INDIANAPOLIS - Roger Penske returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month with a vengeance after leaving here six years ago abashed.
That was when both of his drivers at the time, Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, failed to make the 33-car field.
It was almost inconceivable that Penske, whose 10 Indy 500 victories are the most of any car owner, wouldn't even get a chance at No. 11 with two of the leading drivers in the world.
“It was the toughest walk from the pit lane back to the garage (when final qualifying ended),” Penske recalls. “But you know, when we got back there, we had to deal with it, and then we said let's get going.
“I mean, it's like Tiger Woods not qualifying for the Masters or something. You've got to deal with it. The best people come back, and that's why we're back.”
It took six years after speedway president Tony George formed his Indy Racing League, and in effect kicked CART off the premises unless it conformed to George's new regime.
CART's Team Ganassi broke the barrier between the two oval-wheel racing bodies here last year, winning the race with driver Juan Montoya.
Penske was here, too, but in a very low-key capacity, lending a small amount of financial support to driver Jason Leffler. That was so Penske could get his foot in the door and learn what it would take to return here with a prominent program.
Yesterday, the 63-year-old Penske - with drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves - made the comeback look like he never left. De Ferran posted the fifth fastest qualifying lap of the day while Castroneves was 11th fastest.
“There is a great aura about this place,” said de Ferran, the reigning CART series champion. “It's great to be here. I always saw Indianapolis as an arena where the great champions of our sport ran - not only the great racers of America, but also Europe.
“You can just feel the tradition. The more talent you have on the track, the better. That not only includes the drivers but also the teams.”
Said Castroneves, also a rookie here, “It's amazing to qualify here, and to look up at the grandstands and all the people. It's unbelievable. This is a special place. It's a special feeling, a track where not only a race car driver but anyone would want to be.”
They aren't the only ones with a tight schedule.
Tony Stewart plans to compete in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day. He is driving for Chip Ganassi's team here (along with Jimmy Vasser). Stewart drives for Joe Gibbs' NASCAR Winston Cup team.
Stewart also did the double in 1999, completing 1,090 racing miles in one day and stating afterward, “I'll never do that again.”
But he is, and this time he has a personal trainer who is going to make sure Stewart's body can match his spirit.
“Every morning he's the one person I hate seeing because he brings a bowl fruit for breakfast and I normally don't wake up in time for breakfast,” said Stewart, who qualified on the inside of the third row. I usually wake up and grab a Coke rather than a bowl of fruit. It's been a culture shock. My body hates me right now. It will be happy when we start going back to McDonald's again, but that's not going to happen for two more weeks.
“I actually started to feel better than I have in a while. The food he is giving me at every meal is starting to pay off. I have more energy and I'm waking up on my own in the morning.”
“It wasn't a matter of choice,” the 21-year-old Butler University student said. “Since it was in the back, it just about pulled my head off.”
Fisher came back to post a four-lap average speed of 222.548 miles per hour, 14th fastest of the day.
“For our team and what we've prepared for, and the budget we've had to work with, this was the best we could do,” Fisher said. “The car was consistent the entire four laps.”