Beast: The Top Secret Ilmor-Penske Race Car That Shocked the World at the 1994 Indy 500 is the story of how team owner Roger Penske exploited a rules loophole to develop a race winning engine for the 1994 Indy 500. It seems amazing to me that Penske would spend that kind of money to develop a racing engine for one race. Especially when you learn how many things can go wrong.
I loved all the details Gurss covered: the history of the race, the teams, the drivers, and engine design. It seemed I learned something new on every page. As a kid I loved watching the Indy 500 and open wheel racing in general. My favorite driver was Al Unser. In 1994 the Penske drivers were: Al’s son, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi (from Formula One), and Paul Tracy. This team was named the third best all-time in auto racing by ESPN.
The Ilmor engine was an engineering masterpiece mated to Roger Penske’s PC23 chassis. Gurss’ book is something of a masterpiece as he covered so much history and interviewed so many of the principals of this story. If you love open-wheel racing, you will love this book.
Amazon Book Preview of “Beast”
Excerpts from the book
A couple examples why I loved rooting for the Unsers as a kid.
Even if a driver insists he or she is not hurt, anyone that suffers a crash is required to take a trip to the infield care center for a medical exam. [Al] Unser [Jr.] refused to walk to the ambulance, shaking off the medical staff and instead ambling toward the track. Now on his final lap and headed to victory, [Emerson ‘Emmo’] Fittipaldi rolled through the wreckage, coming upon Unser on the edge of the track. Would there be a display of anger, a flurry of obscene gestures ruining the 500’s family-friendly facade?
Unbelievably, Unser began clapping vigorously, saluting Fittipaldi with two thumbs up as he rolled past. It had been good, hard racing, and despite his crushing disappointment, Unser managed to display how much he had enjoyed dueling with Fittipaldi. -page 168
AL Unser Jr.’s cousins: Johnny Unser and Robby Unser, also compete in the IRL. Johnny’s father, Jerry Unser, was the first member of the family to compete at Indianapolis and was killed in practice at the Speedway in 1959. Robby’s father, Bobby Unser, won Indy three times, and Al Jr.’s father, Al Unser Sr., won four times and now is an IRL consultant and driving coach.
He never got to maximum boost because he was going so fast. Emmo said, “The front wheels, they are off the ground!” It was so fast it felt like-he was flying.
Fittipaldi recorded the best lap of the month, a 230.438 average, that afternoon. While the Speedway’s timing system showed 244 at the start/ finish line, the Penske data from the backstretch showed an amazing number: 252 miles per hour!
“Please don’t tell me what that is in kilometers,” Fittipaldi demanded. “It will only scare me!”
Sorry Emmo, but that’s 405.6 kilometers per hour.
The car had been geared for speed, and all of their data matched the massive number. It was a thrill for Mario Illien to stand by the track and see his handiwork rush past. “I remember standing on the pit wall when that thing went by. It was such a rocket!” he said with a huge grin. When the media asked about the magical lap, Fittipaldi attributed the speed to another cause.
“I think the wind helped determine my speed today,” he said. “It was much faster coming out of Turn 4. I did it [the speed] myself. I didn’t have a draft. The way the car handled today was much, much better than two days ago.”
He also explained that he was finally feeling physically and mentally comfortable in his car, as it had taken several days after returning from Senna’s funeral to acclimate himself once again.
Emmo’s mega lap topped the charts for the day, well ahead of Tracy’s 228.44 lap in second, and Unser in fourth place at 227.457 miles per hour.
“I think the Penskes are probably only using about fifty inches boost,” said Nigel Mansell, conspiratorially, in a news
conference. “I think they’re saving about five inches of boost for Saturday.”
If he only knew. -page 202
“I was a young driver that was hyper-competitive and wanted to win all the time,” Tracy said. “You had a couple of guys like that-you had Michael [Andretti] and Al Jr.-but a lot of the guys were older by then and were still driving the cars like you had to in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then, you had to get to the end of the race.The cars were not reliable. If you drove them one hundred percent from start to finish, you’d never finish. But technology was starting to catch up and make the cars more reliable.
