a mystery/spy novel where a small team of experts secretly develop the ultimate plan to defeat their rivals.
At this stage of the story, the engine was being built in a tiny and musty garage they called the Garage Mahal and then tested overnight when all of the other Penske staff had gone home. The engine had run hundreds of testing miles at the Penske-owned Nazareth Speedway. In England, Ilmor Engineering was secretly developing new parts and new solutions overnight, and then shipping pieces to the Garage Mahal daily.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 22 of BEAST, where Roger Penske, Al Unser Jr. and crew members such as John Cummiskey (now a team owner in the USF 2000 series in the Mazda Road to Indy) go to great lengths to keep the engine secret. We begin with a reluctant Penske entering an employee meeting at the Penske Racing shop in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Cutting Your Paycheck / Sit down, kid.
"If you say anything to anyone, it’s like cutting your paycheck in half," Roger Penske said as he mimed a pair of scissors cutting through a check.
Roger had called his entire Penske Racing team into the small lunch room, and gave them a clear demand that anything seen or heard inside the shop walls was not to be shared outside those confines. While he didn’t share many specifics, he made certain it remained a secret.
"Guys, this is under the radar," Penske told his staff. "We’re going to be quiet about it. We certainly have races to do before Indy, but know that this program is going on. If you’re not involved, stay out of the way. Don’t talk about it. The element of surprise is as big as any of it."
"I had to talk him into it," said Chuck Sprague, about Penske’s reluctance to share even a small portion of the project. "In the beginning, it was strictly on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. But, as it grew, the people who didn’t know had no idea what they shouldn’t talk about! They didn’t know they shouldn’t tell their wives that Paul Morgan from Ilmor was at the shop a lot more these days. So, it was clear that we had to tell them so they’d understand how critical it was to stay quiet."
"Everybody knew something was going on, but we didn’t know what," said John Cummiskey. "The Penske shop had been expanded so many times, we called it ‘The Shop of a Million Doors.’ It made it hard to find people when you were opening door after door. From where I worked, I could get a quick look into the dyno control room if the door was open. But, we were all so busy doing what we had to do on the cars that we really didn’t ask many questions.
"One of the reasons the secrecy worked was because we were isolated in Reading," said Cummiskey. "Some of the wives and girlfriends were from Indianapolis, so we were reminded to not tell them. I mean, we’re smart, so we wouldn’t have said anything anyway, but it was an important reminder. There are no secrets in Indianapolis. Everyone knows everyone else. So many of the teams and manufacturers are based there, and you’d see people at the grocery store or at the bar. If we were based in Indy, it would’ve been nearly impossible to keep the thing secret."
No matter the locale, Penske is known as a man who keeps secrets, and his team does the same.
"Roger had such a proven track record in Indy racing, we never questioned the plans or intent," Kevin Walter said.
---- While the secret testing was going on - now at the Penske-owned Michigan Speedway - the complete team was putting on a charge for the championship at each CART race with that year's "standard" Ilmor engine. ----
The three-car Marlboro Team Penske armada would soon be off to the one-mile desert oval in Phoenix for the second CART race of the season, while Ilmor and the Taj Mahal crew pondered the recurring cam follower, piston and piston pin failures.
Paul Tracy set the pace at Phoenix, winning the pole position and then leading 42 laps early in the going. Unfortunately, he was swept into a multi-car accident between Turns 3 and 4. Teo Fabi and Hiro Matsushita, both multiple laps down, touched and then spun in front of Tracy, who was unable to avoid the spinning cars. The most scary moment of the incident took place a few seconds later. As Matsushita’s car came to a rest sideways to the approaching traffic with the nose of his car pointing toward the infield, rookie Jacques Villeneuve came along at what seemed to be top speed and speared directly into Hiro’s car, splitting it in half. The horrendous impact sent chills through everyone watching. How could the Japanese driver survive this? Amazingly, the pointed nose of Villeneuve’s car had made contact just behind the driver cell, leaving Matsushita with only minor injuries.
With Tracy out, it came down to the two remaining PC23 entries with Ilmor Indy D-power, as Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi battled to the finish. Emerson won the race, with Al Jr. second. In all, the three Penske cars led 172 of the 200 laps. Combined with his second-place finish in the season opener, Emerson now had the CART championship points lead. The timing was good for Emmo, as his guests that weekend included his good friend George Harrison and son Dhani. (Yes, that George Harrison.)
When asked about the race, Unser Jr’s favorite memory was not battling for the win, but an exchange with his elders that illustrates some of the dynamics of the famous Unser family, as well as the rumor mill constantly churning inside the CART paddock area.
"Uncle Bobby and dad, when they both drove for Roger, they just didn’t talk," said Al Jr., about his frustration as a young driver. "There’s stuff that you just don’t talk about. Even if I asked my dad, while he was driving for Roger, ‘what are you doing for your setup here?’ He’d always say, ‘Al, I can’t tell you.’ And I’d just say, ‘Daaaaaad!’
"We were in Phoenix, and my dad and Uncle Bobby came into my motorhome. They asked everybody to leave!" Unser Jr. said. "I thought, ‘Am I in trouble? What’s going on here?’"
"Sit down, kid!" Bobby told Little Al.
"OK, what’s up?" he replied.
"We heard a rumor that Roger has a secret, special engine," Bobby said.
"I just looked at them," Al Jr. recalled, noting the generational tables had turned. "I said, ‘You’ve driven for him. You know I can’t tell you if there is... or if there isn’t.’ And smoke came out of Bobby’s ears! He got all red-faced and my dad threw his arms up like ‘what the hell is going on here?’ That alone was just priceless! Priceless!"
"That’s what made it so special," Al Jr. laughed. "That Penske Racing was pulling such a coup! On everyone."
Despite the Herculean effort at secrecy, there were tiny whispers at Phoenix, prompting a few questions.
Robin Miller of the Indianapolis Star asked Penske directly about the engine.
"If I had a new engine, why would I tell you?" Penske replied with a smile, according to Miller. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"There were rumors," stated Penske engineer Nigel Beresford, who was a key part of Tracy’s team. "I remember getting collared at the track by [Indy car journalist] Gordon Kirby. I remember Kirby fishing and I didn’t take the hook. Kirby jokingly said, ‘there’s this rumor that you guys have a pushrod engine. You know, these people have no clue what it would take to do such a thing. It’s utterly ridiculous isn’t it?’ I was not going to say, ‘well, actually, yes we do.’ But, you don’t want to be a liar and say, ‘no, we don’t have one.’ So I replied, ‘yeah, you’re right, it’s absolutely ridiculous. You can’t believe how much work would be involved.’"
Immediately after the race ended, Al Jr. and key personnel were on a private plane, heading back to Michigan where testing would begin again early the next morning.
One very important threshold had yet to be crossed.
While 474 miles covered sounds good, 474 miles at Indy gets you nothing but angst, heartbreak and ‘we’ll get ‘em next year.’
The new engine had yet to last 500 miles.