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PENSKE DOES WHAT IT TAKES.

Byline: TIM HADDOCK Motor Sports

Roger Penske never has been one to cut corners, especially on the rectangle-shaped oval that is Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Before qualifying for the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500, Penske might have gone where no car owner has gone before.

``We have someone from NASA with us that's been gathering all the data, looking at consistencies of different situations that they're seeing on the track,'' said Penske, who won his record 12th pole Sunday with driver Helio Castroneves, the two-time defending Indy 500 winner.

Penske's consulting paid off. He will be seeking his 13th career Indy 500 victory May 25 and now his driver has the best starting spot on the grid.

Although his driver might have the best view of the Indy 500 when the race starts, Penske offered his perspective on the state of open-wheel racing, its relation with NASCAR and his decision to prepare a car with a different chassis for each of his drivers.

Two chassis manufacturers, Dallara and G-Force, provide equipment for Indy Racing League teams. Before the season started, Penske tested both at California Speedway. When it came time to make a decision on which to run at Indianapolis, Penske left it mainly up to his drivers.

Castroneves, seeking an unprecedented third consecutive Indy 500 win, chose the Dallara, which brought him to victory circle the past two years.

Gil de Ferran, making his return to racing after recovering from an accident in Phoenix in March, decided on the G-Force.

Having to prepare two different cars has presented unique challenges for Penske as a team owner. But he said the payoff ultimately will outweigh the costs.

``We've made the decision. Helio will stick with the Dallara, which he's run in all the races so far this year,'' Penske said. ``And Gil will run the G-Force. So I guess we're kind of splitting the deck. There wasn't any clear distinctions that would have made both drivers go in the same direction.''

That the Penske team is going with two chassis setups is an indication of how close the competition will be in the race.

``So that's probably a pretty good validation that you got two pretty good car manufacturers supplying vehicles to teams that are very, very competitive,'' Penske said. ``I can assure you one thing: If we thought one was a lot better than the other, we would have went ahead and kept the drivers in the same vehicle.''

Making the decision to move his team from the CART Champ Car series to the IRL three years ago wasn't so taxing. His move prompted several CART loyalists to follow Penske a year later. He said he would like to one day see open-wheel racing under one banner. For the time being, though, it's pretty evident the IRL, especially with the Indianapolis 500, is the place to be.

``I think that what's happening, obviously you have a number of teams moved over to the IRL,'' Penske said. ``I think that having the speedway as the anchor to the series is a plus. It's like having the Masters or the Super Bowl. It's a very, very important link to open-wheel motorsports. With that, the teams will start to see the discipline here; the racing has never been closer.

``CART has a mission, they're more international. They're sticking to road racing. That's their mission and that's OK, too. I think at the end of the day, if it was my choice, I'd like to see one series. And I made my call - I was involved with CART for a long time - but I made my call to come back to the IRL, to Indy and open-wheel racing.''

It's apparent Penske has faith in the Indy Racing League. But he also realizes auto racing needs stock cars and open-wheel racing to survive. Speaking from a strictly business perspective, Penske said new tracks that have been built, such as California Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway, couldn't survive if it weren't for other series such as the IRL, which gives tracks the opportunity to hold major events other than NASCAR.

``I see it coming together,'' Penske said. ``You're going to see this thing move on because I can assure you that (NASCAR board chairman) Bill France and ISC (International Speedway Corporation), they made their decision to go with the IRL because they knew that they needed to have other events at those race tracks. I'm confident we're going to see progress here.

`'I'd say right now, the plane is up, we're in the air and we're gaining altitude. We just need to gain some speed.''

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- Tim Haddock
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 16, 2003
Words:779
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