”I just went as fast as I could go,“ Tracy continued. ”From that standpoint, Roger was one of the guys that was ’Take it easy, take it easy, take it easy. You gotta get to the end of the race. You’ve gotta-take your time.’That just wasn’t my driving style. I felt like a square trying to be put into a round hole. I didn’t fit the part.“
Despite his unease, Tracy bonded with his crew.
”We were really just a bunch of kids. A great group of young guys,“ said John Cummiskey. ”The mechanics, we really liked working with Paul. He was more our age. That’s nothing against Emmo or Al, but they were already established drivers. Paul was the new guy who we knew would always hang it out and push the car as hard as it could go. He was cool.“
”The times were changing,“ Tracy said. ”Indy car racing was going through a transition.“
It had been a rough month for Al Unser Sr., one of Indy car’s best since the 1960s. Big Al (as he became known after Al Jr.’s emergence) hadn’t found nearly enough speed with the No. 44 Arizona Motor-Sport Racing entry. The small team just didn’t have the resources to compete.
”He asked me to come over to his motor-coach to talk,“ Al Jr. said. ”He was struggling. And he wasn’t enjoying it. He said he was going to run tomorrow, and then at the end of the day he would get out of the car an announce his retirement.“
”Are you serious about this?“ Al Jr. asked his father.
”Yeah,“ the four-time Indy-winner replied.
”Then you’re done now,“ Al Jr. insisted. ”You’re not going to get back in that car. If your heart’s not in it, you’re done.“ ”It was one of the few times he actually listened to me,“ Al Jr. said, ”he never got back in a car again.“ Unser was not the first Indy icon who had made the tough choice in the past several years. The list of those who had raced their final 500 during that period read like a ballot for the Hall of Fame induction. Rick Mears surprised nearly everyone when he quietly announced at a Penske Christmas party in 1992 that he was walking away from driving. Danny Sullivan made his final 500 start in 1993 and became a racing commentator for ABC, the network that televised the race.
On the first day of qualifying in 1993, A.J. Foyt made the spontaneous decision to retire from driving, and was now only a team owner. Foyt’s long-time adversary, Mario Andretti, had also decided to wind down his multi-decade career and was in the midst of the ”Arrivederci, Mario“ tour for the 1994 season.
At a news conference the following morning, Al Unser Sr. made his announcement. The usually stoic Unser tried to maintain his cool.
”It’s very sad. I’ll tell you, it’s hard,“ he said.
Formula 1 and Indy car veteran Roberto Moreno stepped into the car the elder Unser had been piloting.
”I’m very proud of my dad’s decision,“ Al Jr. said at the time. ”I know it was very hard for him to make it. We talked a lot about it, and the Indianapolis 500 means a lot to my father. That’s why it made it especially hard for him to decide this now. We both know that he’s a winner and that he could still be a winner at this track. I feel it takes a bigger man to know when to quit than it takes to stay out there when his heart wasn’t 110 percent in it.“
”Al Unser is one of th etop five who has ever lived, “said Mario Andretti. ”Nobody had race savvy like Al Unser in his prime.“
Before the third day of qualifying, another Speedway icon, Johnny Rutherford, climbed into one of A.J. Foyt’s race cars and made his own lap of honor.
”It’s time to say goodbye to the cockpit,“ Rutherford, a three-time Indy winner, said over the PA system.
”There will never be drivers that had that much fun,“the man known as”Lone Star J.R.“said, recalling on track battles with Foyt, Andretti, and the Unsers. ”Maybe my son will, but it might be illegal by then.”
Those who had retired from driving (or would be retiring, like Andretti) had combined for seventeen Indy 500 victories. The times were definitely changing. -page 230–231
This book has some of the best epigraphs ever. My favorite is #6.
- “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games” – Ernest Hemingway
- “There is no terrible way to win. ”There’s only winning.” – Dialogue from Grand Prix 1966, directed by John Frankenheimer
- “Some say the cup is half empty, while others say it’s half full. However, in my opinion, both are wrong. The real problem is the cup is too big.” – Donald Coduto, describing the thought process of an engineer in Foundation Design.
- “Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been.” – Albert Einstein
- “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” ” – Winston Churchill
- “Goals are dreams with deadlines” – Diane Scharf, author
- “An engine has never won a race. But an engine has certainly lost a race.” – a phrase commonly heard at Ilmor Engineering
- “Effort equals results.” – Roger Penske
- “In my sport, the quick are often listed among the dead.” – Sir Jackie Stewart, Formula 1 World Champion (1969, 1971, and 1973)
- “The best way to make a small fortune in racing? Start with a big fortune.” – Motorsports axiom
- “The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step” – Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher
- “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
- “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.” – Enzo Ferrari
- “Where the hell do you put the bayonet?” – Lieutenant General Lewis ‘Chesty’ Puller, upon seeing a flamethrower for the first time
- “Effort equals more effort.” – Guy Oder’s nonsensical corollary to Roger Penske doctrine
- “When you’re competing in the biggest race in the world, you don’t give your competition the drawings of what you’re going to do.” – Roger Penske
- “Winning is not sometime thing, it’s an all-the-time thing. You don’t win once in awhile, you don’t do things right once in awhile. You do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.” – Vince Lombardi, American football coach
- “The only restriction on what race team can spend is the amount of sponsorship money they’re able to raise.” – Steve Potter, Mercedes-Benz USA
- “When you want to know how things really were, study them when they’re coming apart.” – William Gibson, Zero History
- “Fewer people knew about the project at Mercedes-Benz then there were cylinders in the engine.” – Norbert Haug, director Motorsports, Mercedes-Benz
- “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac (1735 )
- “Never trust a computer you can’t throw out a window” – Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder
- “You think you have a limit…. Is you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, Your Instinct, and experience as well, you can fly very high.” – Ayrton Senna, Formula 1 World Champion (1988, 1990, and 1991)
- “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. The harder you work, the luckier you become.” – Roger Penske, adding his own twist to a quote by the Roman philosopher Seneca
- “Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.” – Hunter S Thompson
- “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder
- “Don’t find fault. Find a remedy.” – Henry Ford
- “It’s no use saying, ‘We are the best.’ You’ve got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” – Winston Churchill
- Newman’s first law: It is useless to put on your brakes when you’re upside down. Paul Newman
- “The car is very much like a woman. Cornering is like bringing a woman to orgasm. The two of you, both you and the car, must work together. You start to enter that area of excitement of the corner, you set up a pace that is right for the car, and after you’ve told it that it’s coming along with you, you’ve got it through at a rhythm which has by now become natural. Only after clearing that corner can both take pleasure in knowing it has gone well.” – sir Jackie Stewart, Formula One World Champion (1969, 1971, and 1973)
- “In the old days, drivers were fat and tires were skinny.” – José Froilán Gonález aka “The Pampas Bull” and “El Cabazon” (Fat Head), drove to Ferrari’s first F1 victory
- “Danger? Well, of course. But you’re missing a very important point. I think if any of us imagined, really imagine, what it would be like to go into a tree at 150 miles an hour, we would probably never get into the cars at all, none of us. So it has always seemed to me that to do something very dangerous requires a certain absence of imagination.” – Dialogue from Grand Prix (1966), directed by John Frankenheimer
- “It’s hard to replace the passion you have for a sport. There aren’t many jobs that you retire from where you get to prove you are the very best of the best in front of thousands and thousands of people.” – Al Iafrate, former National Hockey League defenseman
- “I don’t give a shit for fame, I don’t give a shit for society, I don’t want to make friends with anybody who’s important. I just want to win.” – Nelson Piquet, Formula 1 World Champion (1981, 1983, and 1987)
- “This is racing. If you want a guarantee, go to Sears and Roebuck.” – inside joke at Team Penske
- “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.” – Steve McQueen, from the film Le Mans
- “To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. Life is measured in achievement, not years alone.” – Bruce McLaren, race team owner, driver, designer, and engineer
- “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Indianapolis-born author, from his book Piano Player
- “There’s nobody you’d rather beat than your good friend.” – Charles Barkley, former National Basketball Association player, about playing against Michael Jordan
- “Nobody remembers who finished second but the guy who finished second.” – Bobby Unser, Indianapolis 500 winner (1968, 1975, and 1981)
- “Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.” – President John F. Kennedy
- “It didn’t used to be a sin to win in this country.” – Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times sports columnist, about the uproar after the Penske victory
- “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” – Leonardo da Vinci
- “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping it together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford
- “We go through the present blindfolded… Only later, when the blindfold is removed and we examine the past, do we realize what we’ve been through and understand what it means.” – Milan Kundera author